Author of letters that taunted family of 1987 slaying victims sought by detectives

EVERETT — The first letters arrived just a week after the bodies of a young Canadian couple were discovered.

The anonymous author claimed that he killed Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. He mailed the letters to the victims’ grieving parents. He wrote of his hatred for Canadians and said the opportunity to kill was “too good to pass up.” He threatened to murder again if he ever got the chance. He taunted police, bragging he’d never be caught.

The 1987 double-slaying remains unsolved.

Homicide detectives recently released new details about the decades-old letters in an effort to identify the writer. Scientists at the state crime lab in Marysville were able to get material from the letters and test for DNA. The genetic evidence shows they were written by the same person. The DNA is that of a man, but doesn’t match any profiles in state and federal offender databases.

Police aren’t convinced that the letter writer killed the couple. Tests recently showed that the DNA profile from the letters doesn’t match other forensic evidence collected at the scene where Van Cuylenborg’s body was found.

But the author remains a suspect and his DNA profile has been entered into a suspect database, Snohomish County sheriff’s cold case detective Jim Scharf said. There is a possibility that he’s an accomplice, Scharf said. More than likely he’s a crackpot, the detective said.

“If he’s not involved, we want to rule him out. Maybe he has some remorse after 23 years, maybe he wants to right his wrong,” Scharf said.

The author won’t face any criminal charges in connection with sending the letters, Scharf said. Detectives just want him to step forward and clear his name so they can focus on finding whoever is responsible for killing the Canadian couple.

Cook, 20, and Van Cuylenborg, 19, had traveled from British Columbia to run an errand for Cook’s father. The couple took a ferry on Nov. 18, 1987 from Bremerton to Seattle, that’s where police believe they crossed paths with the killer.

Investigators suspect the couple was staying in Cook’s gold van near the downtown Seattle store where they planned to pick up a furnace part. They were likely abducted there.

Van Cuylenborg’s body was discovered Nov. 24, 1987 south of Alger in Skagit County. She’d been sexually assaulted and shot to death. Her hands were bound with plastic zip ties. Cook’s body was discovered two days later under High Bridge off Crescent Lake Road in Monroe. He’d been strangled and asphyxiated. Investigators suspect that Cook was slain first.

The killer abandoned Cook’s van in a downtown Bellingham parking lot. Some additional evidence was found under the back porch of a tavern near the city’s bus station, Scharf said.

“Our belief is this guy came prepared with a kit to commit these crimes,” Skagit County sheriff’s detective Tobin Meyer said.

The kit likely contained zip ties, a gun, gloves and other tools. Detectives speculate that the killer kept the kit used in the crimes close by and was highly protective of its contents.

Investigators don’t believe the killer knew Cook or Van Cuylenborg. He probably selected them at random, Meyer said.

“The kit was ready to go and he was planning to do it and he found Tanya and Jay,” the detective said.

Detectives have long speculated that the killer may have committed other murders or rapes.

The slayings made headlines in Washington and Canada. Because so many years have passed, investigators haven’t been able to pin down exactly what details about the slayings were revealed during those initial reports.

A week after the killings the letters began showing up.

The first two were dated Dec. 3, 1987 and postmarked in Seattle. A dozen others followed about once a month for a year. They were postmarked from Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Canada. The writer sent Hallmark greeting cards with pictures of teddy bears and kittens for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas. Sometimes the cards were signed “Tanya” or “Jay.” He also sent letters to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a British Columbia newspaper.

Detectives wonder if the author was a transient who travelled along the West Coast. They also say it’s possible the letter writer is Canadian. There is some grammar and punctuation in the letters that would indicate that he was educated in Canada, Scharf said. Expressions such as “Greetings and Salutations,” and “Hallelujah Bloody Jesus,” stand out.

Over the years the slayings have been featured on TV sleuth shows. The case also is part of the county’s first deck of cold-case playing cards.

Scientists at the Washington State Patrol crime lab in Marysville recently told detectives they were able to collect and test DNA from the 23-year-old letters.

If items have been stored properly, it’s not unusual for the scientist to find DNA preserved on the evidence, said David Northrop, acting manager at the lab.

“The way things were collected and stored even 30 to 40 years ago allowed for evidence to be preserved,” he said.

Police say they are having more evidence tested at the lab. In the meantime they are asking the letter writer to call them.

To verify that he is the person who wrote they letters, they’re asking him to tell them the name of the lake where he said he left his car when he committed the murders.

“We want to open the lines of communication with him,” Scharf said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

You can help

Anyone with information about the 1987 slayings of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg or letters sent to the victims’ families in 1987 and 1988, is asked to call the sheriff’s tip line at 425-388-3845 or Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound at 800-222-8477.

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