EVERETT — The courtroom lights dimmed Friday so the jury could see portraits of the young Canadian couple.
They saw the copper Ford Club Wagon that Jay Cook drove to Seattle with his girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg, from their hometown on Vancouver Island.
Then they saw photos of the bodies discarded in rural Snohomish and Skagit counties in November 1987.
Attorneys spent about a half-hour each on opening statements Friday in the trial of William Talbott II, in front of a packed courtroom. The double-murder trial has been 31 years in the making, a case with many false leads over the years, and no arrest until May 2018.
“This is a case about two lives lost far too young, and two extremely violent acts,” deputy prosecutor Justin Harleman told the jury. “The evidence in this case will show you that there is only one reasonably possible perpetrator of those acts.”
Talbott, 56, of SeaTac, had been linked to the killings through a groundbreaking new approach to forensic DNA evidence, known as genetic genealogy. A genealogist was able to build the suspect’s family tree when a private lab uploaded crime scene DNA onto a public ancestry site. An apparent match was confirmed through DNA on a discarded paper cup, and later, a swab from Talbott’s cheek, according to a prosecutors’ trial brief.
The defense argued Friday that semen found on the hem of Van Cuylenborg’s pants does not explain where she had been or who had hurt her, before she was discovered shot with a .380-caliber bullet, off a rural road north of Mount Vernon.
Nor does it show exactly when or why Cook was beaten with rocks, strangled with twine, and left half-covered by a blue blanket in bushes under the High Bridge, a span across the Snoqualmie River south of Monroe.
Harleman gave a brief biography of the young couple, who had been dating a few months, and how they were “a little naive about life.” Cook was the kind of person, the attorney said, who would pull over to help a stranger on the roadside.
Sometimes he’d run errands for his father’s business. On the trip in 1987, he was picking up furnace parts. He had enough cash for a hotel, but it appeared their plan was to stay the night outside Gensco in south Seattle, Harleman said. The business is along a route where Talbott, a truck driver, had made deliveries.
Talbott’s parents lived about seven miles southwest of High Bridge.
The last trace of the couple alive was a Seattle-Bremerton ferry ticket they’d bought for a 10:35 p.m. crossing Nov. 18, 1987.
Her body was found almost a week later, by someone picking up cans on the roadside. She was 18.
Bird hunters discovered Cook’s body two days later. He was 20.
Prosecutors don’t know what happened to the couple in the days between when they went missing and when they were found, defense attorney Jon Scott said.
“The evidence doesn’t tell us anything,” Scott said. “We know at some point during that time, they were killed. We don’t know how. We know the means of their death, but we don’t know context.”
The defense gave a biography of the defendant and his work history: industry jobs, construction jobs, driving jobs.
“My client William Talbott has led a quiet, unremarkable life,” Scott said. “Blue-collar guy, he’s been a blue-collar guy his whole life. … He’s just lived and worked, and that’s all he’s done.”
One of the first witnesses called to the stand was Tanya’s brother, John Van Cuylenborg. He’s an attorney in Canada.
He recalled his sister came to visit him for a few days in September 1987, when he was studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Nothing seemed odd or concerning about her. Nothing suggested she was troubled, or breaking rules, or taking risks, her brother said.
At the time, his sister had just graduated from high school. She hoped to one day be a veterinarian.
“Her maturity and demeanor were giving me more confidence than anything else,” John Van Cuylenborg said. “It seemed she was becoming a very confident young person, and it was great to see her growing that way.”
She told him she’d started dating Cook, who stood a gangly 6-foot-4. His dream was to be a marine biologist. At the time, Cook had no steady job. That’s why he was the one tasked with driving the family van to Seattle, to complete a $758 purchase.
On the witness stand, Cook’s sister, Laura Baanstra, recalled she’d skipped school on Nov. 18, 1987. She hid in her bedroom, and when she awoke, it was just her and Cook at home.
She heated up a fancy leftover sandwich from a restaurant and — after he kept saying how good it smelled — she cut it in half and shared it. She watched him drive off.
“The family … tradition is to stand in the window until they’re down the street, so we waved goodbye, and that was it,” she said.
He never came home.
“My dad phoned me on Thursday, Nov. 19, to ask me if I’d heard from Tanya, if she’d phoned me, or come to Vancouver, or been in contact with me at all,” John Van Cuylenborg said.
It was the first he’d heard that she wasn’t in Saanich.
Prosecutors called to the stand Linda Cunningham, a former constable with the Saanich Police Department. It had been so long ago, she said, that she didn’t recall she’d played a small part in the investigation — until she was reminded by a subpoena.
She’d visited the Van Cuylenborg family on Nov. 22, 1987, when the couple was still missing. She testified Tanya hadn’t brought much with her, only her clothes and $60 in Canadian cash.
John Van Cuylenborg traveled to the Seattle area with his father and relatives to post missing person flyers, and to talk with as many police departments as possible along the way.
At first, some officers wondered if it could just be a couple of young adults who decided to stay out for an extra night or two of fun. But Tanya was not the kind of person to not check in, he said.
At one point, John said, their father hired a plane to help the search — “looking for some sort of clues, maybe an abandoned vehicle somewhere, or stuck on a mountain pass, if they had decided to drive toward eastern Washington, just desperate to find some answer, or some clue.”
The Cook family spent the next days glued to the news.
The defense noted that, when the bodies were found, they’d been killed in very different ways.
Van Cuylenborg had been shot in the head from close range.
Cook suffered. He’d been bludgeoned on his head with rocks and strangled with a ligature tied to a pair of dog collars. A pack of Camel cigarettes had been shoved down his throat.
His sister, Baanstra, said her brother was not aggressive.
“He would’ve been the opposite of that,” she said. “One time I was in a fight in a party at the beach, and (Cook) came over and put his arm around me from behind and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ He wasn’t the type to get in there and start a fight, or want to have anything to do with a fight.”
Over the years, Baanstra’s memories of Tanya have evaporated.
“I remember her,” she said. “It’s hard to explain. I remember her, I just don’t remember a specific time of meeting her. But I know I’ve met her. I can hear her voice. She was a shy, quiet girl. You know, real wholesome, sweet. ”
The trial is expected to last until the end of June.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.