Man on trial in murders arrested through genetic genealogy

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Gene Johnson, The Associated Press

Published Wednesday, 12 June 2019 15:52 EDT

Last updated 12 June 2019 17:32 CET

SEATTLE – A man charged with murder in the 1987 killings of a young Canadian couple is facing a trial in Washington state starting this week, but the case will not challenge the new investigative authorities used to link him to the crime.

William Earl Talbott II is one of dozens of men that the authorities arrested for old and unresolved crimes last year using genetic genealogy. The practice involves identifying suspects by entering the DNA profiles of the crime scene into public databases that people have used for years to fill their family trees.

The defenders of privacy have expressed concern about the violation of the rights of the suspects and the possibility of limiting the use by the forces of the order. But Talbott's lawyers say the detectives found it irrelevant to their defense, accusing him of killing 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Jay Cook.

Instead, they claim he is innocent, and that the discovery of his DNA – which the investigators said was on his pants, vagina and rectum – does not make him a murderer.

"The police used this as nothing more than another suggestion, which they followed with traditional investigative techniques," defense lawyer Rachel Forde said. "The DNA on the edge of one of the victim's pants does not tell you who killed her and why."

Van Cuylenborg and Cook disappeared in November 1987 during what was supposed to be a night trip from their hometown of Saanich, in British Columbia, to Seattle, to collect parts of the furnace for Cook's father's business. After a hectic week for their families, Van Cuylenborg's body was found along an embankment in rural Skagit County, north of Seattle. She had been hit in the back of her head.

The hunters found Cook dead two days later, near a bridge over the Snoqualmie River in Monroe, about 60 miles (95 km) from where his girlfriend was discovered. He had been strangled with string and dog leash.

In the following three decades, investigators have investigated hundreds of contacts, without result. But in 2017, Snohomish County Sheriff Detective Jim Scharf learned of Parabon Labs in Reston, Virginia, which used a new method of DNA processing to extract more information from the samples. CeCe Moore, a genealogist who is known for his work on the public television series "Finding Your Roots", was using the most robust genetic profiles to find distant relatives using the public GEDmatch genealogical database.

In 2018, California investigators used this technique to arrest and accuse a man of being the sadistic striker known as the killer of the state of gold who killed 13 people and raped nearly 50 women during the years. ; 70 and & # 39; 80.

With a sample of Van Cuylenborg's trousers, discovered in the couple's van in Bellingham, Washington, after their death, Moore built a family tree and determined that the source must have been a son of William and Patricia Talbott. William Talbott II, now 56, was their only child. He was 24 at the time of the killings and lived near where Cook's body had been found.

The detectives followed Talbott, a truck driver, and they saw a cup of coffee discarded. They tested the DNA left behind, confirming that it matched the one found on the pants. They say he also paired a palm print from the back door of the couple's van.

Talbott's friends were stunned. Many wrote to the court, describing him as gentle, kind and helpful.

On Thursday in the Snohomish County Superior Court declarations of opening of the case are expected, with the process that will last four weeks. In an agreement reached Tuesday, prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that the jury should not have heard anyone's testimony in the genealogy lab. Instead, the detective will testify to how Talbott was suspected.

Among the privacy issues raised by the survey method is that the technology is so powerful that even without a warrant, the police can identify people based on the participation of distant relatives in public databases.

Mary D. Fan, a professor at the University of Washington Law School and a former federal prosecutor, stated that the use of genetic genealogy in criminal investigations may have broad public support when used to arrest serial killers or to resolve other murders at cold. It is less clear that the support would be valid if the authorities used it to identify shoplifters or other low-level suspects.

Any restrictions on the use of technology would be better provided by lawmakers, he said.

"If you are going to make it impossible for people to participate in these services or make their data available to the police, or if you are going to limit the companies' ability to offer these services, it is best to remain a legislative branch," said Fan.

GEDmatch itself has recently changed its policy to require people to join if they want the forces of order to have access to their DNA profile. This has closed over a million profiles to the forces of order. 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 from Victoria, seeing the serious crimes solved is worth the potential cost of privacy. He remembers his sister as a compassionate young woman and called to identify his body as "the darkest of days".

"For the computing power and DNA technology to move forward together to make this kind of thing possible, it was fantastic," he said.

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