Friends learn how Mary Silvani died 37 years later

Detroit Free Press

Published 11:47 AM EDT Jun 11, 2019

Friends learn how Mary Silvani died 37 years later

DETROIT – For 37 years, Mary Silvani lay in a nameless grave in Nevada, the victim of a heinous and heartless act. 

A man had raped and killed her. Her family had abandoned her. No friends ever reported her missing, so she was designated a Jane Doe – her burial service attended only by grave diggers.

It wasn't until last month that Silvani's identity was revealed, largely with the help of DNA, family records and stories from distant relatives. Still, there was little to be known about Silvani – until now.

This week, after reading a story about Silvani in the Detroit Free Press, friends from Silvani's high school days in Detroit have come forward to honor her memory. They're sad, angry and frustrated about her death and about losing touch with a girl from the neighborhood who clearly needed friends and a support system.

Silvani came from a fractured family. Her mother left when she was a child. Her father died when she was in high school. Her two brothers eventually went their own ways, leaving her on her own. And, she had a child that she gave up for adoption, according to her friends. 

Her old friends from the neighborhood, meanwhile, want people to know that Silvani was more than a crime victim from a broken family, and that she once laughed, danced, swam, teased her hair, hung out at a burger joint, loved reading, art and going to the Detroit Institute of Arts. She was more than the victim in the news, the 33-year-old woman in jeans, bathing suit and yellow sneakers whose life ended at the hands of a serial killer on a Nevada hiking trail, they said. 

"For someone to wind up like that, that's just wrong. She was a nice, nice girl and she didn't deserve that," said Nancy Cumming of Colorado, a high school friend of Silvani's who spoke through tears. "When I knew her, she was a sweet, sort of lost soul. ... She was quiet, very unassuming and unpretentious. ... I can't imagine someone doing to her what they did."

More: After 36 years, DNA evidence and genealogy help to ID a murder victim and her killer

Portraits of the past 

Cumming not only has memories of Silvani, but she also has something detectives long yearned for while investigating the case: photos. According to authorities in Nevada, there was only one known photo of Silvani: a black and white head and shoulder shot of her from the 1966 Mackenzie High School yearbook. 

Searches of other Mackenzie yearbooks yielded no other photos of Silvani.

But Cumming has a handful of pictures that she has kept over the years, including photos from her 1968 wedding, in which Silvani was a bridesmaid, smiling with her updo in a long, pale green dress. She was 19.

"She was an inch or so taller than me. She had light brown hair. She was attractive," said Cumming, who met Silvani at a hamburger restaurant. 

"Mary and I kind of formed our own little group, she and I and another girl, and we became close personal friends," she said.  

Friends learn how Mary Silvani died 37 years later

During their friendship, Cumming said Silvani went on vacation with her family to places like Pentwater, a Lake Michigan town where they swam and laughed together.

"We brought her into the family a little bit. My parents liked her," Cumming said, noting Silvani didn't talk about her family. It was an uncomfortable subject, one she tried to avoid, so Cumming didn't press the subject, she said.

Cumming remembers Silvani sharing a small apartment with another girl.  She visited her there only a handful of times, as the two mostly hung out at the burger restaurant. Silvani floated from one job to another, including waiting tables, and appeared to have little direction or aspirations.

Cumming said the last time she saw Silvani, she was pregnant and living at a home for young, expectant mothers. It was around 1972, she recalled, and Silvani had plans to give up the baby for adoption.

"I remember talking with her on the phone after she had the baby," Cumming recalled. "She was sad about the whole thing, as you would expect.  And she said that the adoption was a closed one but that she would be receiving pictures, and she was happy about that, in a melancholy way."

That's the last time Cumming spoke with Silvani, who ended up leaving Michigan and moving to California. Years passed and the two lost touch.

Decades later, Cumming would get word of a devastating news article: A 33-year-old Jane Doe was raped and killed near Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Her case went cold for 37 years, until DNA evidence and genealogy experts helped solve the puzzle: The victim was her friend Mary Silvani.   The killer was James Richard Curry, a Texas native and serial killer who confessed to three California murders in 1983, just five months after Silvani’s killing.  He attempted suicide after being taken into custody in 1983 and died days later from self-inflicted injuries. 

Friends learn how Mary Silvani died 37 years later

More: Detroit police take person of interest into custody in serial killer case

More: Break in Golden State Killer case came from DNA on genealogy website

A trip to Washington, D.C.

Among those in Silvani's group was Cindy Cole, 69, of Livonia, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with Silvani in August 1968 – just the two of them – after missing out on their class senior trip organized by Mackenzie High School. Their classmate Nancy Cumming was supposed to go, too, but couldn't make it. They flew to the nation's capital, stayed a few nights in a hotel and paid a tour guide $20 to drive them around in a limo and show them the sites.

"We were two young, naive girls. I remember we went out one night just to kind of look around and see things, not thinking we might not be in a good area," Cole recalled, chuckling. "All I had for protection was a nail clipper with a knife in it."

Friends learn how Mary Silvani died 37 years later

But they were young, and carefree.

"She was very adventurous," Cole recalled of Silvani. "We didn't worry about stuff, back then. You didn't think of bad things happening to you. We were just young and enjoying ourselves."

After the Washington, D.C., trip, Cole returned to Michigan and started planning her wedding. She got married and had kids. So did Cumming, the other friend in the group. Meanwhile, Silvani drifted away. 

"We just kind of lost contact with each other," said Cole, who did not learn of Silvani's fate until this month.

"I was sad. That's just a terrible thing, and the fact that nobody reported her missing," Cole said. "It just bothers me. Someone had to know." 

"I feel shocked about what happened to her," Paula Headley, 74, of Detroit, said of Silvani. "She was a very nice person and she had a big heart."

Headley, who also met Silvani at the burger hangout, remembers going to parties and baseball games with Silvani and others from the group. She described Silvani as quiet and kindhearted, and said that she never talked about her family.

Headley's husband, meanwhile, remembers Silvani's family well as he used to deliver the newspaper to her house when she was younger.

"I knew Mary way back, and both her brothers and her dad. I delivered the paper to their house when I was 12," Bob Headley, 74, recalled. "I recall her dad. He was an old guy way back then. He had a change purse and he paid me on Fridays. It was also so hot in there."

Friends learn how Mary Silvani died 37 years later

Bob Headley said he doesn't ever remember seeing Silvani's mother, or any woman in the house.

"I feel bad for her," Bob Headley said of Silvani. "As soon as I saw the (Silvani) name I started reading it. ... That caught my eye. I thought, man, she looks familiar, that's gotta be the same girl." 

That night, when Headley's wife returned from work, he handed her the newspaper.

"'He said, 'you got to read this article before you do anything else,' " Paula Headley said. "I was quite shocked. I wished a lot of us had kept in touch."

She added: "Nobody should have to die like that."

Follow Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @Tbaldas

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