cover image The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder

The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder

Edward Humes. Dutton, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-1-524746-27-8

In 1987, 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and 20-year-old Jay Cook, the victims at the center of this stellar true crime account from Pulitzer Prize winner Humes (Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t), disappeared while on a road trip from Canada to Seattle. Their bodies and their abandoned van were found days later; Tanya had been raped and shot and Jay beaten to death. The case made headlines for months, but it would be 31 years before Bill Talbott, a 55-year-old Seattle trucker “with no criminal convictions on his record and no known connection to the victims,” was arrested, thanks to determined cold case investigator Jim Scharf and genetic genealogist CeCe Moore. Humes delves into Scharf’s and Moore’s personalities and backgrounds while explaining the development of home DNA kits, their use in solving crimes, and the controversy over police use of these private for-profit databases, from which anyone can update a DNA profile to trace their ancestors and unknowingly finger a criminal relative in the process. In “the first-ever genetic genealogy murder trial,” Talbott was convicted in 2019, though he’s currently awaiting a second trial after the first was overturned on appeal based on an issue unrelated to the DNA evidence. Humes matches taut prose with assured storytelling. This fascinating look at how technology has revolutionized crime solving is must reading. Agent: Susan Ginsburg, Writers House. (Nov.)