EVERETT — For a year after he was gone, Jay Cook’s mother still set his place at the table at their home on Vancouver Island.
Sometimes, it was like she could hear his big, 6-foot-4 frame bounding up the back steps, she said.
Lee Cook waited 30 years for the news that police had caught the man who murdered Jay and his girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg, in 1987.
“So how could we have known today would be so bittersweet?” she said Friday at a news conference here announcing that the suspected killer was finally behind bars. On one hand, there are answers. On the other, there’s loss and sorrow that never go away.
The last place Jay and Tanya were known to be alive was the Bremerton-Seattle ferry Nov. 18, 1987. Thirty years later, two miles south of the downtown Seattle ferry terminal, a paper cup fell from a man’s work truck when he opened a door and leaned out to check on something, according to an arrest warrant filed Thursday in Skagit County.
Police were watching the trucker, William Earl Talbott II, 55, of SeaTac. They snatched the cup from the street that day, May 8, and had it tested by a crime lab. They allege Talbott was a DNA match to evidence in the murders.
Talbott was booked into the Snohomish County Jail late Thursday for investigation of first-degree murder. He was determined to be the only potential suspect through a new forensic technology known as genetic genealogy, the same technique used to find the suspected Golden State Killer in April.
At the news conference, Jay Cook’s sister, Laura Baanstra, thanked the detectives who never gave up hope the mystery could be solved.
“Yesterday, the killer had his last sleep in his own bed, his last coffee break, his last day of freedom,” Baanstra said. “For my family and I, it is our first day without the weight, the burning, the hurting, that comes from not knowing who killed my brother Jay.”
Talbott is accused of killing Cook, 20, and Van Cuylenborg, 18, while they were traveling in Washington in a bronze Ford van in November 1987. The couple drove around Puget Sound — from Saanich, B.C., to Port Angeles, Allyn, Bremerton and Seattle.
Detectives believe Talbott had been living on NE Woodinville-Duvall Road in 1987. His parents’ home was less than seven miles south of where Cook’s body was found near Monroe, a straight-shot drive with only one left turn. Talbott was 24 at the time of the deaths.
Detectives recently learned crime-scene DNA can be used to gather information about a family tree. An analysis in late April led investigators to Talbott’s parents, according to court papers. They had one son. Talbott worked at a trucking company in Seattle. He has a home north of Sea-Tac Airport, according to court records. He was arrested about 6 p.m. Thursday in Seattle, as he left work. He declined to answer police questions.
Talbott has no felony record. He does have misdemeanor arrests on his record. He was charged in 1984 with misdemeanor assault in King County. He pleaded guilty, but his sentence was deferred with a requirement that he complete “anger management or batterer’s counseling,” records show. Additional warrants were issued, including in 1988, for missed hearings and unpaid fines.
A judge in Skagit County Superior Court set bail Friday at $2 million in the death of Van Cuylenborg. Talbott is expected eventually to be charged in both deaths, according to the sheriff’s office. If convicted of murder, Talbott faces life in prison.
Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary credited detectives Thursday for their “relentless determination.”
“It was a difficult thing for us,” the sheriff said, his voice cracking. “But candidly, this is what we do our job for.”
Investigators sifted through dozens of new leads in the killings after they released digital sketches of the possible suspect’s face in April. The sketches were created through phenotyping, a technology that might predict a person’s appearance based on DNA. The sheriff’s office unmasked three digital drawings estimating his face at age 25, 45 and 65. He had fair skin, hazel eyes, freckles, reddish-blond hair and the gene for male pattern baldness.
Talbott bears some resemblance to the sketches: fair skin, light hair, baldness. But it’s not a mirror image.
“This guy’s 55 years old now, and he’s pretty heavy,” Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf said. “It’s pretty hard to look back and see what he would have appeared like back then.”
He asked people to submit any photos of Talbott from the 1980s.
Talbott is not currently under investigation for any other murders, Scharf said.
However, detectives are still seeking tips on his activities in 1987 and 1988. They especially want to know if anyone saw Talbott around that time with a blue blanket or a 35mm Minolta X-700 camera with the serial number 2067048 — two key pieces of evidence in the killings. They don’t know where exactly he was living in the Woodinville area at any given time, but they hope to retrace his footsteps with the help of those who knew him.
Tips can be directed to 425-388-3845.
Before their bodies were found, the last clue pointing to the Canadian couple’s whereabouts was a Bremerton-Seattle ferry ticket stamped 10:16 p.m. Nov. 18, 1987. They had planned to spend the night in the SoDo District of Seattle outside Gensco, a company where Cook planned to pick up furnace parts in the morning for his father. He never showed up.
Over the years, cold case detectives in two countries have had theories about what happened.
Six days after she was last seen, Van Cuylenborg’s body was found, on 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.
Her 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, in downtown Bellingham. The couple’s Ford van was parked a block east, by what was then a Greyhound bus station.
The next day, Jay Cook’s body was discovered in Snohomish County, on Thanksgiving 1987, under the High Bridge on the Snoqualmie River, southwest of Monroe. His body was covered with a blue blanket that didn’t belong to the couple. He had been beaten with a rock and strangled with twine. Zip ties were found near Cook, too, at the site off Crescent Lake Road.
The names of 350 people made it onto a list of potential suspects. Many were crossed off over the years. Talbott’s name never appeared.
Earlier this year the sheriff’s office approached Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia to see if they could create the images of a suspect based on DNA evidence, as the company had done in about 150 other cases.
The cutting-edge genetic genealogy technique was made available to law enforcement by Parabon in just the past two weeks.
Over the decades, DNA evidence from the case awaited a match in federal databases in the U.S. and Canada. The sheriff’s office sent DNA data to Parabon for genealogical comparison in late April. Three days later, it came back with near-matches in a database of DNA from public sites where people search for unknown relatives. Authorities hired an independent genealogist, CeCe Moore, to build family trees of the killer.
“We’re looking for living people who could fit the profile of the suspect,” Moore said Thursday. “Two of the closest matches’ trees converged. They intersected into a marriage, and from that marriage, there was only one son.”
Since the arrest in the Golden State Killer case, some critics have raised privacy concerns about police digging through the DNA of people who weren’t aware their genetic information would be used to solve murders.
Dr. Steven Armentrout, a co-founder of Parabon, defended the technique, saying at Friday’s news conference that those objections were based on misconceptions.
“Parabon only uses publicly available … databases with usage policies that allow such searches and/or have posted notices to its participants that the database could be used for law enforcement purposes,” according to information released by the lab.
Scharf, a cold case detective, has investigated the killings for 12 years.
“If it hadn’t been for genetic genealogy, we would not be standing here today,” he said.
To Van Cuylenborg’s brother, John, the benefits of the technology are clear.
“They deserve justice to be done,” he said. “They were both gentle souls, caring and trusting kids, and they were betrayed.”
This story was first published in the Everett Herald. Herald photographer Andy Bronson contributed reporting to this story. Reach reporter Caleb Hutton at 425-339-3454, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @snocaleb.
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