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The Disappearance of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook

▶ Watch Video: Sneak peek: A Killer in the Family Tree

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

Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 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 and John Van Cuylenborg

John Van Cuylenborg

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 at the  bottom of a ditch in rural Skagit County, some 80 miles north of Seattle.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s oOfice

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

Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s wallet, the keys to the van, some bullets, a plastic glove, and a number of other items turned up 16 miles away, in Bellingham, Washington. They had been discarded under the porch of Essie’s Tavern located next to the Greyhound bus station.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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

The van Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg were traveling in.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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 under High Bridge in Snohomish County, about 70 miles south of where Tanya’s body was found.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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

An anonymous writer sent threatening letters to Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s families claiming to be the killer.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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 

“It was probably the most horrendous unsolved case that we had,” said Detective Jim Scharf.

CBS News

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

Inside the van, investigators found what would ultimately be the most important piece of evidence: the black pants Tanya Van Cuylenborg had been wearing.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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.

Eliminating Suspects

Jay Cook’s body had been found near the Monroe Honor Farm, a prison, but it was another dead end in the search for his killer.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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

When Chelsea Rustad of Tumwater, Washington, uploaded her DNA to a public database hoping to find other branches of her family tree, she never expected that process would prompt a visit from police investigators. Her DNA would help unlock the mystery of who killed Tanya  Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook.

CBS News

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

Joseph James DeAngelo aka The Golden State Killer was arrested in California after familial DNA was used to identify a suspect from crime scene DNA.

Getty Images/Sacramento Bee

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

Snohomish cold case detective Jim Scharf

CBS News

Inspired by the breakthrough arrest in the Golden State Killer case, 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

CBS News

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

Genetic geneologist CeCe Moore

CBS News

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

A team tailed William Talbott, eventually retrieving a paper coffee cup that fell from his truck. 

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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 William Talbott’s coffee cup to that of “Individual A.”

CBS News

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

John Van Cuylenborg, Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s brother, speaks during a press conference at the Snohomish County Courthouse announcing the arrest of a suspect in the1987 murder of his sister Tanya and her boyfriend Jay Cook, on May 18, 2018. Jay Cook’s mother Leona Cook is at right. 

Associated Press/ Charles Biles/Skagit Valley Herald

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 Earl Talbott II 

Associated Press/Andy Bronson/The Herald

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

Defense attorney Rachel Forde

Associated Press/ Olivia Vanni/The Herald

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

Prosecutor Matt Baldock

Associated Press/Olivia Vanni/The Herald

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

William Earl Talbott II was found guilty of two counts of aggravated murder.

Washington Department of Corrections

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

Chelsea Rustad, second from right,  pictured with members of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s families

Chelsea Rustad

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

Leona Cook with her son Jay in front of the family’s van.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office

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.”



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