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In 2019, American law enforcement agencies have identified over 70 suspects using a new technique called genetic genealogy, which California detectives leveraged in 2018 to identify the Golden State Killer. In the first of a two-part series, William Brangham shares the story of the first genetic genealogy case to go to trial — and how the science behind it solved a 32-year-old double murder.
So far this year, law enforcement has identified over 70 suspects using a new technique called genetic genealogy.
This is the same tool that detectives in California last year used to identify the so-called Golden State Killer.
In the first of two stories, William Brangham explains how this tool works and why it's raised serious privacy concerns.
It begins with the murder of a young couple in Washington state, a case that became the first ever genetic genealogy case to go to trial.
This is part of our Leading Edge series on science and technology.
In 1987, under the High Bridge in rural Washington state, a young man named Jay Cook was found murdered. His girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg, was found in the woods 60 miles away. She'd been raped and murdered.
The only piece of evidence was semen from an unknown man found on Tanya's clothes. But it didn't match anyone, even after police DNA databases were developed in the following years. Eventually, the case went cold.
But 18 years later, Snohomish County Detective James Scharf picked up the case. He turned to the public for new leads.
There is a green backpack that the person might have had, a black jacket and a Minolta camera.
But still nothing.
These were totally innocent kids, 20 and 18 years old. So this was a case that I really wanted to solve.
But the person who would eventually help crack the case wasn't in law enforcement at all. CeCe Moore is what's known as a genetic genealogist, someone who helps people trace their family ancestry.
By about 2012, I think it was starting to kind of bubble to the surface with a few of us that what we're doing could have law enforcement applications. But it wasn't time yet. The databases were too small.
But that was all about to change when commercial DNA testing suddenly went mainstream.
Don't just give a gift. Give them AncestryDNA.
DNA testing services, like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, have exploded in popularity. Its estimated that more than 26 million people have now used companies like this.
The process of testing your DNA is actually pretty simple. You order the kit online. These each cost about $100 each. And then you just spit some saliva into a tube like this, you mail it in, and, in a few weeks, you get your DNA reports.
As millions of people started getting their DNA results, many of them copied their data into other public websites, so they could better find distant family members.
But CeCe Moore realized this wealth of information could also be used to help solve cold cases.
We have two matches at the top of the list that are both sharing about 3 percent of their DNA with the unknown suspect.
She demonstrated how she did it in the Cook/Van Cuylenborg case. She took the unknown suspect's DNA from that semen sample and compared it to DNA results in the databases. She found two partial matches, people who were likely the killer's two second cousins.
So, if you share 3 percent of your DNA with someone, then you are most likely second cousins, which means you share great-grandparents. So I am going to build these trees back to great-grandparents.
From there, she went back in time, up the family tree, up to the great-grandparents of those cousins.
We should find the common ancestor at this level somewhere with the unknown subject.
From there, moving down the family tree, she searched public documents and obituaries to find where these two families converged.
This family would likely be the suspect's immediate family his, parents and siblings.
But, from the DNA, we know it's a male, and these are daughters.
This was how she identified the likely culprit.
This allows me to zero in on just this one male as the potential suspect.
It was a very odd moment to be looking at the name of the person I believed to be a killer, and know that I was the only person in the world who probably knew what he had done, other than himself. But this was a very heavy discovery. And I just wanted to quickly get that name to Detective Scharf and get that off my shoulders.
For Detective Scharf, this was a huge lead, but not enough to make an arrest. He'd need actual DNA from the suspect to know for sure.
And so a coffee cup discarded by the suspect was collected by the police and tested. When the results came back, it was a match.
And I got tears in my eyes, and then I screamed that, yes, we finally got this case solved. It was just such a wonderful feeling.
Yesterday, we took into custody a 55-year-old SeaTac man who is suspected of the 1987 murders of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg.
This summer, 56-year-old William Earl Talbott II went on trial for the murder of Jay cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. Talbott pled not guilty, and never took the stand. His lawyers argued that the presence of Talbott's semen at the crime scene could have been from consensual sex.
There is evidence consistent with sexual intercourse, but not injuries associated with assault. She wasn't bruised or battered. There wasn't evidence of sexual assault.
The only definitive thing linking Talbott to the crime was this DNA match. After two days of deliberation, the jury convicted Talbott of first-degree murder for both Cook and Van Cuylenborg.
He was sentenced to life in prison. This was the first ever trial and conviction on a case cracked open by genetic genealogy.
Without genetic genealogy, this case never would have been solved. CeCe Moore did in two hours what 20 or 30 cops couldn't do in 30 years of working on this case. That's how powerful genetic genealogy is in solving crimes.
In our next story, we will explore the deeper privacy implications of this technique and why some are so concerned about this new crime-fighting tool.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Nsikan Akpan is the digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
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