Shirley Soosay’s body returned to Samson Cree Nation, decades after her murder

When Violet Soosay’s aunt disappeared in 1979, she promised her grandmother to find her daughter and bring her home.

Decades later, she is finally keeping that promise.

Shirley Soosay’s body was flown from California to Alberta on Thursday, arriving at Edmonton International Airport in the afternoon.

“Once this is over, I know the weight of the world will no longer be on my shoulders,” Violet Soosay told CBC News.

The return home marks the end of his family’s mystery, but also illustrates the power of DNA testing and social media – tools that Soosay hopes will help others search for answers.

DNA Match

After years of searching for her aunt, the promise she made to her grandmother began to weigh heavily on Soosay.

She was aging and doubted that she would ever know what had happened to her parent.

The last time she had seen her was at her father’s funeral, when she was 17 years old. The family lost contact with her in 1979, which was unusual since Shirley had always sent her mother cards on holidays and birthdays.

At a women’s conference in 2020, Soosay spoke about her search and her hope for closure.

Just four days later, a Facebook post caught his eye.

The post was from the DNA Doe Project – an American non-profit organization that uses genetic genealogy to identify victims of cold cases – and it was trying to identify an Indigenous woman who had been murdered in Kern County, California. The woman had been stabbed to death and her body was found in an almond orchard on July 14, 1980.

Soosay submitted his DNA to a website listed in the post and the match was confirmed within weeks.

In 2018, Wilson Chouest was convicted of murdering Soosay and another woman, who remains unidentified. Chouest is currently serving two consecutive life sentences, Soosay said.

“At first I had a lot of anger and hate and that’s not who I am so I had to process all of that. Now I don’t give it any energy at all,” he said. she declared.

Soosay’s Return Trip

After arriving at the airport, Shirley Soosay’s remains will be transported to Baker Funeral Chapel in Wetaskiwin and then to the Howard Buffalo Memorial Center in Maskwacis.

A group of 20-30 motorcyclists, wearing clothing honoring missing and murdered Aboriginal people, will accompany the body on the ride from Wetaskiwin to Maskwacis.

Soosay said a homecoming ceremony is scheduled for Friday morning and her aunt will be permanently residing at the family’s resting place at Riverside Cemetery.

Soosay said she was honored to learn on Wednesday morning that a ceremony had taken place south of the border, before her aunt’s remains were exhumed.

Dawn Ratliff, coroner’s division chief for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, told CBC News that staff from the coroner’s office and two cemeteries gathered Wednesday morning to say prayers at Soosay’s grave. and near his coffin.

Members of the Tule River Tribe of California held a traditional ceremony, complete with smudging, blessings and singing.

“We were all emotional this morning,” Ratliff said.

Staff at the historic Union Cemetery in Bakersfield, California carry the casket of Shirley Soosay on May 25. (Submitted by Historic Union Cemetery)

Soosay’s case marked the first time the coroner’s office used DNA genealogy and social media to identify a victim.

“When she called, I just knew in my heart it was her,” Ratliff said.

“She was always smiling”

Soosay said her aunt was a free spirit who loved to laugh and cared deeply for her mother.

Her aunt was a residential school survivor and her first job was catering for the city of Edmonton.

“She was always smiling, always curious about the world,” she said.

A 1980 Kern County artist rendition of Jane Doe, who has been identified as Shirley Soosay. (DNA Project Doe/Facebook)

Soosay said her aunt’s heart broke after her two boys were taken away and placed in the child welfare system.

Soosay reunited with the two brothers in 2006, and one returned to live on the reservation.

“I spoke to him yesterday and he thanked me for a lifetime of looking for his mother,” she said.

After Soosay’s story aired on a recent episode of A&E Cold Case Recordsshe received messages from people in Canada and the United States hoping to find their loved ones.

She encourages Indigenous people to train in DNA research so they can conduct their own forensic investigations.

“That’s the hope I want to give to people in situations similar to mine,” she said.