The Gene Pool

Edward Humes’s The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder explores the conundrum of genetic evidence.

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When Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend, Jay Cook, disappeared en route from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle in November 1987, the presumption of police on both sides of the border was that the young couple was acting irresponsibly. It wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. Tanya was just 18, the gregarious daughter of a prominent lawyer, with a rebellious streak that had manifested in mostly benign ways. Instead of college, she had opted to become a photographer, a poet, a full-time wanderer. This didn’t disappoint her family. They seemed to know Tanya would find the life that was right for her. Jay, two years older, was “quiet, even tempered, the one person at a rowdy party most likely to calm a disagreement.” He seemed poised for a simpler life, maybe working in the family heating business or perhaps as a marine biologist, though just short of his 21st birthday, he’d made no movement either way.

Tanya and Jay were normal, small-town kids. Neither was necessarily apt to call their parents if they were going to be late—but isn’t that what being young is all about? Periodically making bad, if mostly inconsequential, decisions just to test house rules? That was the opinion of the police, as Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes painstakingly details in The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder, who waited three days before beginning a search. “Far more people are missing because they want to be,” the police chief of Port Angeles said. “There is no evidence that indicates anything happened except they were doing what they wanted of their own free will.”

Tanya turned up first. She was found—bullet in the back of her head, execution-style—naked below the waist, raped and tossed off an embankment along a country road in Skagit County, a remote region of Washington between Seattle and Bellingham. Jay was discovered shortly after, miles away, thrown away beneath a bridge, savagely beaten and strangled, a pack of cigarettes jammed down his throat. Their personal items, including keys to Jay’s distinctive copper-colored Ford van, were found in a parking lot behind a bar in Bellingham. A few hundred feet away, abandoned in a pay parking lot, cops would eventually find the van too.

For the next three decades, there were no real leads, no prime suspects. There was plenty of physical evidence, but it led in no direction of inquiry. This is not a surprise, since forensic science in the late 1980s was in its relative infancy. DNA samples were often taken from blood and semen, but there was no database for comparison. Even fingerprint evidence, while effective, suffered from the lack of an easily searchable repository. As Humes notes, police had to arrest someone before any of those samples could be worthwhile. In fact, the odds of catching a criminal—much less a murder suspect—regularly came down to a very human element: what someone had seen or heard.

Think about the serial killers who operated in anonymity in this region and the sheer number of their victims—Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, may have murdered nearly 100 women. The reality is inescapable: It was maddeningly easy to get away. Especially if you were never caught committing another crime.

At least that was the case until 21st-century technologies began to unlock long-dormant cold cases, creating a burgeoning true-crime industrial complex while revealing the killers living among us, DNA the forever witness, depending on the time and means to reinvestigate. Tanya and Jay were fortunate. A rural cold-case detective named Jim Scharf remembered them and wanted to solve their murders. Luckily, a former actor turned genealogist named CeCe Moore was cracking cases at a record rate. They needed to meet.

Normally that would be the end of a book like this. Using the same technology that famously helped find the Golden State Killer—genetic genealogy, which takes an existing bit of crime-scene DNA to locate a relative’s (often semipublic) DNA and build a reverse family tree to find likely criminal branches—Moore would identify the murderer, Scharf would do the shoe-leather scrutiny of evidence, justice would be served, and Laura Dern and Tommy Lee Jones would play them in the movie.

Yet this is where Humes’s work takes a profound turn, as it addresses both the access law enforcement now has to identify suspects through consumer DNA sites and the danger this represents to our civil liberties. Are the terms of service of a website that houses genetic data more important than solving a murder, particularly in an era when many of us willingly reveal our every thought and even our precise location across a wide array of social media?

We all share a portion of one another’s DNA, Humes writes, by virtue of Mitochondrial Eve, the 150,000-year-old common ancestor for every living human. This illustrates the great existential (and ancestral) conundrum of genetic genealogy: If we are all one another, is anything private? A pragmatist might say that if you don’t want to get caught committing a crime, don’t commit a crime. But it’s a slippery slope. The blending of public genetics and state-sanctioned investigations should be enough to make anyone concerned. Finding Tanya and Jay’s killer eased the ache of their families, surely, but at what cost?•

Dutton

THE FOREVER WITNESS: HOW DNA AND GENEALOGY SOLVED A COLD CASE DOUBLE MURDER, BY EDWARD HUMES

Dutton Bookshop.org
$26.04

Tod Goldberg is a New York Times-bestselling author of over a dozen books, including The Low Desert, named Southwest Book of the Year; Gangsterland, a finalist for the Hammett Prize; Gangster Nation; The House of Secrets, which he coauthored with Brad Meltzer; and Living Dead Girl, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
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