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On a clear day, from the middle of a well-trafficked stretch of reinforced concrete that spans the Snoqualmie River, you can just make out the hulking, ice-covered flanks of Mount Rainier. Locals bring their dogs here to the “High Bridge” to swim on their lunch breaks; high school kids in oversized hoodies pick their way through the raspberry thickets looking for a shady spot to light up. There are no memorials, no plastic flowers, no signs to mark the occasion when, nearly 32 years ago, somebody dumped the body of a young man at the base of this bridge, half-wrapped in a powder blue blanket, plastic cords still cutting into his neck, and a pack of Camel Lights shoved down his throat.
Jay Cook’s battered, barely 21-year-old body was discovered on Thanksgiving Day, 1987, two days after his 17-year-old girlfriend Tanya Van Cuylenborg was found dead in a ditch one county over. She had been shot in the head and was believed to have been sexually assaulted. The young Canadian couple had been reported missing for nearly a week, after they failed to return to their home on Vancouver Island, British Columbia from an overnight errand to buy furnace parts in Seattle. Despite investigating hundreds of leads and subjecting crime scene samples to new DNA technologies as they arrived in the ’90s and 2000s, police never arrested any suspects. For more than three decades the case went unsolved.
Then, in May of last year, Washington officials announced a breakthrough. Snohomish County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Scharf stood at a press conference podium and told the assembled reporters they had at long last arrested a suspect, a balding, middle-aged man who had grown up in the area named William Earl Talbott II. “He was never on any list law enforcement had, there was never a tip providing his name,” said Scharf. “If it hadn’t been for genetic genealogy, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
At the time, the statement probably didn’t mean much to most people beyond the Cook and Van Cuylenborg families. Talbott, who would later plead not guilty, was only the second person to be fingered using a new forensic technique known as genetic genealogy. It involves creating DNA profiles like the kind you’d get through 23andMe or Ancestry from crime scene samples and looking through public genealogy websites for matches, which could surface family members that lead to new suspects. The first, a California man accused of being the notorious Golden State Killer, had been taken into police custody mere weeks before.
Since then, the technique has been used to help identify suspects in at least 50 cases, even as critics warn it could mean the end of genetic privacy. Police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have formed their own dedicated family tree-building units, multiple companies have launched lucrative genetic genealogy services, and it’s all happening with no federal or state laws to rein it in. Now the Talbott case, which begins this week, will be the first to put genetic genealogy on trial.
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