Possible likenesses of the killer of a young Vancouver Island couple based on DNA analysis. From left: age 25, age 45 and age 65 (Parabon NanoLabs)

Possible likenesses of the killer of a young Vancouver Island couple based on DNA analysis. From left: age 25, age 45 and age 65 (Parabon NanoLabs)

DNA analysis conjures the possible face of a 1987 killer

Police hope it breaks open the cold case of a Canadian couple whose bodies were found in Washington.

EVERETT — Thirty years ago, the double-murder of young Vancouver Island couple Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg left a trail of clues that circled Puget Sound.

The killer’s identity has baffled police in two countries for three decades. Now, for the first time, detectives might have caught a glimpse of his face, and they’re sharing it with the public.

Advances in DNA forensic technology helped experts to build three composite images of the suspect’s likely appearance, an estimate of what he would look like at ages 25, 45 and 65. He has fair skin, hazel eyes, freckles and reddish-blond hair, in pictures unmasked Wednesday by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

The faces are educated guesses, based on genetic makeup of DNA found on crime scene evidence. They are not photos. The technology can’t reveal the suspect’s age, weight, haircut, facial hair, scars or tattoos. But detectives hope the images bear enough of a resemblance to trigger someone’s memory.

The families of Cook and Van Cuylenborg announced the reward for a tip leading to the killer — whether he is dead or alive — will be raised to $50,000. The offer expires Dec. 31.

Tips can be directed to the sheriff’s office at 425-388-3845. Detectives ask people to give their names, so police can ask followup questions.

A trip around the Sound

Cook, 20, and his girlfriend, Van Cuylenborg, 18, were last seen alive Nov. 18, 1987. They were outgoing and perhaps a little naive, Snohomish County cold-case detective Jim Scharf said.

“The family said Jay was the type of person who would give a hitchhiker a ride if they needed one,” Scharf said.

Laura Baanstra (center), a sister of 1987 homicide victim Jay Cook, speaks at a news conference in Everett on Wednesday. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Laura Baanstra (center), a sister of 1987 homicide victim Jay Cook, speaks at a news conference in Everett on Wednesday. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Laura Baanstra recalled Cook hadn’t eaten anything that day at their home in Saanich, British Columbia. She was having a sandwich, and she reluctantly gave her brother a piece of it when he asked. He waved goodbye to her as he drove off in a bronze 1977 Ford Club Wagon, to pick up his girlfriend.

“When your brother, or sister, or daughter, or a loved one walks out the door, you have no way to know that it’s the last time you’re going to see them,” Cook’s sister said.

He planned to retrieve parts for a furnace for his father from Gensco, a business in the industrial SoDo District of Seattle. The couple boarded the Coho ferry in Victoria.

They arrived in Port Angeles at 4 p.m., with an hour of daylight left. They headed southeast on Highway 101, skipped a turnoff for the Hood Canal Bridge and continued for miles on 101 into Hoodsport, where they bought snacks at a deli.

The couple made another pit stop at Ben’s Deli in Allyn, near the south end of the Kitsap Peninsula. Clerks later reported to police they asked for directions to Bremerton. The clerks did not see a third person with them, according to the sheriff’s office. The couple bought a ticket for the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle at 10:16 p.m. Days later the receipt was found in the van.

“It’s always been presumed that they did make it onto the ferry,” Scharf said. “That was the last documented evidence of where they had been.”

It’s an hour-long ride. They might have met someone on the boat or in Seattle, but police have struggled to pinpoint where. Perhaps they needed to stop for directions again, and then were abducted, Scharf said. Detectives know the couple never showed up at Gensco to pick up the money-ordered parts.

The murders

Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, of Vancouver Island, were found slain in Washington in 1987.

Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, of Vancouver Island, were found slain in Washington in 1987.

Van Cuylenborg’s partly clothed body was found six days later, Nov. 24, 1987, about 20 yards off Parson Creek Road in Skagit County. She had been restrained with zip ties, raped and shot in the back of the head with a .380-caliber pistol.

Jennifer Sheahan-Lee, then an 18-year-old volunteer with search and rescue, was tasked with looking for evidence near the body. She recalled it was a typical windy and rainy Pacific Northwest day, as the team sifted through wet dead leaves and foliage in search of clues about a half-mile west of Prairie Road. She found the shell casing for a bullet.

“It was right before Thanksgiving, just days before,” Sheahan-Lee said. “This family was never going to celebrate a holiday with their family member again. We just felt the drive to give them some answers.”

In a sense, she’s still searching. Sheahan-Lee is now a Skagit County sheriff’s sergeant who oversees the local detective in charge of the case.

“It’s amazing to think that 30 years later that we’re still working this case, with little evidence … to go on,” she said.

Van Cuylenborg’s wallet, her ID, the keys to the van, a pair of surgical gloves and a box of .380-caliber ammo were found Nov. 25, 1987, under the back porch of a tavern, Essie’s, that has since closed in downtown Bellingham. It was next door to Rumors Cabaret. The Ford was parked a block east, by the old location of a Greyhound bus station.

A witness recalled the van hadn’t moved for at least four days in the Blue Diamond lot. Van Cuylenborg’s clothes were in the vehicle. Police recovered critical DNA evidence from the van.

The next day, Thanksgiving 1987, the body of Jay Cook was discovered in Snohomish County. Passersby found him dead under the High Bridge on the Snoqualmie River, southwest of Monroe.

Cook had probably been killed first, Scharf said, as the van motored north through Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties. The driver might have taken Highway 9, a less visible route than I-5. One tip suggested the van was seen in Bryant, near Arlington, while Cook and Van Cuylenborg were still missing.

Cook’s body had been covered with a blue blanket that didn’t belong to the couple. He had been beaten with a rock and strangled with braided twine, Scharf said. The twine appeared to have been part of the bedding they brought with them for the trip. Zip ties were found near Cook, at the site off Crescent Lake Road.

The scene was less than a mile from a state prison honor farm, a dairy farm for low-risk inmates. Sometimes prisoners would sneak out to meet girlfriends or buy drugs at a spot by the bridge, said Scharf, who used to patrol the area. It led police to wonder if the killer might have spent time in prison. But DNA databases for prisoners only go back so far.

A 30-year investigation

Over the years, the DNA of the suspect has sat waiting for a match in the federal CODIS database and its equivalent in Canada. There has never been a hit from a new felon or an unsolved case.

Scharf suspects the murderer carried a backpack with tools for killing — zip ties, a gun, gloves — as he hunted for victims. Serial killers who were known to be active in the Pacific Northwest at the time have been ruled out by DNA.

Tips poured in when the case aired on the television show “Unsolved Mysteries” in the late ’80s. About 350 names made up a list of possible suspects. Most have been ruled out. A few remain.

“It’s something that you just never give up on,” Scharf said. He has been assigned to the case for 12 years.

Some breakthroughs took decades to develop. A week after the deaths, the families of the victims started receiving horrifying letters from someone who claimed to be the killer. Scharf traced them in 2010 to a homeless man living in Western Washington. He explained that he’d fixated on the case at a time in his life when he was angry at Canadians. His DNA didn’t match the killer’s. He was crossed off the list.

Snohomish County cold case detective Jim Scharf (left) presents new images of a potential suspect in the unsolved 1987 murder of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg during a news conference in Everett on Wednesday. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Snohomish County cold case detective Jim Scharf (left) presents new images of a potential suspect in the unsolved 1987 murder of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg during a news conference in Everett on Wednesday. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

With so many leads exhausted, this year the sheriff’s office turned to Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company that uses DNA to build digital faces of people in unsolved killings or unidentified remains. It’s the first time the county has made use of the technology.

About 150 cases in three years have been processed by the DNA phenotyping software known as Snapshot, Dr. Ellen Greytak said. Parabon’s analysis can rule out certain traits, narrowing the pool of suspects. In this case, the experts are more than 90 percent sure the suspect’s ancestry is northern European and that he has fair skin. The man had the gene for male pattern baldness.

The tool has helped to solve cases up to 25 years old, Greytak said. They hope a resolution for these killings will set a new record.

Meanwhile, Scharf and other investigators also are looking for more traditional ways of following the killer’s tracks.

When the van was found, it was missing Cook’s green canvas backpack, his black ski jacket and a 35 mm Minolta X-700 camera that belonged to Van Cuylenborg. The camera had the serial number 2067048. Its lens was recovered in 1990 at a pawn shop in Portland, Oregon. Apparently the lens had changed hands several times, but the body of the camera wasn’t found.

Detectives would like to speak with anyone who noticed a person who suddenly acquired that kind of camera and the other items in the late ’80s.

Scharf also would like to speak with anyone who worked at E.A. Nord Door in 1974, on the Everett waterfront. He says there is a possible connection, something he had not shared until now.

Both families still hold onto hope.

Cook’s sister stood alongside three giant posters of the digital faces at the news conference Wednesday. Without glancing to her left, she said she hadn’t been able to look at the man’s face yet.

At one point Cook’s brother-in-law, Gary Baanstra, stepped in to help his wife answer questions from about 20 journalists from the United States and Canada. He said they have tried to focus on their best memories of Jay.

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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Traffic idles while waiting for the lights to change along 33rd Avenue West on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood seeks solutions to Costco traffic boondoggle

Let’s take a look at the troublesome intersection of 33rd Avenue W and 30th Place W, as Lynnwood weighs options for better traffic flow.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Oso man gets 1 year of probation for killing abusive father

Prosecutors and defense agreed on zero days in jail, citing documented abuse Garner Melum suffered at his father’s hands.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin steps back and takes in a standing ovation after delivering the State of the City Address on Thursday, March 21, 2024, at the Everett Mall in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
In meeting, Everett mayor confirms Topgolf, Chicken N Pickle rumors

This month, the mayor confirmed she was hopeful Topgolf “would be a fantastic new entertainment partner located right next to the cinemas.”

Alan Edward Dean, convicted of the 1993 murder of Melissa Lee, professes his innocence in the courtroom during his sentencing Wednesday, April 24, 2024, at Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Bothell man gets 26 years in cold case murder of Melissa Lee, 15

“I’m innocent, not guilty. … They planted that DNA. I’ve been framed,” said Alan Edward Dean, as he was sentenced for the 1993 murder.

FILE - A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle, Sept. 30, 2020. Boeing said Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, that it took more than 200 net orders for passenger airplanes in December and finished 2022 with its best year since 2018, which was before two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max jet and a pandemic that choked off demand for new planes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing’s $3.9B cash burn adds urgency to revival plan

Boeing’s first three months of the year have been overshadowed by the fallout from a near-catastrophic incident in January.

Police respond to a wrong way crash Thursday night on Highway 525 in Lynnwood after a police chase. (Photo provided by Washington State Department of Transportation)
Bail set at $2M in wrong-way crash that killed Lynnwood woman, 83

The Kenmore man, 37, fled police, crashed into a GMC Yukon and killed Trudy Slanger on Highway 525, according to court papers.

A voter turns in a ballot on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, outside the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
On fourth try, Arlington Heights voters overwhelmingly pass fire levy

Meanwhile, in another ballot that gave North County voters deja vu, Lakewood voters appeared to pass two levies for school funding.

Judge Whitney Rivera, who begins her appointment to Snohomish County Superior Court in May, stands in the Edmonds Municipal Court on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Judge thought her clerk ‘needed more challenge’; now, she’s her successor

Whitney Rivera will be the first judge of Pacific Islander descent to serve on the Snohomish County Superior Court bench.

In this Jan. 4, 2019 photo, workers and other officials gather outside the Sky Valley Education Center school in Monroe, Wash., before going inside to collect samples for testing. The samples were tested for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, as well as dioxins and furans. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several families and teachers claims that officials failed to adequately respond to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the school. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Judge halves $784M for women exposed to Monsanto chemicals at Monroe school

Monsanto lawyers argued “arbitrary and excessive” damages in the Sky Valley Education Center case “cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

Mukilteo Police Chief Andy Illyn and the graphic he created. He is currently attending the 10-week FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. (Photo provided by Andy Illyn)
Help wanted: Unicorns for ‘pure magic’ career with Mukilteo police

“There’s a whole population who would be amazing police officers” but never considered it, the police chief said.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.