A young couple embarks on an overnight road trip and never returns. How did investigators finally find their killer?
November 18, 1987: A young couple on the road
, 18, and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Jay Cook, 20, left British Columbia and were Seattle bound in Cook’s parents’ van, to pick up furnace parts. They had planned to spend the night in their van.
November 19, 1987: Missing
Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s older brother John was away at college when he got a call from his worried father. Tanya and Jay Cook had not returned home or called. Both families reported them missing.
November 24, 1987: A Devastating Discovery
Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s body was found in a ditch in rural Skagit County, Washington, about 80 miles from Seattle. She had been shot in the head and had no pants or underwear on. Zip ties were found near her body. Authorities believed she had been raped.
November 25, 1987: Important Clues Found
The day after Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s body was found, the keys to the van, Tanya’s ID, ammunition matching the bullet that killed Tanya, zip ties and a disposable glove turned up underneath the porch of local tavern in Bellingham, close to the bus station.
November 25, 1987: The Van is Found
Jay Cook’s parents’ van was found in a parking lot in downtown Bellingham, Washington. The van contained more clues, including zip ties, and what would become the most important piece of evidence in the case—Tanya’s black pants. Cook was still missing.
November 26, 1987: Jay Cook’s Body is Found
Jay Cook’s body was found in rural Snohomish County, about 70 miles away from where Tanya Van Cuylenborg was found. He had been strangled and a pack of cigarettes was stuffed down his throat. Zip ties were also found near his body.
December 1987: Families Receive Threatening Letters
The month after the murders, an anonymous letter writer began sending menacing letters to Jay and Tanya’s families. The writer claimed to be the killer but was ultimately eliminated as a suspect.
A Relentless Detective
In 1995, Snohomish County Detective Jim Scharf helped form a cold case team. The murders of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook was one of the team’s first cases.
May 2003: No matches in CODIS
Semen was found on Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s pants that was not a match to Jay Cook. The suspect DNA was dubbed “Individual A.” In 2003, the Washington State Patrol uploaded Individual A’s profile to CODIS, the FBI’s national offender database, but there were no hits.
Over the years, there would be plenty of theories and false leads. Detective Scharf said over 200 names came across his desk. Some were convicted felons. Jay Cook’s body had been found near the Monroe Honor Farm, a prison, but it was another dead end.
2015: Chelsea Rustad posts her DNA to GEDmatch
In 2015 a woman with no relationship to the victims named Chelsea Rustad uploaded her DNA to a website where users share DNA to help build family trees. Rustad’s DNA would help unlock the mystery of who killed Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook.
April 25, 2018: The Golden State Killer is Arrested
The man responsible for numerous rapes and murders was identified after evading law enforcement for 43 years. His DNA had been uploaded to GEDmatch and investigators found him after building a family tree from people who shared enough DNA to be relatives — a practice called genetic genealogy.
April 25, 2018: A Lightbulb Goes On
Inspired by the breakthrough arrest in thecase, Detective Scharf wanted to utilize the same technology to try and catch Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook’s killer. Regarding the discovery of the new tool, Scharf said, “This is fantastic. I need to get on this.”
April 27, 2018: DNA gets uploaded
After speaking with Detective Scharf, Parabon NanoLabs agreed to upload “Individual A’s” DNA to GEDmatch and called in genetic genealogist CeCe Moore to work on the case.
April 28, 2018: Finding a Match
CeCe Moore logged on to GEDmatch and found two people who shared enough DNA to be second cousins with Individual A. Within two hours, Moore was able to build a family tree and find a name of the person she believed was the killer of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. His name: William Earl Talbott II.
May 8, 2018: A Cup of DNA
To make an arrest, Det. Scharf needed to confirm that the DNA left at the crime scene matched Talbott’s. Investigators tailed Talbott, a trucker, for a few days, until he dropped a cup. They rushed it to the Washington State Patrol lab that same day and eagerly awaited the results.
May 9, 2018: Confirming the ID
Forensic scientist Lisa Collins matched the DNA on Talbott’s cup to that of “Individual A” and broke the news to Scharf, who got tears in his eyes.
May 17, 2018: William Earl Talbott II is Arrested
After more than three decades searching for answers, Talbott was arrested and taken into custody. Tanya’s older brother John Van Cuylenborg, pictured, was Detective Scharf’s first call.
June 11, 2019: Talbott’s Trial Begins
William Talbott II pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated murder. In June 2019 his trial began in the Snohomish County Superior Court.
June 2019: Talbott’s defense
At trial, Talbott’s attorney, Rachel Forde argued that the DNA found on Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s pants and body was best explained by consensual sex.
Forde’s co-counsel Jon Scott said, “William Talbott’s defense is that there is insufficient evidence to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
June 2019: The Prosecution
The prosecution argued that William Talbott murdered Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook. They pointed to Talbott’s DNA from Tanya’s body and her pants, the fact that Talbott had lived just 7 miles from where Jay’s body was found, and the zip ties that were found at all four crime scenes. Prosecutor Baldock said this proves the connection between Cook’s murder, and Van Cuylenborg’s, and the van.
June 28, 2019: The Verdict
After a two-week trial, the jury found William Earl Talbott II guilty of two counts of aggravated murder. Talbott maintains his innocence and has appealed the verdict.
July 24, 2019: The Sentencing
William Earl Talbott II was sentenced to two life terms. Jay and Tanya’s families were in the courtroom. So was Chelsea Rustad – the only Talbott relative there. Rustad says, “His dad wasn’t there, his sisters weren’t there. He had a family member in the audience, and I was there supporting the victims.”
Rustad has written a book about her connection to this case, “Inherited Secrets.”
July 24, 2019: A mother’s search for closure
At William Talbott’s sentencing, Jay Cook’s mother Leona told the judge about her endless search for closure. “Some of us wanted a shirt or sweater. You could wear them. You could put them to your nose and smell him. I still have that old sweater in my drawer.”