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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In ‘Forever Witness,’ author Ed Humes finds intersection of crime, science and humanity

By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review

I haven’t read a true crime book, or even more than a few paragraphs of a newspaper story about murder, in 10 years, even as their popularity grew over the past decade.

I don’t care to watch “Dahmer” on Netflix. I turn the channel away from “Law & Order.”

Part of my resistance is being a former crime reporter, who happened to cover some of the most grisly and evil crimes in American history. I wrote in depth about the BTK serial killer Dennis Rader. I followed the years-long saga of the Carr brothers in Wichita, a disturbing and haunting story of home invasion, torture, and execution-style murder that made even hardline detectives weep. I still occasionally feel the trauma of researching and writing those stories for the Wichita Eagle newspaper. I stopped reading these stories, because for too long, I lived it.

Which is why Edward Humes’ latest book, “The Forever Witness,” pleasantly surprised me. It follows the murders of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook. The young Canadians lost their lives while running an errand in the Seattle area for Cook’s family business. It took decades to solve the cold case, and the search for justice came down to advances in science and technology.

First, some transparency. I worked closely with Humes’ wife, Donna Wares, while working in Orange County and the Los Angeles area some 10 years ago. I’ve spent time with Donna and Ed and are quite fond of them as people. But due to my resistance to true crime books, I figured any prejudice would lean against the author. Meanwhile, I didn’t discuss this book with either of them while I was reading or before writing this review.

The forever witness of the title is, of course, DNA, the genetic markers that define who we are as individuals. DNA has been able to solve crimes for decades, but it was new in the mid-1980s, when Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend Cook disappeared, only to have their bodies turn up days later and miles apart. There were few clues, except for some DNA left behind by the killer.

Trouble is, for years someone had to have already been apprehended to have their DNA included in a database that could match up forensic evidence collected at a crime scene. In the second decade of the 21st century, the popularity of people testing their DNA to map their family trees would come into play, and would allow the identity of someone who eluded capture to emerge.

The forever witness would have been unable to expose wrongdoing without amateur genealogists donating their genetics in search of their roots.

One of the stories we covered in Kansas involved a prosecutor filing charges against not a defendant by name but the DNA markers that showed up in a series of rapes along Interstate 70 throughout the 1990s. Doug Belt was finally captured in 2004, after he left some DNA on a gun used to rob a pharmacy to feed his methamphetamine habit. That would release a chain reaction of crime-solving in sex assaults and murder. Police and prosecutors were simply lucky in those cases.

Jim Scharf, detective with the cold case team at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, inherited the Van Cuylenborg and Cook case after three decades of dead ends.

Where Humes succeeds in telling a stirring crime tale is by making the process of solving the crime the star, not the crime nor the criminal.

To me, too many true crime stories focus on the perpetrator, or the bloody details of their deeds. We become obsessed with evil and want answers on why some people do bad things.

Victims, too often, are victimized. Repeatedly. Sometimes, the narrative, tries to become a real-life Agatha Christie story, where the lone detective unravels the mystery and catches the criminal.

Humes lets us get to know the young people whose lives were cut short and the frustrated detectives who worked the case for years. Humes even succeeds in not falling into the trap of most true crime authors – trying to make sense of a senseless crime. A wrong turn on a Washington highway, parking on the wrong street at the wrong time, helps put good people on the same path as a killer. It’s not something to understand. It is too often just random.

We learn in the first two pages who the main suspect is, a truck driver named William Earl Talbott II. For those in the Northwest who couldn’t avoid coverage of the crime when it happened and then again 30 years later when it was solved, this is no mystery.

But where the story becomes compelling is through the advancement of DNA technology in the field of genealogy. CeCe Moore, who had followed genetic trails of genealogy, helping people find their biological parents and solve mysteries within their own families, helped unravel the threads of the couple’s murder that had become so twisted over the years.

It almost didn’t happen, because of protests and controversies over the ethics of using genealogical DNA by the police. Humes explores those, too.

This is what makes “The Forever Witness” less a true crime book and more of a battle between science and humanity. It’s also what that keeps the reader turning pages.