U.S. man on trial in B.C. couple’s killings arrested through genetic genealogy

William Earl Talbott II is one of dozens of men authorities have arrested for old, unsolved crimes

A man charged with murder in the 1987 killings of a young Canadian couple is facing trial in Washington state beginning this week, but the case won’t challenge the new investigative technique authorities used to link him to the crime.

William Earl Talbott II is one of dozens of men authorities have arrested for old, unsolved crimes in the past year using genetic genealogy. The practice involves identifying suspects by entering crime-scene DNA profiles into public databases that people have used for years to fill out their family trees.

Privacy advocates have expressed concerns about whether it violates the rights of suspects and whether its use by law enforcement should be restricted. But Talbott’s attorneys say how detectives found him is irrelevant to their defence to charges that he killed 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Jay Cook.

Instead, they argue that he’s innocent, and that the discovery of his DNA — which investigators said was on her pants, vagina and rectum — doesn’t make him a murderer.

“The police used this as nothing more than any other tip, which they followed up with traditional investigative techniques,” defence lawyer Rachel Forde said. “DNA on the hem of one of the victim’s pants doesn’t tell you who killed her and why.”

Van Cuylenborg and Cook disappeared in November 1987 during what was supposed to be an overnight trip from their hometown of Saanich, British Columbia, to Seattle, to pick up furnace parts for Cook’s father’s business. After a frantic week for their families, Van Cuylenborg’s body was found down an embankment in rural Skagit County, north of Seattle. She had been shot in the back of the head.

Hunters found Cook dead two days later next to a bridge over the Snoqualmie River in Monroe — about 60 miles (95 km) from where his girlfriend was discovered. He had been strangled with twine and dog leashes.

Over the next three decades, detectives investigated hundreds of leads, to no avail. But in 2017, Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf learned about Parabon Labs in Reston, Virginia, which was using a new DNA processing method to extract more information from samples. CeCe Moore, a genealogist there who is known for her work on the public television series “Finding Your Roots,” was using the more robust genetic profiles to find distant relatives using the public genealogy database GEDmatch.

In 2018, investigators in California used this technique to arrest and charge a man with being the sadistic attacker known as the Golden State killer who killed 13 people and raped nearly 50 women during the 1970s and 1980s.

With a sample from Van Cuylenborg’s pants, which were discovered in the couple’s van in Bellingham, Washington, after their deaths, Moore built a family tree and determined that the source must be a male child of William and Patricia Talbott. William Talbott II, now 56, was their only son. He was 24 at the time of the killings and lived near where Cook’s body was found.

Detectives tailed Talbott, a truck driver, and saw him discard a coffee cup. They tested the DNA left behind, confirming it matched that found on the pants. They say he also matched a palm print from the rear door of the couple’s van.

Talbott’s friends were stunned. Several wrote the court, describing him as kind, gentle and helpful.

Opening statements in the case are expected Thursday in Snohomish County Superior Court, with the trial scheduled to last four weeks. In an agreement reached Tuesday, prosecutors and defence attorneys agreed the jury did not need to hear testimony from anyone at the genealogy lab. Instead, the detective will testify about how Talbott came under suspicion.

Among the privacy issues raised by the investigation method is that the technology is so powerful that even without a warrant, police can identify people based on the participation of distant relatives in the public databases.

Mary D. Fan, a University of Washington Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said the use of genetic genealogy in criminal investigations may have broad support among the public when it’s being used to arrest serial killers or to solve other cold homicides. It’s less clear that support would hold if authorities used it to identify shoplifters or other low-level suspects.

Any restrictions on the technology’s use would best come from lawmakers, she said.

“If you’re going to take away the ability of people to participate in these services or to make their data available to police, or if you’re going to restrict the ability of the companies to offer these services, that’s best left for the legislative branch,” Fan said.

GEDmatch itself has recently changed its policy to require people to opt-in if they want law enforcement to have access to their DNA profile. That closed off more than a million profiles to law enforcement. More than 50,000 users have agreed to share their information — a figure that the company says is growing.

For John Van Cuylenborg, the victim’s brother, a lawyer in Victoria, seeing serious crimes solved is worth the potential privacy cost. He remembers his sister as a compassionate young woman and called having to identify her body “the darkest of days.”

“For the computing power and DNA technology to advance together to make this kind of thing possible, it was fantastic,” he said.

READ MORE: Trial set for U.S. man accused in cold case killing of young Saanich couple

READ MORE: Arrest made in 30-year homicide cold case of Oak Bay High grads

Gene Johnson, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Cannings to pedal through South Okanagan — West Kootenay riding

MP leaves from Nakusp on Aug. 23 and ends in Kaledon on Aug. 29.

UPDATED: MV Balfour ferry returns to service

The 65-year-old ferry had been out of action for a month

Rossland council urges minister to kill Jumbo Glacier Resort project

Mayor writes letter panning ski resort on environmental, legal, and economic grounds

Contempt charge against Balfour logging protesters dropped on technicality

A B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled Cooper Creek Cedar failed to file a contempt application

RCMP renew request for help finding missing Nakusp man

Christopher Sanford was reported missing Aug. 5

VIDEO: Facebook rolls out tool to block off-Facebook data gathering

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the “clear history” feature more than a year ago

B.C. rainbow crosswalk covered in mysterious black substance

Black substance spilled intentionally near Vancouver Island school and difficult to remove

RCMP originally planned to arrest Meng Wanzhou on plane, defence lawyers say

The allegations have not been proven in court. Meng was arrested Dec. 1 at Vancouver airport at the behest of the U.S.

Bodies of two missing Surrey men found near Ashcroft

Ryan Provencher and Richard Scurr have been missing since July 17

Ethics commissioner ready to testify on Trudeau, SNC-Lavalin: NDP critic

A new poll suggests the report hasn’t so far hurt the Liberals’ chances of re-election this fall

Inflation hits Bank of Canada 2% target for second straight month

Prices showed strength in other areas, including an 18.9 per cent increase in the cost of fresh vegetables

Pregnant teachers fight to change WorkSafeBC compensation rules

Agency does not recognize risk to unborn babies when mother catches illness from work

Five hedgehogs quickly adopted after being left at BC SPCA

Lucky new owners picked up their pets from Maple Ridge branch on Aug. 20

Most Read