The unlikely crime-fighter cracking decades-old murders? A genealogist.
By Justin Jouvenal
Jul 16 2018
The young couple set out on a trip in 1987, speeding toward Seattle in a gold van, when they crossed paths with a killer. The man raped Tanya Van Cuylenborg and shot her in the head. Jay Cook was beaten and strangled.
The killer left a pair of plastic gloves inside their vehicle, a gesture one detective interpreted as a taunt: You’ll never catch me.
That was true for more than three decades. Investigators spent thousands of hours sifting leads and probing suspects with little to show. But in late April, a former musical theater actor with no background in law enforcement took over the case.
CeCe Moore and her team cracked it in three days.
Moore put the killer’s DNA profile into a public genealogy website to find relatives and then built a family tree that led to a suspect, William Earl Talbott II. The truck driver was charged in Washington state in May.
Since the same technique was used in April to find the man accused of being the Golden State Killer, genetic genealogy has led to a flurry of breakthroughs in the coldest of cases, showing the potential to be a transformative tool for police.
On Sunday, police in Indiana announced that Moore’s team at Reston, Va.-based Parabon NanoLabs had helped identify a man who allegedly sexually assaulted and killed 8-year-old April Tinsley in 1988. The killer had sent chilling messages to others over the years, tacking some of the threats on bicycles belonging to other young girls.
Parabon, the biggest player so far to work in the emerging field, also helped authorities identify a Pennsylvania DJ charged with the 1992 slaying of an elementary school teacher, the prime suspect in the 1981 killing of a real estate agent in Texas, and a Washington man charged in the 1986 rape and killing of a 12-year-old girl.
Another team is working with investigators in California to try to solve the Zodiac Killer case.
And the nonprofit DNA Doe Project has uncovered the identities of a man who mysteriously assumed an 8-year-old’s identity before committing suicide, a woman slain in Ohio in 1981 and two others as it works to put names to the remains of 40,000 Jane and John Does scattered across the country.
The developments are all the more remarkable because genetic genealogy was not pioneered by the FBI or elite forensic experts but by a loose network of citizen scientists and genealogists like Moore and a professional guardian from Florida, who came up with the idea for a genealogy database available for all to search.
But the novel turn to crime-fighting has raised a host of issues: Could the technique finger the wrong person? Who will ensure police use genetic data responsibly? Should authorities rely on a public database that could be hacked or manipulated?
“We’ve got no precedent for doing this type of thing,” said Debbie Kennett, a research associate in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. “The people who are doing it are often volunteers.”
The eureka moment
The hunt for Van Cuylenborg and Cook’s killer began with the genetic equivalent of a Google search on a Friday night.
Moore’s team took a profile of the killer’s DNA obtained from the crime scene and provided by authorities and uploaded it to GEDmatch, a genetic clearinghouse that allows users to find relatives by comparing their genetic code against more than 1 million others.
GEDmatch’s analysis represents a quantum leap over traditional DNA matching used by law enforcement since the 1980s. In those cases, a lab takes a sample that contains up to 20 short segments of the perpetrator’s genetic code and looks for a match in a state DNA database or the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which contains 17.3 million profiles.
The profiles uploaded to GEDmatch contain some 600,000 DNA snippets, allowing the genetic genealogist not only to identify a match but also to determine how closely people are related.
GEDmatch spit out results for Moore early on Saturday after roughly eight hours of crunching data: The killer appeared to share enough DNA with two people to be second cousins.