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

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

Asia Youngman (right) is pictured shooting another short film she wrote and directed titled Hatha. (Luba Popovic)
Peachland set to star in fantasy thriller film about N’xaxaitk’w — a.k.a. the Ogopogo

The film will follow an Indigenous teen as she navigates peer pressure, bullying and identity

Fruit farmers in the Okanagan and Creston valleys are in desperate need of cherry harvesters amid COVID-19 work shortages. (Photo: Unsplash/Abigail Miller)
‘Desperate’ need for workers at Okanagan cherry farms

Fruit farmers are worried they’ll have to abandon crops due to COVID-19 work shortages

Earls On Top at 211 Bernard Avenue in Kelowna. (Google Maps photo)
Downtown Kelowna’s Earls ordered closed after COVID-19 transmission

Earls on Top on Bernard Avenue will be closed from June 18 to June 27

Danny Fulton receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Coast Capri Hotel on April 27. The pop-up clinic was hosted by the First Nations Health Authority. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Drop-in COVID-19 vaccine clinic planned for Kelowna

Clinic at Kelowna Secondary School from June 22 to 24 from 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Dereck Donald Sears. (Contributed/Crimestoppers)
Murder charge laid in relation to suspicious Kelowna death

Dereck Donald Sears is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Darren Middleton

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Jeanette Megens
KCR: Volunteering is sharing your story

Kelowna Community Resources shares stories of its volunteers in a weekly column

British Columbia’s premier says he’s received a second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (Twitter/John Horgan)
B.C. premier gets 2nd dose of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

John Horgan shared a photo of himself on social media Friday afternoon holding a completed vaccination card

A lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS
No winning ticket sold for Friday’s $70 million Lotto Max jackpot

The huge jackpot has remained unclaimed for several weeks now

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

(File photo)
Penticton not holding Canada Day activities out of respect for Indigenous people

Cities across B.C. are cancelling the holiday after an increased spotlight on Canada’s dark history

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Most Read