Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s Killer Was Found Through His Family Tree – Oprah Mag

DNA
  • 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and 20-year-old Jay Cook were killed in the Seattle, Washington area in November of 1987.
  • Their murders were a cold case until 2018, when truck driver William Talbot II was arrested due to DNA evidence.
  • On ABC’s The Genetic Detective, genetic genealogist CeCe Moore recounts how she helped authorities with the history-making case.

It took 30 years for the families of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook to see someone arrested and convicted for the young Canadian couple’s murders on U.S. soil. And like the law enforcement teams who’d been pursuing the case since 1987, they never expected to see the Washington state cold case solved by way of an investigative technique only recently applied to criminal investigations: Genetic genealogy, which uses forensic DNA to locate relatives of a possible suspect. On the premiere of The Genetic Detective, ABC’s new true crime series, airing May 26 at 10 p.m. EST, pioneer genetic genealogist CeCe Moore recounts her role in what would be the first criminal case involving the method to ever go before a jury.

Here’s the full story of what happened to Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook on what was supposed to be a simple, fun trip to Seattle, and why William Talbot II was sentenced for the double murder decades later.

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Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg were last seen on November 18, 1987.

Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg both lived in Saanich, a district in the Greater Victoria area of British Columbia, Canada. According to local Washington paper The Herald, Cook’s family remembers him as a gangly, sweet 20-year-old who played bass guitar. “Jay had no rough edges,” his uncle is quoted as saying.

“Tanya was very sweet and caring, and they looked up to each other,” Cook’s sister, Laura Baanstra, told The Herald. Van Cuylenborg played tennis and basketball, and adored her golden retriever Tessa. She had dreams of working with animals one day.

As Tanya’s brother, John Van Cuylenborg, says on The Genetic Detective, Tanya Van Cuylenborg had graduated high school in June of 1987. She and Cook had been dating for six months when he asked her to accompany him on an overnight trip to south Seattle to pick up furnace parts for his father. The couple left town in a bronze Ford Club Wagon van, per Washington CBS affiliate KREM, arriving at Port Angeles, Washington at 4p.m. off the vehicle ferry from Victoria.

But Cook never showed up to collect the parts. The Herald reports that the two were encountered in the Washington town of Hoodsport, where a store clerk testified that she gave the seemingly-lost pair directions off of Highway 101. Van Cuylenborg and Cook were last seen alive in the town of Allyn, closer to Seattle, where a deli clerk said they didn’t have anyone else with them. Another ticket purchased at 10:16 p.m. for the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle was later found in the recovered van they drove, leading police to believe that just before midnight they did make it to Seattle, where they were likely abducted.

They were first reported missing on November 19, 1987 when they never returned home.

Cook and Van Cuylenborg’s bodies were found later that month.

On Nov. 24, 1987, Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s partially-nude body was found by a passerby in a wooded area near a rural road close to Mount Vernon, Washington. Her hands were bound with zip ties, she had been shot in the back of the head, and there was evidence of sexual assault. Van Cuylenborg’s wallet, keys, a pair of surgical gloves, and a half-empty box of .380 handgun ammunition were found under the porch of a tavern in Bellingham, WA, the following day.

According to KOMO Seattle, the Ford Club Wagon van was discovered a block away from the tavern, by the local Greyhound station. Inside the locked van were more rubber gloves and plastic ties, essentially confirming whomever it was who’d killed Van Cuylenborg had planned for the opportunity.

On November 26, Thanksgiving Day, a hunter came across Jay Cook’s body under a blue blanket, near a bridge roughly 50 miles away from where Tanya’s body was found. He’d been beaten, strangled with dog collars and twine, and tissue and a pack of Camel cigarettes had been shoved down his throat. Because the location of the abandoned van was closer to where Van Cuylenborg’s body was found, police concluded that Cook was presumably killed first.

“It was obvious that this was all one crime and it appeared that the intent of the killer was focusing on raping Tanya,” Det. Jim Scharf, part of the Snohomish County Sherriff’s Office cold case team, says on The Genetic Detective.

Though medical examiners found semen from the attacker on Tanya and her clothing, genetic testing wasn’t yet widely available as a forensics resource in 1987. With no witnesses and no description of the killer to go on, the trail of what happened to the two Canadians went cold. Fortunately, Washington State Patrol stored the evidence, and they were able to create a DNA profile from the sample by 1994.

William Earl Talbott II was convicted for their murders in 2018.

Using the DNA collected at the crime scenes, Parabon Nanotech, a Virginia-based DNA technology company, was able to create something called a phenotype report in April of 2018. The DNA phenotyping report produced computer-generated images of the suspect’s age progression since the year of the crime. While the images sparked many tips, KOMO reports, none led to a specific suspect.

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After genetic genealogy helped connect the dots to a possible person of interest, Snohomish County authorities began to trail Talbott, and obtained a DNA sample from a discarded paper cup in May of 2018. It was a full match to the DNA from Van Cuylenborg’s crime scene. Skagit County authorities arrested a truck driver named William Earl Talbott II that same month.

Talbott was 24 at the time of the murders, and his parents lived roughly seven miles from where Cook’s body was found. Arguing that he was innocent throughout the trial, Talbott and attorneys said he did have sex with Tanya Van Cuylenborg, but claimed it was consensual, and that someone else must have killed her later.

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After a criminal trial that included the DNA evidence and testimony from Talbott’s former roommates, and police interviews with his family that recounted past incidents of violence, Talbott was sentenced to life without parole in July 2019.

“It’s bitter and sweet. There’s a lot of good memories, of course—twenty years of them,” Leona Cook, Jay Cook’s mother, says about finally getting closure regarding her son’s death on The Genetic Detective. “It was just a thrilling, thrilling day when they said, ‘we’ve got him.'”

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CeCe Moore helped track Abbott down using genetic genealogy.

Det. Scharf contacted Parabon Nanotech on April 20, 2018, with a request. Scharf hoped their new employee CeCe Moore could use her skills to track him down through her mix of genealogy research, internet detective skills, and the DNA on file.

“I’m part of the very small group of people that created genetic genealogy,” Moore says in the premiere of The Genetic Detective. She adds that she initially struggled with the ethics of agreeing to apply her techniques to criminal investigations—a concern shared by privacy watchdogs, and at least one since-cleared man who was investigated due to a partial match on his DNA. In fact, the public genealogy database that Moore and her colleagues initially relied on for their crime scene DNA comparison research, GEDMatch, changed their privacy policy in May 2019. Now, users have to opt-in to make their information available to law enforcement.

But a landmark win for genetic genealogy convinced Moore that it was the right thing to do. In April 2018, it led to the arrest of a suspect believed to be the Golden State Killer—the man behind at least 12 murders, 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries, whose horrifically violent (and unsolved) spree was chronicled in Michelle McNamara’s book . Whittling down genetic profile comparisons led investigators to Joseph James DeAngelo of Citrus Heights, California, and DNA samples from a tissue in his trash proved a match to semen recovered at crime scenes.

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Though Moore wasn’t involved in catching DeAngelo, she saw his capture as confirmation that this method could bring more closure to victims’ families. She teamed up with Parabon Nanolabs that same month, and was brought onto her first criminal case in 2018: The murders of Cook and Van Cuylenborg. Moore created and currently heads up Genetic Genealogy Services for Parabon’s law enforcement unit.

Watch Moore unravel how she tracked William Abbot II down through DNA and Abbot’s family tree on The Genetic Detective, premiering Tuesday, May 26 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.


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