Hearings began last week in the first murder case built on family genealogy testing. Nearly 32 years ago, authorities found the battered body of 21-year-old Jay Cook under a bridge in Washington state. Two days later, in an adjacent county, they found the raped and murdered body of his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg.
Last year, investigators took a DNA sample from Van Cuylenborg’s clothing and ordered an analysis from GEDmatch, a free, volunteer-run geneology website where people can upload genetic information from tests through organizations like 23andMe or Ancestry DNA. The analysis allowed them to identify relatives of the person who left the DNA behind, and police were able to use public records and relatives’ social media posts to narrow their search to William Earl Talbott II, Wired reported.
The investigators followed Talbott and obtained a DNA sample from a discarded cup he used. A crime lab confirmed that Talbott’s DNA matched that found on Van Cuylenborg, and he lived near where Cook’s body was found. Police arrested and charged Talbott with murder last year.
In 2018, family genealogy testing led investigators to a California man suspected of being the notorious Golden State killer, a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized Sacramento, Calif., residents from 1976 to 1986.
Since then, family genealogy testing has been used to identify suspects in at least 50 cases, including the arrest of an 82-year-old Wisconsin man in a double murder case from 1976. None besides Talbott’s has yet gone to trial.
Although family genealogy testing may provide a powerful tool in crime investigations, critics warn it could spell the end of genetic privacy. No federal or state laws exist to regulate such investigations and protect the privacy of the general public. Questions also remain about the accuracy of such testing. —J.B.