Opening statements heard in case of young B.C. couple killed outside Seattle in 1987
More than 30 years after a Vancouver Island couple were found murdered in Washington state, the man accused in the one-time cold case is standing trial.
But the opening statements delivered Friday in Everett, Wash., made clear that the case against William Earl Talbott hinges on the novel way in which he was captured and charged last year for the deaths of 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Jay Cook.
Washington state detectives said they used genetic genealogy to identify Talbott, a 56-year-old trucker, as the person whose DNA was found on the clothing of one of the victims.
WATCH: (Aired May 18) Washington cold case arrest: family reaction
The practice involves identifying suspects by entering crime-scene DNA profiles into public databases that people have used for years to discover their ancestral heritage.
Before outlining how Talbott became the prime suspect, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Justin Harelman detailed Van Cuylenborg and Cook’s mysterious final days.
The couple left their hometown of Saanich, outside Victoria, for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to Seattle in November 1987.
When they didn’t return, their families began a frantic search for them, including renting a plane to try to spot the copper-colored Ford van they had been driving.
About a week later, Van Cuylenborg’s body was found down an embankment in rural Skagit County, north of Seattle. She was naked from the waist down and had been shot in the back of the head.
Hunters found Cook dead two days later in brush near a bridge over the Snoqualmie River in Monroe, Wash., nearly 100 kilometres from where his girlfriend was discovered. He had been beaten with rocks and strangled with twine and two red dog collars, authorities said.
The couple’s van was found in Bellingham, Wash., near a bus station. Van Cuylenborg’s pants were in it; investigators found semen on the hem, and said it matched samples found on her body.
Detectives investigated hundreds of leads in the ensuing decades and tested the DNA against criminal databases, to no avail.
A break in the case
But last year, investigators turned to Parabon Labs in Reston, Va., whose genealogists used the public database GEDmatch to find distant cousins of the person who left the DNA.
The results concluded the source must be a male child of William and Patricia Talbott, of Monroe.
“Mr. and Mrs. Talbott had three daughters and one son. That one son was William Talbott,” Harelman told the court.
WATCH: (Aired May 18, 2018) Washington state man arrested in cold case murders of B.C. couple
Talbott was 24-years-old at the time of Van Cuylenborg and Cook’s murders and lived 11 km from where Cook’s body was found, he added.
Harleman told jurors that once Talbott became a suspect, investigators tailed him, saw him discard a coffee cup, and then tested the DNA from the cup, confirming it matched evidence from the crime.
Genetic genealogy, he said, “simply gave law enforcement a tip, like any other tip that they follow up on.”
It’s also taken off as an investigative tool since authorities in California used it last year to arrest and charge Joseph James DeAngelo, who’s suspected of being the infamous Golden State Killer responsible for 13 murders and nearly 50 rapes during the 1970s and 1980s.
More than 60 cold case suspects have been identified across the U.S. using genetic genealogy since then, including Talbott, who was one of the first.
The method has been questioned by privacy advocates who are concerned about whether it violates the suspects’ rights, arguing its use by law enforcement should be restricted.
No explanation from defence
In his own opening statements, defence lawyer Jon Scott didn’t attempt to challenge how detectives came to believe Talbott was the suspect.
Instead, he said the presence of the DNA doesn’t make his client a killer, but wouldn’t explain how Talbott’s DNA ended up on Van Cuylenborg’s clothing.
He also said the evidence doesn’t explain how the couple spent their final days or with whom.
Scott described his client as a “blue-collar guy” who had worked in construction and as a truck driver and lived a “quiet, unremarkable life.”
“He’s just lived and worked, and that’s all he’s done,” Scott said.
Relatives of both victims were present for the start of the trial, which is expected to last four weeks.
—With files from the Associated Press
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