1987 slaying of Canadian couple heads to state Supreme Court

Justices granted a motion Wednesday to review William Talbott’s overturned conviction in a landmark forensic genealogy case.

William Talbott II at the Snohomish County Courthouse in 2019 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

William Talbott II at the Snohomish County Courthouse in 2019 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

EVERETT — The state Supreme Court will review a SeaTac trucker’s overturned conviction in a 1987 Snohomish County double homicide.

A trial in State v. William Talbott II led to the first jury conviction in the world where detectives identified the suspect through forensic genealogy — a tool now widely used to crack cold cases through the combined powers of crime scene evidence, genetic research and public family DNA databases.

After weeks of testimony, a Snohomish County jury found Talbott, now 59, guilty of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder for killing young Canadian couple Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg in November 1987.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese gave Talbott the only possible sentence in July 2019: life in prison with no chance of parole.

Talbott’s conviction was overturned in December, when the state Court of Appeals found that a juror had shown “actual bias” when she disclosed she wasn’t sure if she could be fair. Her mother had been the victim of domestic abuse, so if the case recounted evidence of violence against a young woman, she said, “a flood of emotion might come over me … and cloud my judgment.”

The prosecutor responded by asking if she could set aside her emotions and base her verdict on the evidence alone.

“I could try,” the juror said.

She was allowed to serve on the jury.

The Court of Appeals found it tainted the convictions.

Snohomish County prosecutors appealed to the state Supreme Court in January, arguing the appellate court’s ruling conflicted with case law in Washington, citing a state Supreme Court ruling: “a mere possibility of bias is not sufficient to prove actual bias; rather the record must demonstrate that there was a probability of actual bias.”

Meanwhile, Talbott has remained behind bars at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

On Wednesday, justices unanimously granted a motion to hear arguments in the case. Of 42 cases reviewed this week by the state’s highest court, it was one of only two that justices agreed to examine.

“I’m certainly grateful that the Supreme Court decided to grant the petition, and we look forward to defending our case,” Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said Wednesday.

Cook, 20, and Van Cuylenborg, 18, had made a trip from Victoria to Seattle on Nov. 18, 1987, as an errand for Cook’s father, who needed someone to pick up about $750 in furnace parts from a company in south Seattle. The young couple never arrived.

A passerby found Van Cuylenborg’s body on Nov. 24, 1987, off a rural road in Skagit County. She was nude from the waist down, and she had been shot in the back of the head.

Hunters discovered Cook’s body on Thanksgiving Day under a blue blanket, near the High Bridge on the Snoqualmie River, south of Monroe. He’d been beaten around the head and strangled with twine tied to two dog collars.

Tanya Van Cuylenborg (left) and Jay Cook. (Family photos)

Tanya Van Cuylenborg (left) and Jay Cook. (Family photos)

The Cook family’s bronze Ford van was recovered from downtown Bellingham. Inside was a ticket for the Bremerton-Seattle ferry, but no clear signs pointing to the killer. Evidence was, in effect, scattered all around Puget Sound.

Semen stains recovered from two of the crime scenes had long been kept in storage. Cold case detectives at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office renewed their efforts to solve the case in recent years, sending the evidence to Parabon NanoLabs, who extracted a genetic profile.

Through an ancestry database, genetic genealogist CeCe Moore then built family trees of the unknown suspect, based on the DNA. Within hours, she pinpointed the spot where the man’s maternal and paternal family lines intersected: a Woodinville family, the Talbotts, who only had one son.

That son, who went by Bill, was working as a trucker in SeaTac. Police put him under surveillance. One day, a coffee cup fell out of his truck. An officer grabbed it and sent the saliva sample to a crime lab for comparison to the semen’s genetic profile. It came back as an apparent match. Detectives arrested Talbott at his work in 2018.

Throughout the case, Talbott has maintained his innocence.

The novel technique used to identify the suspect has proven controversial due to concerns over privacy and informed consent of those who upload their DNA to sites like GEDMatch, in search of long lost relatives. But the science and ethics of forensic genealogy were not contested at trial, and those issues did not lead to the overturned conviction.

In an earlier appeal, typewritten by Talbott, he contested the evidence in the case.

“Imagine yourself somewhere, anywhere, and you experience a nose bleed, or you cut yourself on something sharp and you leave some blood, or other sources of DNA behind,” he wrote. “Later, maybe the same day, maybe days later, and unknown to you, there is a violent crime committed at the vary (sic) same spot, based on Snohomish County’s way of thinking, the ONLY POSSIBLE SUSPECT, is the source of that blood, regardless of all other evidence, or lack of.”

Talbott declined to testify in 2019.

If the Court of Appeals ruling stands, he would still face a new trial.

One of the defense attorneys who worked on the case, Jon Scott, was appointed to serve as a Snohomish County Superior Court judge in April.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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