William Talbott II waits for potential jurors to file into Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett on Tuesday. Talbott is accused of the 1987 murder of a Saanich couple. (Andy Bronson / Everett Herald)

Jury selection starts for trial of U.S. man accused in 1987 murder of B.C. couple

Trial for cold case murders to see unprecedented ‘genetic genealogy’

  • Jun. 12, 2019 5:20 p.m.

WARNING: The following contains graphic content about a murder trial.

By Caleb Hutton

Over one hundred potential jurors filed into the Snohomish County Courthouse in Washington Tuesday for the outset of the double-murder trial of William Talbott II.

Media including The New York Times, PBS, ABC, CTV and others have been keeping tabs on the case as trial neared for the SeaTac man, 56, charged with brutally murdering a Vancouver Island couple in late 1987.

At stake is justice for Jay Cook, 20, and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, whose families waited decades for advances in DNA technology to guide detectives to the suspect.

This will also be the first criminal trial in the U.S. involving a powerful, controversial new forensic tool known as “genetic genealogy.” Talbott’s case will be a kind of proving ground — and could eventually set legal precedents — for police use of the new methodology. Talbott was among the first arrested in a national wave of breakthroughs in cold cases, propelled by genealogists and private labs applying their skills to unsolved crimes.

A genealogist can build a suspect’s family tree by comparing crime-scene DNA to public genetic profiles on ancestry websites like FamilyTreeDNA. Talbott’s case will be the first genetic genealogy case in the nation to go before a jury.

Second cousins on both sides of Talbott’s bloodline had uploaded data to GEDMatch, a site that has since changed its policy to require users to “opt in” for police to use their data. (After working in secret with the FBI, FamilyTreeDNA now has an ad campaign touting how its service can help solve crimes.)

RELATED: Man pleads not guilty in 1987 slayings of Victoria couple

RELATED: No death penalty for Washington man accused of killing Saanich couple

Talbott worked as a trucker, though employment records suggest he was out of work around the time of the crime, according to court papers. His parents lived seven miles from the bridge near Monroe where Cook’s battered body was found.

Cook and Van Cuylenborg, from Vancouver Island, were on an errand to pick up furnace parts in Seattle. A receipt suggested they boarded the Bremerton-Seattle ferry around 10 p.m. Nov. 18, 1987 — and were never seen alive again.

Van Cuylenborg’s body was dumped off a road in Skagit County. She’d been restrained with zip ties and shot in the head. Zip ties were found by Cook’s body, too, under High Bridge, a tall span over the Snoqualmie River. He’d been beaten with rocks. A pack of cigarettes and a tissue were shoved down his throat. A blue blanket covered him.

The bronze Ford Econoline van they’d been driving was abandoned in Bellingham.

It was a mystery that touched communities all across Puget Sound.

At the time of the killings, Talbott was 24.

Years later, a paper cup fell from his work truck in Seattle, two miles south of a ferry terminal where the couple’s trail went cold decades ago. Detectives were watching. An officer grabbed the cup to have it tested at a crime lab. Talbott’s DNA matched the genetic profile of semen on Van Cuylenborg’s slacks. In the view of Snohomish County detectives, it confirmed the work of Parabon NanoLabs and genealogist CeCe Moore.

Moore and representatives of Parabon had been on the state’s witness list of 38 people, but they’re no longer expected to testify. Instead, a Snohomish County sheriff’s detective, Jim Scharf, is expected to explain the technology to the jury, in an agreement between the defense and prosecutors.

READ ALSO: Local cold case helps ‘60 Minutes’ explain genetic genealogy

READ ALSO: Trial set for U.S. man accused in cold case killing of young Saanich couple

Defense attorneys raised arguments about the accuracy of a DNA test performed by a private lab without a written report about how the testing was done, or the kind of oversight at a state-run lab.

Yet the defense did not argue the jury shouldn’t hear evidence related to genetic genealogy.

Days before Talbott’s arrest, police in California announced they had caught a suspect in the case of the Golden State Killer using the same technology.

In response to a questionnaire, at least a few potential jurors for Talbott’s trial noted on Tuesday that they’d read news reports about the case and researched it with more than passing interest.

Since last year, he has been in the Snohomish County Jail, with bail set at $2.5 million. He appeared in court with a freshly groomed goatee, in a crisp white dress shirt. He has shed weight.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese began dismissing jurors from the pool Tuesday afternoon, beginning with those who had purchased plane tickets and hotel rooms for summer vacations.

Other potential jurors were led into the courtroom one by one to explain why they felt they could or could not be impartial in the case. Prosecutors believe Van Cuylenborg was raped and murdered.

Last month, Talbott reiterated in court that he asserts his innocence.

Jury selection continues Wednesday, with opening arguments expected later in the week.

Caleb Hutton, The Everett Herald

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

Centennial Hall upgrade, parking lot paving among postponed capital projects in Lake Cowichan

Council lowers tax increase for the year due to COVID-19 crisis

Mill Bay students petition for formal graduation

“We have a few realistic ideas in mind that could provide a safe and healthy grad celebration”

800 meals donated for Cowichan frontline workers

They were at Cowichan District Hospital on May 25 handing out prepared meals to grateful workers

Cowichan CMHA officials respond to report, probation order

“there are important improvements needed to ensure greater fairness within our housing program.”

Cowichan RCMP remind public to leave dogs chilling at home on hot days

Dogsafe has designed a Dog in a Hot Car Responder Checklist

Feds looking at ways to reunite families amid COVID-19 border restrictions with U.S.

Some families with members of dual-citizenship have become separated due to the pandemic

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

Trudeau acknowledges racial unrest in U.S.; ‘We also have work to do in Canada’

‘Anti-black racism, racism, is real; it’s in the United States, but it’s also in Canada,’ Trudeau says

Grand Forks braces for river flooding amid warm weather and rain

Warm weather and heavy rain could cause sections of Kettle River system to swell beyond 2018 levels

Large cruise ships barred from Canadian waters until end of October: Garneau

Last year 140 cruise ships brought more than two million visitors to Canadian ports

Minneapolis cop who knelt on man’s neck charged with murder

Arrest comes after three days of protests, which escalated in violence as demonstrators torched a police precinct

Police watchdog recommends charges against five Mounties in Prince George man’s death

Police used pepper spray on the man, who then had trouble breathing before dying at the scene

B.C. tourism seeks relief as businesses wait for COVID-19 restrictions to ease

Mid-June earliest for more in-province travel to be authorized

VIDEO: Humpback whales put on quite a show

The ‘playful’ pod lingered by a Campbell River tour operator’s boat for quite some time

Most Read