The Forever Witness

How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder

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“Thought-provoking true-crime thriller…the book raises urgent questions of balancing public and private good that we’ll likely be dealing with as long as the title implies.”-Wall Street Journal

A relentless detective and a civilian genealogist solve a haunting cold case-and launch a crime-fighting revolution that tests the fragile line between justice and privacy.

In November 1987, a young couple from the idyllic suburbs of Vancouver Island on an overnight trip to Seattle vanished without a trace. A week later, the bodies of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend Jay Cook were found in rural Washington. It was a brutal crime, and it was the perfect crime- With few clues and no witnesses in the vast and foreboding Olympic Peninsula, an international manhunt turned up empty, and the sensational case that shocked the Pacific Northwest gradually slipped from the headlines.

In deep-freeze, long-term storage, biological evidence from the crime sat waiting, as Detective Jim Scharf poured over old case files looking for clues his predecessors missed. Meanwhile, 1,200 miles away in California, CeCe Moore began her lifelong fascination with genetic genealogy, a powerful forensic tool that emerged not from the crime lab, but through the wildly popular home DNA ancestry tests purchased by more than 40 million Americans. When Scharf decided to send the cold case’s decades-old DNA to Parabon NanoLabs, he hoped he would finally bring closure to the Van Cuylenborg and Cook families. He didn’t know that he and Moore would make history.

Genetic genealogy, long the province of family tree hobbyists and adoptees seeking their birth families, has made headlines as a cold case solution machine, capable of exposing the darkest secrets of seemingly upstanding citizens. In the hands of a tenacious detective like Scharf, genetic genealogy has solved one baffling killing after another. But as this crime-fighting technique spreads, its sheer power has sparked a national debate- Can we use DNA to catch the murderers among us, yet still protect our last shred of privacy in the digital age-the right to the very blueprint of who we are?




Snohomish County, Washington

The sixtyish man with the plain gray suit and pale blue watchful eyes had just finished lunch when his phone buzzed. Feeling the buy-one-get-one-free roast beef sandwiches leaden in his belly, he sighed, sure this would be yet another false alarm. He dug the vibrating cell from his pocket.

"Detective Scharf, sheriff's department."

"We got it!" the voice on the other end said.

Jim Scharf felt a second of incomprehension. Then the detective registered the exultant tone and who it belonged to—one of the ten undercover cops assigned to his stakeout. Finally! More than a week had gone by with nothing to show for the mission but overtime bills and impatient department brass.

"What did you get?" he asked.

"His coffee cup."

Scharf paused, letting the words sink in as he sat in his department-issue Ford SUV, stocked with enough bottled water, beef jerky, and Arby's coupons to wait out nuclear winter, much less a long stakeout. Here he was, trying to solve one of the most baffling crimes in Pacific Northwest history, the disappearance and murder of a young Canadian couple on an overnight trip to Seattle. And now he had a coffee cup. He took a deep breath and started his car.

"Bring it to the office," Scharf said. "I'll meet you there."

The brutality and randomness of the murders of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook sparked an international manhunt, blanket media coverage, and deep anxiety that the rapist and killer might strike again in this semirural county north of Seattle. But that was thirty-one years ago. Since then there had been no eyewitnesses, no leads in the physical evidence, no arrests. Over time the panic and the headlines faded, and the investigation stalled.

The case eventually landed on Scharf's desk in the Snohomish County Sheriff's cold case unit, where his job was to bring fresh eyes to old files. Many saw this as a departmental backwater, but so far Scharf had cracked eight murders and a sexual assault no one else could solve. And now he had a surprising new lead in the Canadian double murder case.

His unlikely source was a self-taught genetic genealogist and cast member on the PBS reality series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Every cop ever assigned to the case, plus the FBI, Interpol, and even the Canadian Mounties, had all failed in their search for the killer. So this TV personality had succeeded by not searching for him. Instead, she had constructed his family tree.

Now it fell to Scharf to determine if she was right, and if a Seattle trucker named William Earl Talbott II really was the killer who eluded capture for three decades.

A balding mountain of a man, Bill Talbott had reached his fifty-fifth birthday with no criminal convictions on his record and no known connection to the victims. Scharf assigned the surveillance detail to shadow Talbott's big rig on his daily deliveries of machine parts around Seattle, then trail him home from work, looking for anything suspicious. But other than bouts of fist shaking and shouting at other drivers, the man was a cipher. He worked, then went home and did little else.

The man's reclusiveness also made it hard for the surveillance officers to accomplish Scharf's other directive: grab something with Talbott's DNA on it without tipping him off. But there was a problem. The man never left anything behind. He was obsessive about it. And so a week of waiting and frustration went by before the break finally came where they least expected it: on a busy highway in the middle of traffic.

Talbott stopped his truck at a red light, then abruptly flung open his door and climbed onto the running board. His surprised watchers quickly slumped in their car seats, but he wasn't looking their way. His broad face florid, brows knit, Talbott leaned his bulk between cab and trailer and wrestled with something, maybe a loose cable that had been rattling and annoying him. When the light turned green, he hastily clambered back behind the wheel, and that's when it happened: a used paper coffee cup tumbled out of the cab and fell to the street below. Talbott didn't notice it, or, if he did, he ignored it and left the cup where it lay to be flattened by a hundred passing cars and trucks. He slammed his big rig into gear and roared off.

The closest undercover cop had seen it all. Leaping from his watch car and dodging traffic, the officer snatched the cup and hoisted his paper trophy high.

"I'll drive it to the crime lab myself," Scharf told the surveillance officer when they met that afternoon at the cold case office. Ten minutes later, their paperwork signed, he was in his car and headed to the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division, the stained white cup in its plastic evidence bag on the seat beside him.

The crime lab people loved coffee cups, Scharf knew. Saliva was a rich source of DNA, and drinking always left plenty behind. Every day, we all unthinkingly throw away a plethora of objects containing our entire genome, our most private information, the road map to who and what we are. Through accident or design, Scharf didn't know which, Talbott somehow avoided doing so while under constant surveillance. But finally that cup slipped through.

"Give me twenty-four hours," Scharf's favorite lab tech told him, "and I'll have an answer for you."

The detective returned to his office with its piles of papers and yellowing photos of cold case victims, feeling anxious and steeling himself against hoping too much. He had lost count of the other suspects in this case he had sought out, checked out, and ultimately ruled out because their DNA didn't match traces left behind by the killer. Maybe this time would be different.

Tomorrow he would know. He would know the truth about Bill Talbott. He would know if he was on the verge of a big arrest and something quite possibly historic: the first-ever genetic genealogy murder trial. And he'd know if the slaying of a young couple could be solved through a family tree, a paper cup, and the heedless act of a litterbug.

Scharf flipped through a folder, its graying manila cover worn thin and soft as old leather. His case file held only one picture of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg together. It wasn't posed, just a hasty snapshot. Jay stood, gazing down in concentration at some small object in his hands, maybe something he was trying to unknot, his dark brown hair falling over his eyes. Tanya was seated and had just glanced up as the shutter clicked, so she appeared to look directly into Scharf's eyes. Her slightly freckled face looked relaxed, Scharf thought, carefree. He guessed it had been taken just a month or two before they died. Tanya had turned eighteen that spring. Jay was a month shy of twenty-one. They'd be pushing fifty by now, he thought, had they lived.

After a long moment, Scharf closed the folder, and waited.



If ever there was time, I would lie in the sands of Gonzales and wiggle my toes in the sun. So leave me not forever, and keep love in your soul.

—Tanya Van Cuylenborg, from the last entry in her notebook

We were only eighteen. We were kids. We felt invincible. But you grow up fast when your best friend is kidnapped and murdered.

May Robson


If Only . . .

Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

"Why don't you come with us?" Tanya Van Cuylenborg grinned, picturing the look on her best friend's face.

"What, me?" May Robson sputtered. "Jump in the car and drive to Seattle tomorrow, just like that?"

"Nope," Tanya said. After a beat, she added, "We're going in Jay's dad's van."

This last-minute trip to Seattle was actually her boyfriend's idea, she told May. And, okay, yes, she admitted, she was feeling a little nervous about it, this first extended trip alone with Jay Cook. So Tanya was doing what any eighteen-year-old almost-adult would do in such a situation: she asked her girlfriend to come along.

But May had gone quiet.

"C'mon, Mary-Anne," Tanya implored, emphasizing each syllable of May's proper first name. "You need a little adventure."

"So true," May muttered grumpily.

Tanya held her breath. Impulsive last-minute trips abroad were not May's thing. That was Tanya's role in this friendship. But once persuaded to jump in, Tanya knew, no one had her back better than May.

"Please come," Tanya pressed. "We're going to be sleeping in his dad's van and I'll be uncomfortable alone with Jay. It'll be so much easier with you there. It'll be fun."

Normally, Tanya could expect May to agree then, no further discussion needed. The two had done everything together, after all, ever since they bonded at a Brownie troop meeting when they were eight. They'd become a constant presence at each other's homes and tables ever since. May considered Tanya's dad, Bill, a second, funnier father. The best friends graduated from high school together, ate and drank their way through London and Paris on a school trip that spring together, bluffed their underage selves into bars together. Tanya relished making it her personal mission to coax her more conventional friend into impetuous day trips and expeditions. She couldn't remember May ever expressing regret at going along for the ride, not even when they got hopelessly lost in France late one evening. Tanya kept a cool head that night for May's sake, and they finally found their way back to their hotel, arm in arm.

This time, though, May said she'd have to disappoint her friend: she was sick. The pressure of the hard plastic telephone was making her relentless earache worse, she told Tanya. She had a pounding headache, fever, and chills. She wanted to say yes, but as much as she loved to be spontaneous with her best friend, and as much as she hated to say no when Tanya played the girlfriend-in-need card, May said she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. Certainly not the next day.

"I'm sorry, sweetie. I'd be miserable, and I'd make the both of you miserable. I need to stay home in bed."

Tanya grumbled a bit, then mastered her disappointment, straining to sound both sincere and sympathetic when she said that, of course, she understood. Everything would be fine in Seattle, she assured May. They both knew Jay was a great guy, that she'd be fine without May playing third wheel. She was just being silly.

In truth, she said, the impetus for the trip hadn't been fun and adventure but a request from Jay's dad, Gordon Cook. He needed a replacement furnace for a customer of his heating service and repair business. His regular supplier in Vancouver on the mainland had fallen through, but a company in Seattle had the right furnace and fittings. He just needed someone to make the five-hour car and ferry trip to pick up the old-style oil burner and haul it back.

Normally Gordon's business partner, Spud Talbot, would do it. When a trip to Seattle was needed, Spud would depart on a Friday and bring his wife. They'd make a weekend getaway of it, then return with the parts on the following Monday. But this job couldn't wait for the weekend—winter had come and the customer needed a working furnace as soon as possible.

So Jay volunteered to handle it, then asked Tanya to join him. His dad had given him money for a hotel, but Jay wanted to pocket the cash and spend the night in the family van, parked outside the supply warehouse. He and Tanya could pick up the furnace first thing in the morning, then there'd be time and money for some sightseeing and shopping before returning to Vancouver Island. They'd arrive back home that evening, Tanya explained.

"I'll talk to you then," Tanya and May said at the same time. The two friends laughed their good-nights before hanging up.

May Robson would replay that phone call in her mind time and again over the days, years, and decades to come. Sometimes she would dream about it. Thirty-plus years later, she still remembers her last conversation with Tanya with the sort of clarity normally reserved for a favorite song or a beloved movie replayed more times than can be counted. The warmth of her friend's voice still rings in her ears, the laugh she knew better than her own, the easy intimacy with the one person she could and did tell everything. Except, on that last day, she told her friend no. After all this time, May still cannot speak of that without squeezing her eyes shut.

In her dream version of that conversation, May usually gives a different answer. She sees herself happily packing a bag with her mom's help, then waiting for Tanya to swing by with Jay at the wheel of his hulking copper-colored family van.

If only that dream version were true, May often thinks, everything might have been different. Two people headed to Seattle had been an easy target for a predator, she reasons. But had she gone along, had she been in that van during that trip, three might have been a crowd, and the predator might have moved on in search of easier prey. There's a chance nothing would have happened if she just had gone along for the ride, a chance Tanya would have come home as planned.

The dream, which she has had many times, evokes in May's imagination the life that might have been: Her kids would be in school with Tanya's. She and Tanya would call each other on the phone every day. Tanya would still be talking her into crazy, impulsive adventures. She had no doubt their friendship was one of those special ones that would have endured longer than anything else in their lives.

Of course, every dream has its nightmare alternative: May could have gone to Seattle with Tanya and Jay and shared their fate. A seasoned predator might not have been deterred by one additional teenaged girl. Another young woman in the van might have provided even more inducement for the killer to strike.

It's not that May hasn't thought about that chilling alternative outcome: it would have been horrible, she knows. May has lived a good life since then, and, all these years later, she is glad she chose to stay home, glad she chose life and a family and a future, even if she had not known she was choosing them at the time. But the part of her that she usually keeps to herself knows if only she had said yes to Tanya, one way or the other she would have been spared a lifetime of grief, survivor's guilt, and regret.



Vancouver Island is Canada's warmest place, the only part of that vast country with an officially Mediterranean clime. Oak Bay and Saanich—the two beach towns where Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg lived, attended school, and launched their overnight trip to Seattle—are side-by-side suburbs on the periphery of the provincial capital city of Victoria. Spacious brick houses line their wide streets, a canopy of maples, oaks, and birches arcing over the sidewalks and parked cars, cool green in summer; fiery red, orange, and gold in fall. Oak Bay's town motto is the Latin phrase Sub quercu felicitas: "Happiness under the oaks."

Drawn by the ocean views, scenic cityscape, and favorable climate in which even the chill of November feels mild, American and British filmmakers declared Oak Bay "Hollywood North" in the 1930s. For the decade leading up to World War II, locals grew accustomed to film crews and street sightings of such movie superstars of the day as Paul Muni and the first lady of American cinema, Lillian Gish. A pervasive British influence outlasted the Hollywood years, however, and is visible in the local culture, architecture, and ivy-draped garden homes. In 1987, tea shops still outnumbered coffeehouses in the capital area (Starbucks, a small company with a handful of shops at the time, wouldn't appear in Victoria for another seven years). Visitors driving up from south of the border might well have felt they stumbled on an idealized Pacific Coast version of a New England beach town. Only when they noticed the speed limit signs in kilometers per hour and the service station marquees pricing petrol by the liter would it become clear that this definitely was not the United States—if the local pronunciation of "mum" for "mom" and "a-boat" for "about" hadn't already done the trick.

The rhythm of change here was slow, although that didn't keep longtime residents from fulminating about the loss of the good old days. Locals habitually fretted about rising crime rates in the metropolitan area of Victoria, which had just over a quarter million residents in 1987 (it would near four hundred thousand by the 2020s). But if that metro area were suddenly transported across the twenty-two miles of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and replanted on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, it would instantly become one of the safest (and least armed) places to live of its size anywhere in the United States.

Tanya and Jay grew up leaving their house keys at home. Jay's mother, Lee, was notorious for forgetting even to close the front door when she left for the day, much less lock up their Oak Bay house. Jay and his younger sister, Laura, came home one day and found the door wide open, a small stack of cash on the dining room table with a note explaining that Lee had gone to visit her family home on nearby Salt Spring Island for a couple of days. The cash, she wrote, was to cover food and other expenses while she was gone.

Nothing was disturbed or taken during the hours when the house was open and unattended. It was that kind of town, a level of community trust that was second nature to Tanya and Jay, though such feelings had long since vanished in most places in the United States.

It was about to vanish from Saanich and Oak Bay, too. Neither family would leave their doors unlocked after November 19, 1987.

Every good restaurant has a server or two who are so competent, so attentive, or so funny that regulars ask if they can be seated at one of their tables. At Pickwicks Restaurant, one such server was Tanya Van Cuylenborg, always ready to make a menu recommendation (or whisper a wry warning), share her latest comical take on affluent Oak Bay pretensions, or conjure an extra bit of dessert to distract a bored child so the parents could linger a little longer. The teenager seemed as happily quirky as the British-themed restaurant itself, an odd Oak Bay landmark that featured an elaborate clock tower populated by life-sized animatronic Dickens characters.

Pet owners in Tanya's Saanich neighborhood were equally devoted to her, their dog walker and pet sitter of choice starting at age twelve. They had seen how she trained and treated her own dog, Tessa, whose admission to the family came only after her relentless lobbying and firm promise to her dad that she would take full responsibility for the golden retriever's care and feeding. Her family had long assumed that Tanya's affinity for animals would eventually translate into a career, though she made it clear when she graduated from high school that she was nowhere near ready to make such decisions. "I just turned eighteen," she told her parents. "I don't know what I want to do next month, much less the rest of my life."

This was fine with Willem and Jean Van Cuylenborg. They were prosperous, content, and in no rush to see their youngest leave their comfortable Vancouver Island nest. Tanya had remained close to her mum and dad throughout her high school years. She could talk to them about anything, something few of their friends said of their own teenagers. Maybe that was why Tanya and her friends usually congregated at the Van Cuylenborg place rather than their own homes. Jean fed them and made them welcome, and Bill, with his prematurely silver hair and slight Dutch accent, made them laugh with improbable stories about his childhood in the Netherlands and his first jobs pumping gas and crewing fishing boats before he decided to go to law school.

"You two are so alike," May told Tanya, whose mock outrage at her friend's assertion fooled no one. May had nailed it: you could see it in their faces, their gestures and body language, even the way father and daughter argued so often and with such relish, more play and entertainment than real conflict. He was a lawyer, and she the lawyer's daughter, so debate came naturally to them, whether disputing politics or music or the quality of her tennis serve. It was how they told each other "I love you."

Lately he had noticed her thinking had matured, her arguments had grown deeper and more thoughtful. It's all coming together for her now, he told his wife not long before the trip to Seattle, and Jean could hear that tinge of sadness mixed with the pride Bill felt in seeing his girl had become a young woman. All the more reason to enjoy those lazy Sunday mornings while they lasted when, even at eighteen, Tanya would still crawl into bed with her parents as she had done since she was little.

Tanya, whose name rhymes with can-ya rather than khan-ya, was known by friends and schoolmates for her wit and her sharp tongue with those she considered fools, a trait for speaking her mind that dated all the way back to grade school. She and her childhood friend, Stephanie Krohn, would spend hours people watching in the schoolyard, at the park, or by a city fountain, where Tanya's forte was making up fictional biographies and comical internal dialogues for passersby until the two girls convulsed with laughter.

"Even then she was the ringleader," Krohn recalls. "She was never one to follow the pack. That's why it was so much fun being with her."

A natural athlete, Tanya played varsity basketball and was an accomplished tennis player, something of a family requirement given that her dad built a tennis court on the grounds of their home when she was a child. Her persona as a rebel against convention grew more pronounced in high school. In the seventies and eighties era of big hair, most snapshots of Tanya in her teens show her darkly blond hair kept short and simple. She chose clothing more for comfort, hiking, or biking than for fashion, more interested in the emerging Northwest grunge culture than the preppy look favored at her school. When most of her peers in the Oak Bay High School graduating class were out shopping for dresses and suits to wear to commencement, she told May, "No way. I'm not doing that. I'm not wearing a dress." Then she showed up to graduation in an unforgettable tuxedo off the men's rack, the jacket and pants black, with a white shirt and an eye-popping emerald-green bow tie around her neck. People couldn't keep their eyes off her, whether they approved or not.

Few knew that Tanya had grown so disenchanted with her high school that she had come home from her eleventh-grade classes one day and said, "Dad, I hate school. I want to be done."

Bill Van Cuylenborg labored hard to hide his dismay at the thought of his daughter dropping out a year before graduation. He forced himself to reason rather than rage, to hold his daughter's steady, challenging gaze, with those piercing blue eyes of hers, eyes that mirrored his own. He knew that the angry approach, or a move to impose his authority, would only make her dig her heels in deeper—another way in which father and daughter were all too much alike. He put aside the affectionate humor he usually deployed to cajole his daughter and instead assumed his solicitor's demeanor to cut a deal with her: if she stayed in school long enough to graduate, he'd stop pushing her to go to college. He made it clear that he'd happily finance that option if and when she decided to continue her education, but he'd no longer pressure her to take that path.

"It's a pretty good offer," he said, seemingly relaxed, though his stomach churned.

"It's a deal," Tanya said, and they shook on it. Then she hugged him.

Her yearbook entry the following year read, "Tanya, also known as 'sweetie,' would like to be remembered for her fine sense of sarcasm and many different laughs. After graduation Tanya would like to move away from Victoria and become a photographer. 'Catch ya in the movies, chow babe.' "

On Sale
Nov 29, 2022
Page Count
384 pages