On November 18, 1987, Jay Cook and Tanya van Cuylenborg, two young Canadians aged 20 and 18 who had been dating for six months, undertook what would be their first and last trip together. In the golden van of Cook's father, they crossed the border into Washington State. The plan was to buy some things for the Cook business and return the next day. "If Tanya was late, she always called. So, when he did not phone the next night, my wife became worried, "the father said then.
On November 24, her half-naked body was found in a ditch in the forests of Skagit County, north of Seattle. She had been raped and killed by a .38 caliber shot in the back of her neck. Days later, a hundred kilometers away, his body was found. He had been hit with a stone and strangled, he had a package of Camel lights introduced in the mouth. The van was found in a third location. The police threw without success of the few threads that there were.
Thirty years later, on May 17, 2018, the sheriff from Snohomish County, Ty Trenary, made an amazing announcement. They had just arrested William Earl Talbott II, 55, accused of rape and double murder. The new techniques of genetic genealogy provided, once again, a decisive turn in an investigation stuck in a dead end.
"We never lost hope of finding Jay and Tanya's killer," he said. sheriff. "The arrest shows how powerful it can be to combine the new DNA technology with the relentless determination of the detectives."
In the last two years, genealogy websites where people voluntarily enter their genetic data to learn about the origins of their families have led to the arrest of dozens of unsolved murderers in the United States. It is no longer necessary to have a suspect to cross-check your DNA with the one collected at the crime scene. Now this can be entered into databases of private companies, such as GEDmatch or MyHeritage, full of genetic data that last year, according to a study published in the journal Science, they already identified half of the US population.
Experts believe that this technique will reopen many of the more than 100,000 cases of violent crime that accumulate dust in the archives of the country's police stations. An authentic revolution in criminology. And something that raises many ethical and legal questions. Some of these will begin to be addressed this week.
This Monday, in the courts of Snohomish County, is scheduled to start the trial against William Earl Talbott II. It will be the first trial that includes genetic genealogy as a research tool. "The science involved in this process will be hotly contested," prosecutor Craig Matheson acknowledged.
Talbott pleads innocent. Only the DNA of the semen found in Cuylenborg's body and pants links him to the murders. The police always worked with the hypothesis that, in view of certain details of the way he killed Cook, the murderer had already been in jail and it was not his first homicide. Talbott, a 55-year-old former truck driver, has no criminal record.
"The detectives had exhausted all conventional means in the investigation of the case," explained Shari Ireton, spokesperson for the office of the sheriff. But they decided to explore a novel way. Encouraged by a recent turn in a historical case of a serial killer, which was news across the country, they introduced the genetic information of the case on the GEDmatch website, created in 2010 by a retiree interested in genealogy.
At eight o'clock, the page showed two significant coincidences. Two second cousins of the owner of the DNA extracted from the semen. They did not share genetics with each other, so they must have come from the maternal and paternal family. With the help of censuses, civil registers and newspaper archives, they elaborated the genealogical trees of both until finding out where they crossed. They found a single male with that genetic mix. And it turned out that in those years he had lived near where Cook's body was found.
The police located Talbott and watched him, until one day he got rid of a paper cup. The detectives picked it up, extracted a DNA sample and compared it with the one found in Cuylenborg's body. Bingo.
The trial is to Talbott, but also to the future of genetic genealogy in the resolution of crimes. Some critics consider that fundamental rights to privacy and not to suffer an arbitrary invasion are at stake, protected by the fourth amendment of the Constitution. People have put their data on these websites to find relatives or to know their origins. What happens if the police use that information to arrest relatives for crimes they may or may not have committed? Would not it be a test as invalid as those obtained in an illegal register?
After knowing that it was used for police investigations, many GEDmatch users withdrew their profiles. Now, under the terms and conditions of the page, the possibility of the police accessing these data is highlighted in red. And, if the user wishes to allow his DNA to be compared with samples raised by the police, he must expressly select the option. After the initial frightening, many users go back to allow that option.
The police also have their own genetic database. The problem is that it only has DNA from people who have been condemned. Therefore, just as in prisons, certain sectors of the population, such as African-Americans, are dramatically overrepresented. But on websites like GEDmatch the bias, if anything, is the opposite: the people who feed these databases tend to be white, middle class, with no criminal record. And that is reflected in the profile of the people who are being detained thanks to these new techniques.
It is the end of genetic privacy. Until now, DNA was something that was used to confirm if a suspect was guilty. Here, it is part of a DNA and you are looking for a person's name.
Near the golden van, the detectives found rubber surgical gloves. "Leave that behind as a signal to the police not to bother looking for fingerprints, because he had worn gloves," said Detective Robert Gebo of Seattle. "He is confident that nothing will connect him to these crimes." Thirty years later, you may have connected two distant cousins, who just wanted to know more about their families on a website.