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.)
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.
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