How at-home DNA tests helped solve this 30-year-old murder


JUDY WOODRUFF: So far this year, law enforcement
has identified over 70 suspects using a new technique called genetic genealogy. This is the same tool that detectives in California
last year used to identify the so-called Golden State Killer. In the first of two stories, William Brangham
explains how this tool works and why it’s raised serious privacy concerns. It begins with the murder of a young couple
in Washington state, a case that became the first ever genetic genealogy case to go to
trial. This is part of our Leading Edge series on
science and technology. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In 1987, under the High
Bridge in rural Washington state, a young man named Jay Cook was found murdered. His girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg, was
found in the woods 60 miles away. She’d been raped and murdered. The only piece of evidence was semen from
an unknown man found on Tanya’s clothes. But it didn’t match anyone, even after police
DNA databases were developed in the following years. Eventually, the case went cold. But 18 years later, Snohomish County Detective
James Scharf picked up the case. He turned to the public for new leads. JAMES SCHARF, Snohomish County Police Detective:
There is a green backpack that the person might have had, a black jacket and a Minolta
camera. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But still nothing. JAMES SCHARF: These were totally innocent
kids, 20 and 18 years old. So this was a case that I really wanted to
solve. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But the person who would
eventually help crack the case wasn’t in law enforcement at all. CeCe Moore is what’s known as a genetic genealogist,
someone who helps people trace their family ancestry. CECE MOORE, Chief Genetic Genealogist, Parabon
NanoLabs: By about 2012, I think it was starting to kind of bubble to the surface with a few
of us that what we’re doing could have law enforcement applications. But it wasn’t time yet. The databases were too small. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But that was all about to
change when commercial DNA testing suddenly went mainstream. WOMAN: Don’t just give a gift. Give them AncestryDNA. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: DNA testing services, like
Ancestry.com and 23andMe, have exploded in popularity. Its estimated that more than 26 million people
have now used companies like this. The process of testing your DNA is actually
pretty simple. You order the kit online. These each cost about $100 each. And then you just spit some saliva into a
tube like this, you mail it in, and, in a few weeks, you get your DNA reports. As millions of people started getting their
DNA results, many of them copied their data into other public Web sites, so they could
better find distant family members. But CeCe Moore realized this wealth of information
could also be used to help solve cold cases. CECE MOORE: We have two matches at the top
of the list that are both sharing about 3 percent of their DNA with the unknown suspect. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: She demonstrated how she
did it in the Cook/Van Cuylenborg case. She took the unknown suspect’s DNA from that
semen sample and compared it to DNA results in the databases. She found two partial matches, people who
were likely the killer’s two second cousins. CECE MOORE: So, if you share 3 percent of
your DNA with someone, then you are most likely second cousins, which means you share great-grandparents. So I am going to build these trees back to
great-grandparents. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From there, she went back
in time, up the family tree, up to the great-grandparents of those cousins. CECE MOORE: We should find the common ancestor
at this level somewhere with the unknown subject. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From there, moving down
the family tree, she searched public documents and obituaries to find where these two families
converged. This family would likely be the suspect’s
immediate family his, parents and siblings. CECE MOORE: But, from the DNA, we know it’s
a male, and these are daughters. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This was how she identified
the likely culprit. CECE MOORE: This allows me to zero in on just
this one male as the potential suspect. It was a very odd moment to be looking at
the name of the person I believed to be a killer, and know that I was the only person
in the world who probably knew what he had done, other than himself. But this was a very heavy discovery. And I just wanted to quickly get that name
to Detective Scharf and get that off my shoulders. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For Detective Scharf, this
was a huge lead, but not enough to make an arrest. He’d need actual DNA from the suspect to know
for sure. And so a coffee cup discarded by the suspect
was collected by the police and tested. When the results came back, it was a match. JAMES SCHARF: And I got tears in my eyes,
and then I screamed that, yes, we finally got this case solved. It was just such a wonderful feeling. MAN: Yesterday, we took into custody a 55-year-old
SeaTac man who is suspected of the 1987 murders of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This summer, 56-year-old
William Earl Talbott II went on trial for the murder of Jay cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. Talbott pled not guilty, and never took the
stand. His lawyers argued that the presence of Talbott’s
semen at the crime scene could have been from consensual sex. JON SCOTT, Attorney For William Earl Talbott
II: There is evidence consistent with sexual intercourse, but not injuries associated with
assault. She wasn’t bruised or battered. There wasn’t evidence of sexual assault. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The only definitive thing
linking Talbott to the crime was this DNA match. After two days of deliberation, the jury convicted
Talbott of first-degree murder for both Cook and Van Cuylenborg. He was sentenced to life in prison. This was the first ever trial and conviction
on a case cracked open by genetic genealogy. JAMES SCHARF: Without genetic genealogy, this
case never would have been solved. CeCe Moore did in two hours what 20 or 30
cops couldn’t do in 30 years of working on this case. That’s how powerful genetic genealogy is in
solving crimes. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In our next story, we will
explore the deeper privacy implications of this technique and why some are so concerned
about this new crime-fighting tool. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham.

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