“Heartbreaking true crime with a detective who hugs killers into confessing. Battles over genetic privacy. And a former actress-Barbie impersonator, who solves cold case murders.”
Who wouldn’t want to write that story?
That’s how Ed Humes describes his latest book, “The Forever Witness,” a chronicle of the decadeslong investigation into the 1987 Seattle-area murders of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend, Jay Cook.
William Talbott II was arrested in 2018 and convicted of the murders, becoming the first person to be convicted based on genetic genealogy. His convictions were overturned on an appeal, related to juror bias. The case is now awaiting review by the Washington state Supreme Court.
Humes, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, first heard about the case when Talbott was arrested, just like many other Seattle area residents.
The arrest came right on the heels of Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo’s arrest, which was portrayed as a “moon shot” endeavor, unlikely to be replicated, Humes said.
Before Talbott’s arrest, a hobbyist on her couch with her laptop, Cece Moore, was on the hunt for the killer of Van Cuylenborg and Cook’s.
Ultimately, it was DNA from a discarded coffee cup that cold-case Detective Jim Scharf’s team collected that confirmed what Moore discovered through familial DNA.
Most people think of DNA technology as a confirmation tool, Humes explained. DNA from a crime scene is tested and a profile developed. Then that profile is compared to other known profiles of suspects or people in databases.
Previously, if the killer’s DNA wasn’t in the database, it was hard to catch them.
“You were golden and they’d never catch you with DNA,” Humes said.
When home DNA tests became prevalent, people began posting their genetic fingerprint publicly online. People began comparing portions of those profiles to those found on crime scenes and eventually using a mix of DNA and genealogy, deduced who was the killer.
“Even people who have supposedly committed the perfect crime, there are no more so called perfect crimes that can’t be cracked with this,” Humes said.
The new method is amazing for solving tough-to-solve crimes but “without safeguards can really end privacy,” Humes said.
While the scientific aspect of the book is compelling, it’s woven into the more personal stories of Cook and Van Cuylenborg.
To capture the essence of the victims, Humes looked for the traces they left behind.
“You begin to gain some level of understanding, to write with empathy about who they were,” Humes said. “We can’t get inside somebody’s head but we can see what they do and how they act and what they say.”
Van Cuylenborg’s father, William Van Cuylenborg, was an extremely compelling person. He searched tirelessly for his daughter. And then, just as he felt he was making progress, her body was found, Humes said.
In an effort to keep attention on the case, he went on a number of news programs, including one called Northwest Afternoon.
Humes found a tape of the program and listened to it dozens of times.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Humes said.
He died 10 years after his daughter. His body is buried next to hers with a line of her poetry gracing his tombstone.
The story is important, Humes said. He hopes readers find Cook and Van Cuylenborg’s story compelling and honest. He also hopes people remember their DNA is their most precious data. You can’t get a new genetic code, so protect the one you have, he said.
“There’s no putting this genie back in the bottle,” Humes said.