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A paper cup, a family tree lead to arrest in 1987 murder of young couple

Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and Jay Cook, 20 (File photo)

EVERETT, Wash. -- Thirty years after the murders of a young Canadian couple, scientific DNA advances, a family tree and a paper cup have led to an arrest in the case.

55 year-old William Earl Talbott II of Sea Tac was arrested Thursday in Seattle. He has been charged in Skagit County District Court with first-degree murder in the death of Tanya Van Cuylenborg. Officials say he may also be charged in the death of Jay Cook.

Bail was set at $2 million on Friday for Talbott, a truck driver. A not guilty plea was entered for him.

Lee Cook, Jay Cook's mother, called the news of an arrest bittersweet.

"On the one hand we're a little closer to closure. On the other, we're still at a loss. And I don't have my only son, Jay."

Van Cuylenborg's older brother, John, reminded people at a news conference of the sort of people his sister and Cook were.

"They deserve justice to be done. They were gentile souls, caring and trusting, and they were betrayed."

Authorities said the arrest was made through genetic genealogy.

"The suspect's DNA was collected in 1987 at the scene of Tanya's murder. It was used to identify his ancestors which in turn led us to the identification of Talbott," said Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary.

"We used a database called GEDmatch. This is the same database used in the Golden State Killer investigation," Steve Armentrout, the co-founder of Parabon Nanolabs.

"It's genetic genealogy that was the key tool that got this case resolved. Had law enforcement never had access to genetic genealogy, I don’t believe this case would ever be solved," said Cold Case detective Jim Scharf with Snohomish County Sheriff's Department.

DNA samples were found on Tanya Van Cuylenborg's body and at the crime scene in 1987, but no immediate matches were found.

Decades later, in 2017, the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office contacted Parabon NanoLabs in, Reston, Virginia. Its work allowed sketches to be made from the DNA about what the killer might look like. Those sketches were released last month. Investigators say they got about 100 tips from those sketches but nothing that led to the suspected killer.

RELATED | Advances in DNA technology give law enforcement hope for solving cold cases

Later, the company focused on Talbott after researching a family tree through the DNA, court documents say.

Investigators got a DNA sample of Talbott from a paper cup on May 8, 2018. The cup was found near his work truck on West Marginal Way at South Spokane Street, court documents say.

Officers had been following him and collected the cup.

Court documents say the DNA from the cup matched the samples taken from Van Cuylenborg's body.

The arrest is the first resulting from Parabon's genetic genealogy service.

"Looking to use these additional DNA techniques and have them applied to this case is very deserving of credit," said John Van Cuylenborg.

"What an amazing world we live in today. Science and good old-fashioned police work is making it harder and harder for these disturbed individuals to hide in the shadows," said Laura Baanstra, Tanya Van Cuylenborg's sister.

Investigators are still looking for more information in the case including:

-- People who know about Talbott's activities in 1987 and 1988

-- People who saw Talbott with the Cook family van. The couple drove a 1977 Ford Club wagon to Washington state. It was later found abandoned in Bellingham on Nov. 25, 1987.


-- Saw Talbott with a 35mm Minolta camera. Van Cuylenborg had the camera when she was killed. The camera's lens was traced to a Portland pawn shop in 1990. The camera's body is still missing.


-- Have information whether Talbott had a light-blue blanket or know where it might have come from. Cook's body was found wrapped in a blanket.

Authorities ask that if you can provide information in this case, then call the tip line of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office at 425-388-3845.

Van Cuylenborg, 18, and Cook, 20, were found dead in two separate locations in Western Washington after they failed to return home from a visit to the Seattle area.

According to police, Van Cuylenborg and Cook left their Victoria, B.C., homes on Nov. 18, 1987, for an overnight trip to Seattle. They were driving a brown 1977 Ford van, and took the ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Angeles.

The purpose of the trip was to buy furnace parts for Cooks' family business. The couple planned to sleep in the van in Seattle's SoDo district overnight, purchase the furnace parts the next morning and then travel back to Canada.

After arriving in Washington state, Van Cuylenborg and Cook drove the van to Bremerton and took the ferry to Seattle. They were never seen alive again after that.

When the couple failed to return home, their families filed a missing persons report two days later.

On Nov. 24, a man walking on an isolated road in Skagit County discovered Van Cuylenborg’s half-naked body in a roadside ditch along Carsons Creek Road between Old Highway 99 and Prairie Road. She had been sexually assaulted, bound with plastic ties and shot in the back of the head with a .380 caliber bullet.

On Nov. 25, Van Cuylenborg's wallet and keys, along with a pair of surgical gloves and a half-empty box of .380 ammunition, were found discarded under the back porch of a tavern in Bellingham.

The locked van was found about a block east of the tavern, next to the Greyhound bus station. Inside the van were plastic ties of the same type used to bind Van Cuylenborg and plastic gloves. A witness said the van had been parked there since Nov. 21.

Cook’s battered body was found on Nov. 26 - Thanksgiving Day - under a tattered blue blanket by the side of the High Bridge on Crescent Lake Road about three-quarters of a mile west of the Washington State Reformatory's Honor Farm near Monroe in Snohomish County. He had been beaten and strangled, and the same type of plastic ties were found there.

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