Washington man guilty of Saanich couple murder more 30 years ago

Washington man guilty Saanich couple–Nearly 32 years later, a man has been convicted of the brutal murder of two young Canadians through a new method of investigation based on genetic genealogy.

Jay Cook (20) and Tanya Van Cuylenborg (18) were killed in 1987 in Washington State. The two young Canadians, from Victoria, were in Seattle to get some furnace parts for the young man’s father, who worked as a repairman for this type of appliances. Their bodies were found a week later.

At the crime scene, the police took DNA samples. However, without a suspect at this time, they never managed to indict anyone.

Decades of investigation lead nowhere, as no suspects have been arrested. It was not until May 2018 that William Talbott, a 56-year-old truck driver, was arrested. Investigator Jim Scharf then stated that “if there had been no genetic genealogy, there would have been no arrest.”

US public genealogy site, GEDmatch, allows people who have done DNA testing to enter their genetic profile to find distant relatives and complete a family tree. A month earlier, this method had made headlines leading to the arrest of a man suspected of being the “Golden State Killer”, author of 12 murders and about fifty rapes in California in the years between 1970 and 80. In both cases – and in about 70 other cases that have been resolved since then, DNA found at crime scenes has been compared to the GEDmatch database.

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In the case of the double murder of the couple of Canadians, a private laboratory of biotechnology, Parabon Nanolabs, analyzed sperm found on a garment of Tanya Van Cuylenborg. The released genetic profile was then entered into the GEDmatch system. The research has brought out two related individuals, cousins to be precised. A genealogy expert from Parabon has traced their family trees over several generations and has isolated a common parent by the name of William Talbott. The latter was then put under surveillance. The police managed to recover a cup he had thrown away one day and tested his DNA using his saliva. It matched the one found on the clothes of the young Canadian.

William Talbott has claimed to be innocent since his arrest. “My life has been suspended for more than a year for a crime I did not commit,” he said in an opening hearing in Snohomish County Court this Friday.

In court documents, defense lawyers questioned the reliability of the DNA profile taken from the crime scene but did not ask the private laboratory to testify about the use of genetic genealogy. “This is not an issue for the defense,” assured Vice President of the company, Paula Armentrout.

In the face of this genetic evidence, a jury on Friday convicted William Talbott, 56, of these murders. The murderer will receive his sentence in July. He could spend the rest of his life behind bars. It is still unclear whether he will appeal the case.

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While this modern investigative technique may be a way to solve some criminal cases, several voices in the legal community criticize the lack of regulation, which poses a challenge to the protection of personal data. ” There are not only few rules about which crimes to investigate, but also unclear remedies in the case of mistakes, the discovery of embarrassing or intrusive information, or misuse of the information,” noted California law professor Elizabeth Joh in an opinion piece published Thursday in the New York Times. By submitting to a DNA test, “you also expose your siblings, your parents, your cousins, people you’ve never met and even future generations of your family,” added the academic, who suggests police to obtain “warrants” for this type of investigation.

Faced with rising criticism, GEDmatch has just changed its terms of use: its members must now give their consent for the police to use their data. “It was the right thing to do ethically,” founder Curtis Rogers told the press. Only 75,000 people have given the green light at the moment, while the police had up to one million profiles. The new database is too narrow to advance new investigations, but in theory there is nothing to stop the police from going to any genealogy site without revealing its motives, says law professor David Kaye.

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Emy Torres

Emy holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan and currently freelances part-time for The Talking Democrat.