William Earl Talbott II, 55, of SeaTac, Wa. is led into court, on arraignment in the death of Tanya Van Cuylenborg in 1987, at the Skagit County Community Justice Center on Friday, May 18, 2018 in Mount Vernon, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Trial begins in case of young Canadian couple killed in 1987

William Earl Talbott II was arrested last year and charged with aggravated murder

Jurors in Washington state on Friday heard about the mysterious final days of a young Canadian couple killed in 1987 — as well as the novel method authorities used to finally make an arrest three decades later.

William Earl Talbott II was arrested last year and charged with aggravated murder, after authorities said they used genetic genealogy to identify him as the person who left his DNA on the clothing of one of the victims. 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.

READ MORE: U.S. man on trial in Saanich couple’s killings arrested through genetic genealogy

Opening statements began with a prosecutor describing how 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Jay Cook, left their hometown of Saanich, near Victoria, British Columbia, for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to Seattle in November 1987. When they didn’t return, their families began a frantic search for them, including renting a plane to try to spot the copper-colored Ford van they had been driving.

About a week later, 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 in brush near a bridge over the Snoqualmie River in Monroe — about 60 miles (95 kilometres) from where his girlfriend was discovered. He had been beaten with rocks and strangled with twine and two red dog collars, authorities said.

Detectives investigated hundreds of leads in the ensuing decades and tested the DNA against criminal databases, to no avail. But 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.

Last year, CeCe Moore, a genealogist there who is known for her work on the public television series “Finding Your Roots,” used the public genealogy database GEDmatch to find distant cousins of the person who left the DNA. She built a family tree and determined 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.

The method has taken off in the past year, since investigators in California revealed that they used it to arrest and charge a man suspected of being the sadistic attacker known as the Golden State killer, who killed 13 people and raped nearly 50 women during the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, authorities have used the DNA method to identify more than 60 cold-case suspects across the country. Talbott was one of the first.

Deputy prosecutor Justin Harleman told jurors that once Talbott became a suspect, investigators tailed him, saw him discard a coffee cup, and then tested the DNA from the cup, confirming it matched evidence from the crime.

Genetic genealogy, he said, “simply gave law enforcement a tip, like any other tip that they follow up on.”

Privacy advocates have expressed concerns about whether the technique violates the rights of suspects and whether its use by law enforcement should be restricted, but Talbott’s attorneys agreed that how detectives found him is irrelevant, and they didn’t challenge it. Instead, attorney Jon Scott told jurors in his opening statement Friday that the presence of the DNA doesn’t make his client a killer. He offered no other explanation of how Talbott’s DNA got there.

Scott described his client as a “blue-collar guy” who had worked in construction and as a truck driver and lived a “quiet, unremarkable life.”

“He’s just lived and worked, and that’s all he’s done,” Scott said.

Relatives of both victims attended the beginning of the trial, which is expected to last four weeks. Cook’s mother, Leona Cook, said it’s still difficult to hear of the killings, but added: “It’s been 32 years. My heart’s been hardened, I think.”

Gene Johnson, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ryga Arts Festival to include virtual and in-person events

Arts festival in Summerland will run from Aug. 15 to 23

Okanagan and Shuswap MPs want federal funds to help stop invasive species

Concerns raised that spending favours Eastern Canada.

Summerland Ornamental Gardens remain closed

Staff and volunteers continue to weed and maintain plants

Canada’s deficit result of investing in Canadians: Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity

Minister Mona Fortier said the government is working on the next steps as the economy restarts

Penticton photographer publishes book showcasing resilience of Okanagan people

Okanagan Strong showcases the bravery of many during crisis; from COVID-19, to floods, and fires

Horgan says B.C. restart making gains as more people come out of their homes

B.C. announced the easing of more restrictions on businesses, recreation and travel last month

Rescued hawk returned to Lumby skies

A rehabilitated Swainson’s hawk was returned to its Rawlings Lake habitat

Conservationists raise concerns over state of care for grizzly cubs transferred to B.C. zoo

‘Let them be assessed now before their fate is sealed,’ urges B.C. conservationist Barb Murray

Dog locks out Kelowna couple on 4th floor patio

Kelowna firefighters were called in to rescue the two people

B.C.’s COVID-19 job recovery led by tourism, finance minister says

Okanagan a bright spot for in-province visitor economy

Shuswap resident calls RCMP about vehicle with U.S. licence plates

Police summoned on July 4 regarding car parked with California plates

Homeowners arrive in North Shuswap to find thieves busy breaking in

Chase RCMP request assistance from public in tracking down suspects

National Kitten Day aka the ‘purrfect’ day to foster a new friend

July 10 marks National Kitten Day, a special day to celebrate all things kittens

YouTubers claim to be Kelowna display toilet ‘poopers’

RCMP can not speak to legitimacy of video, will be investigating

Most Read