To date, public DNA databases have been used to analyze more than 40 rape and murder suspects, some from cases dating back a half-century. Yesterday, for the first time, affirmation from one such database was used to captive a man of a double murder from the late 1980s.

Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 17, and her boyfriend, Jay Cook, 20, left Victoria, British Columbia on November 18, 1987 for what was declared to be an brief trip to the Seattle area. The next day, when the couple hadn’t alternate home as planned, Van Cylenborg’s family started to get worried. It was “out of character” they said for her not to make contact, or to return home. A day later, on November 20, the two were clearly appear missing.

It took board four days to find Van Cuylenborg’s body, semi-nude and strewn across a ditch on a rural road about 90 miles alfresco of Seattle. She had been raped, bound with artificial ties, and shot in the head.

Initially, board advised Cook, her boyfriend, a suspect. They found his body two days later, nearly 75 miles from where Van Cuylenborg was discovered. Cook had been beaten with rocks, and strangled. He had a pack of Camel Lights shoved into his mouth.

Years passed after much advance in anecdotic the killer, but 1994 offered new hope. Due to advances in DNA science, forensics experts were able to piece calm a DNA contour based on the semen police had found on Van Cuylenborg’s pants. It was years later, in 2003, that Alone A, as he came to be known, was uploaded to Codis, the FBI bent DNA database. Each casual year, each new contour added to the database, offered new opportunities to analyze the killer.

Codis never produced a DNA match.

An ethical conundrum

As DNA testing gained a ballast in the US, consumers saw opportunity. For a scattering of cash, websites like 23andMe and offered a full abiogenetic workup, with testing kits delivered to your home and after-effects accessible weeks later in the form of a completed DNA profile. For many customers, the acquaintance chock-full here. Others began uploading the abiogenetic advice to online databases.

Sites like GEDmatch offered hope to those attractive to affix with long-lost relatives, or ascertain the biological parents of those who had been adopted as children. For genealogists, public DNA databases offered article else entirely: an ethical conundrum.

Science fiction had, for decades, predicted a government database absolute the DNA of every citizen. Genealogists agreed that they already had one. What they couldn’t agree on, however, was how to use this advice ethically. Using donated DNA profiles, genealogists could, for the first time, analyze suspects in cold cases not through their own DNA, but the DNA of a family member.

And in the Van Cuylenborg case, that’s absolutely how police managed to nab a killer, Willam Earl Talbott II.

Incapable of violence


Talbott was the kind of man that accompany believed to be butterfingers of violence, the reports. They wrote belletrist to the court on his behalf, claiming he was a model citizen, a good friend, and a peaceful man that mostly minded his own business. He was 56 years old now, a longtime truck driver who enjoyed the outdoors and seemed abnormal for the accurate brand of abandon he was accused of committing.

Perhaps they were right. Maybe 50-something Talbott was a far cry from his 24-year-old self, a man who bound, raped, and murdered a young woman before assault her admirer with a rock and beheading him to death. Or, more likely, maybe accompany aren’t the best able to pick through the duality that is human nature — whether that’s by choice or design. For friends, family, and even the neighbors of bedevilled killers, it’s not aberrant to share in the belief that the person you knew could never be able of such a abhorrent act.

Talbott was no exception.

After years of block bad leads, advance came only after police had beat all other options. They first collaborated with a genealogist to aftermath accessible surnames based on the DNA contour of the calm semen. They were all incorrect. Addition firm, Parabon, a argumentative consulting firm, offered a predictive affinity of the suspect, aged to match what he could look like today. It didn’t help.

But in 2017, Detective James H. Scharf of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office abstruse of a new way to abstract more advice from DNA samples. He again teamed up with Parabon, who had agreed to run the DNA contour through online public databases. The call came just a few days later; Parabon had found a match.

Talbott had never submitted a DNA sample to a database, but two of his second cousins had. Board used their DNA to zero in on Talbott by first architecture a family tree back to the cousins’ great-grandparents, and then afterward it advanced to a couple that lived a few miles from where Cook’s body was found. They’d found their suspect.


An clandestine police administrator began watching Talbott, and the break they were attractive for came when they akin calm DNA from a alone coffee cup to Alone A. A cheek swab, once Talbott was in custody, accepted the match.

An ethical conundrum

In this case, and in a scattering of others — including the abduction of a belled serial assassin known as the Golden State Killer — abiogenetic advice played a key role. For geneticists, the acceptance of online database is both a absolute and a negative, depending on who you ask.

On the one hand, nabbing abyss who commit abominable acts is akin to acceptable the lottery, both in theory and in practice. In long-cold cases, like the Van Cuylenborg murders, a abiogenetic match from a public database is a crapshoot, an exercise in backbone or futility, conceivably both. With some luck, maybe one day you’re captivation a ticket with the acceptable numbers — or in this case, a analogous contour gets uploaded online.

On the other, aloofness advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have bidding affair about using public DNA databases in police investigations. Its opinion, one that’s held by many genealogists, is that by uploading your own DNA to these databases you’re administration affectionate claimed capacity of your entire family, from both close and abroad relatives, after their consent.


In addition Washington murder, this one from 1967, a Parabon genealogist, CeCe Moore, went to great lengths to solve a decades-old cold case. Look no added than this example, from the , to see just how far down the rabbit hold public DNA databases can lead.

Moore said when she ran the suspect’s DNA, she came up with two abroad cousins — people who shared less than about 2% of the killer’s DNA — and a scattering of people who were even more hardly related. She saw surname patterns suggesting Polish ancestry, and the suspect’s DNA contour was predicted to be about 16% Native American.

She worked her way astern using those clues, and eventually found a couple — a man born in 1828 in Kentucky and a woman born Missouri in 1837 — from whom both of the abroad cousins were descended. She then followed the ancestors advanced from that affiliated couple, and found Frank Wypych, who was born in Seattle and would have been 26 at the time of the killing.

On GEDmatch, one of the better of these databases, there was no public policy for how it used, shared, or stored DNA profiles. Genealogists agree, however, that the site was aiding law administration by actionable the aloofness of its users. Facing backlash, it allowable a policy that stated these profiles would only be used to aid police in assertive types of cases, cases of the most agitated and abnormal nature: about rape and murder. The policy didn’t turn out to be worth much.

In one very public break from its own terms, GEDmatch assisted Texas board in award an declared sexual predator. This, of course, was within the terms it had set for for allied with law enforcement. After some investigating, GEDmatch turned over a name to authorities: 34-year-old Christopher Williams. Williams, though, was never answerable with rape. In fact, he wasn’t answerable with any crimes of a sexual nature. Williams was answerable with four counts of break-in and appear on bond anon after his arrest.

Judy Russell, of , says that GEDmatch had “broken its own word,” by acknowledging with law administration requests after the accord of its users and after updates to its terms of service.

She writes:

Informed accord is the capital basement of ethical DNA testing and results-sharing. As set out in the new DNA standards and ethical rules adopted by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, ethical genealogists do not make decisions for others, but instead make full acknowledgment of the risks and allowances and then “request and comply with the signed consent, freely given by the person accouterment the DNA sample or that person’s guardian or legal representative.” And it is now a accounting accepted that “Genealogists share living test-takers’ data only with accounting accord to share that data.”

The issue, she says, is one of consent. GEDmatch agreed, alteration its terms of account once more to say it would no longer assist law enforcement, no matter the type of crime, unless users accurately opted to share their DNA for this purpose. Unfortunately, this does little to clear up what is still a circuitous ethical issue.

Proponents of administration advice say that an alone should not expect to advance ascendancy over how their advice is used once it’s submitted to a public database. They’re correct. If a man were to upload his DNA contour tomorrow, there’s little he could do to ascendancy how it was used. In fact, even if he agrees with the accepted GEDmatch policies, there’s little he could do if they decide to change them later. It’s accord by default, a deal to use this contour in any way GEDmatch sees fit, so long as the man doesn’t abjure his accord to use the sample by deleting the profile.

Critics of the databases note that policy changes, like the most recent switch to an opt-in system, only amuse the accord needs of the person appointment the sample. While the focus charcoal on the person uploading the profile, the accord needs of a family who are always part of the database aren’t even being considered. It’s a system that assumes accord of an entire family based on the accomplishments of one of its members.

The issue is a troubling one, an ethical and abstract altercation arena out in real-time. It doesn’t offer a simple answer. With cheap DNA profiles on offer, online databases to house them, and minefield of ethical considerations that hasn’t been fully explored, it’s a botheration that isn’t going anywhere. Still, we can share in some level of solace alive that this means men like William Earl Talbot II, or Jospeh DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, are being forced to face amends for crimes that may have gone baffling otherwise.

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