Caleb Hutton/Everett Herald
For three decades, the families of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg had been left with only questions and fleeting memories.
On Friday morning, one long-awaited answer arrived.
A jury found William Talbott II guilty of two counts of aggravated murder in a trial that was the first of its kind.
The truck driver, 56, of SeaTac, had been identified in a pioneering investigation led by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
|Detective Jim Scharf hugs Lee Cook, mother of Jay Cook after 55-year-old William Earl Talbott II was found guilty of Jay’s murder. (Caleb Hutton/Everett Herald)|
A genealogist used a public DNA site, GEDMatch, to help build a family tree for the suspect based on DNA from a crime scene. Her research pointed to Talbott.
Since then, dozens of arrests have been made in cold case crimes nationwide because of the forensic tool known as genetic genealogy, stirring a heated debate over police use of genetic databases.
Many suspects, including the former cop arrested in the Golden State Killer case, await a trial. This was the first case using the technique to go before a jury.
Other than semen at two crime scenes, little else tied the defendant to the killings. His defense argued the semen came from a consensual act.
Talbott did not testify. He grew up seven miles from a third crime scene south of Monroe, where Jay Cook had been bludgeoned with rocks, strangled with twine and left dead under a bridge.
Standing room only. pic.twitter.com/8o237r7z5d
— Caleb Hutton (@snocaleb) June 28, 2019
Jay & Tanya
Cook stood a stalky 6-foot-4.
At age 20, he hadn’t beefed out.
He’d learned to play rock ’n roll bass guitar, with friends in his hometown on Vancouver Island.
He worked at a pizza parlor for a while. One night after a shift, he rode his bike three hours through rain and darkness to a cabin where friends were staying for a weekend, balancing a pizza the whole way to bring them food, his sister Laura Baanstra said.
He had a bizarre habit of losing his clothes, his sister said. Sometimes after school he’d come home without his jacket, and no idea where it ended up. One day the family packed for a ski trip, about a four-hour drive.
“We get there — snow on the ground, right? — and Jay only had one shoe,” Baanstra said.
|Jay Cook, about a year before he was killed. (Cook family)|
He had a sweetness about him, taking his younger sister out for dinner and, once, for high tea, with the good money he’d earned on a fishing boat.
One uncle had coined a phrase about his nephew: “Jay had no rough edges.”
“It’s really no wonder that Jay ended up with someone like Tanya,” Baanstra said. “Tanya was very sweet and caring, and they looked up to each other.”
She was 18.
Much like the Cooks, her family loved long boating trips around the Salish Sea. Van Cuylenborg played tennis at her family’s home on an acre, and led a student push for a girl’s basketball team at her high school, her brother said.
For years she lobbied her parents, too, to get a dog. Her mother gave in around 1982. The Golden Retriever, Tessa, became first and foremost Tanya’s pet.
|Tanya Van Cuylenborg with her Golden Retriever, Tessa.|
She hoped to work with animals one day, maybe as a veterinarian. Cook’s dream was to be a marine biologist. Neither had made concrete plans. They were young. The two started dating in the summer of 1987.
Cook’s father ran a furnace business with a man named Spud, whose last name, Talbot, ended in one T. Jay Cook didn’t have a job at the time. So his father asked him to run an overnight errand to pick up about $750 in parts from Gensco, in south Seattle. He had cash for a hotel, but planned to sleep in the van outside the business.
His girlfriend was invited to come along. They set out on Nov. 18, 1987, in a bronze Ford Club Wagon van. Their ferry docked in Port Angeles around 4 p.m., a half-hour before sunset. Perhaps an hour later on Highway 101, they missed the exit to the Hood Canal Bridge. They stopped in Hoodsport for snacks.
Store clerk Judith Stone testified that they wanted to know how close they were to the bridge.
“Oh, you’re a little past that,” Stone recalled saying. “A long way past that.”
She told them how to reroute to Seattle.
A deli clerk spoke with them in Allyn. They did not seem distressed, and it didn’t seem like anyone else was traveling with them.
Exactly how they encountered a killer remained a mystery, even through the trial.
Prosecutors suggested they may have pulled over for directions again.
Days later police found a ticket for the Bremerton-Seattle ferry, inside the abandoned Ford van. The ferry had docked in Seattle around 11:35 p.m.
That’s where the couple’s path went cold.
Almost a week later, a passerby collecting cans found Van Cuylenborg dead against a rusty culvert Nov. 24, 1987, off Parson Creek Road in Skagit County.
She was nude from the waist down. She’d been shot in the back of the head with a .380-caliber bullet.
The next day, police learned her wallet, ID, a box of .380-caliber ammo and surgical gloves had been picked up 20 miles north in downtown Bellingham, beneath a tavern’s back porch. The bronze van sat parked around the corner, next to a Greyhound station.
The money order was still inside, unused. There was blood on a comforter, a used tampon on the floor and orange Camel cigarette butts in an ash tray.
Pheasant hunters stumbled upon Cook’s body on Thanksgiving Day under the High Bridge over the Snoqualmie River, south of Monroe.
A blue blanket covered his upper body. Investigators peeled it back to find he’d had been beaten around the head and strangled with twine tied onto two dog collars. Tissues and a pack of Camel Lights had been shoved down his throat. Days later police seized bloody rocks from the grass nearby.
The crime scenes were scattered over three counties. At each site, police found interlocked zip ties. Neither of the victims had obvious marks on their wrists or ankles.
A generation passed.
For Cook’s parents and sisters, the gaping wound began to heal. They talked often about Jay, but in happy, friendly, joking terms.
“For us, I think we put Jay’s tragic death behind us a long time ago,” Laura Baanstra said in an interview. “We all assumed that whoever did it was either dead or in jail. I don’t think I ever thought the guy had gotten away with it, because I just assumed he would’ve done something else.”
John Van Cuylenborg said his parents were never the same after his sister’s death. When his father died in the 1990s, John became the one who kept in touch with the sheriff’s office in Snohomish County.
|Tanya Van Cuylenborg with her father, Willem. (Courtesy of John Van Cuylenborg)|
“What I’ve had to live with for 31 years was just no answers to anything, in this case, other than you had a couple of dead bodies,” he said.
John, his sister’s only sibling, is now a civil attorney in Victoria. He was forced to accept that there was a good chance that the murders would never be solved.
“You kind of had to,” he said. “You needed to have some perspective on it, and be able to focus on other things in life, rather than continuing to wait day after day, week after week, for a resolution.”
He never gave up hope, though. He knew there was evidence that could, someday, implicate somebody. His sister’s Minolta camera body had gone missing from the van, and detectives had the serial number.
A jacket and a backpack had gone missing, too.
He knew the sheriff’s office had a suspect’s DNA.
He couldn’t have predicted how police ended up using it.
Detectives had built a list of hundreds of potential suspects. Many were ruled out through DNA tests.
Semen had been found both on Van Cuylenborg’s body and in the van, on the hem of her pants. The sample was sent to Parabon NanoLabs, a private lab offering a new service to help police to build a rough digital sketch of a suspect’s face, through DNA.
Behind the scenes Parabon was working on another project, using public genealogy databases to identify suspects through their family ties. Quietly, the lab uploaded the genetic profile to GEDMatch.
By chance, second-cousins on both sides of Talbott’s family had uploaded genetic profiles to the database.
A genealogist, CeCe Moore, traced the family lines to Talbott’s mother and father. He had sisters. But he was the only son. The data report returned to the lab on a Friday in late April 2018. By that Monday, the genealogist had identified who it belonged to.
Until then, police had no reason to suspect Talbott.
He was a short-haul trucker with no felony record. In his spare time, he rode motorcycles, and he was well liked in his circle of friends.
Plainclothes officers put Talbott under surveillance on his driving routes for days. A paper cup fell from his work truck on May 8, in south Seattle. It was tested by a state crime lab. His DNA matched the semen. Talbott was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated first-degree murder.
John Van Cuylenborg had been in touch with Snohomish County cold case detective Jim Scharf over the preceding months, about the work Parabon was doing. Scharf called him in May 2018, with news of the arrest. Van Cuylenborg had many questions.
“And I said, ‘Well, where is he?’ And he said, ‘In the back seat.’ A shiver went down my spine, thinking Jim’s riding in the same vehicle as this guy, after 31 years, you know?” he said. “It’s just phenomenal.”
Later, detectives took a swab from Talbott’s cheek.
Again, the DNA matched.
Defense attorneys did not challenge the legality of police using genetic databases to identify a suspect.
Instead, at least in this trial, the genealogy work was treated like any tip that police might follow up on.
Jurors listened to 1½ weeks of witness testimony: retired police officers who uncovered evidence in 1987; the bird hunter who found Cook’s body; the Bellingham bartender who gave Van Cuylenborg’s ID to the cops; the store clerks, the last people known to have seen the couple alive; and detective Scharf, who fought tears on the witness stand as he recalled receiving word of a DNA match.
According to Talbott’s defense, the detectives had tunnel vision.
“They never stopped to consider that perhaps the person who left the DNA was not the murderer,” defense attorney Rachel Forde said in the trial.
In her closing argument, Forde said semen could’ve been the result of a consensual act. It only showed, she said, that Talbott had sexual contact with her. It doesn’t prove Talbott is guilty of murder, Forde said.
The deputy prosecutor, Matt Baldock, fired back in his rebuttal.
He asked the jury if it was plausible that a teen girl would have sex with a stranger — on an overnight trip with her boyfriend? In the midst of the AIDS crisis? When she was on her period?
Attorneys clashed over the credibility of a witness who found further evidence that seemed to link Talbott to the van: a palm print, on a back door.
At first, a Washington State Patrol crime lab investigator had ruled out Talbott as a match.
A colleague told forensic scientist Angela Hilliard to look again. The forensic scientist realized she’d been examining the sample upside down. She changed her conclusion: The print matched Talbott.
The defense pointed out how convenient that seemed for the police, but did not call an expert witness to challenge the final conclusion of the lab, nor did the lawyers dispute it was Talbott’s semen in the van.
Defense witness testimony lasted about 10 minutes — a brief discussion of an address on Talbott’s driver’s license in Okanogan County, where he owned land.
Talbott grew up near Woodinville, in a house that’s no longer there. At the time of his arrest, he lived in SeaTac.
None of his relatives recalled ever seeing him with a blue blanket, a Minolta camera, dog collars or guns.
The jury began deliberating around 4 p.m. Tuesday.
As they waited for a verdict, Cook’s family spoke with The Daily Herald.
“Regardless of how this case comes out, I know they’ll survive,” said Cook’s brother-in-law, Gary Baanstra. “I’ve seen them do it. Their closure is just going back to that place where they can say, ‘Jay,’ and there’s just no baggage against it anymore.”
To Cook’s sister, it has seemed mind-boggling that a killer could do this once. Never before. Never again.
Tanya’s brother has thought about that, too.
“We’re trying to logically understand an illogical act,” John Van Cuylenborg said. “Or acts, in this case. You’re starting off to do the impossible.”