Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg were a young couple who left their Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, homes and went out on their first overnight trip together, to Seattle, in 1987. They never returned home. Their murders remained unsolved until 2018 when DNA evidence led CeCe Moore, who headlines the new ABC crime series The Genetic Detective, on a hunt for their killer.
Here’s what you need to know about their deaths ahead of the Genetic Detective episode “The Case of the Missing Lovebirds.”
1. Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg Were Running an Errand for Jay’s Father
In November 1987, Cook and Van Cuylenborg took the ferry from their hometown of Victoria, Canada, to Washington state to retrieve a furnace in Seattle for Jay’s father. According to an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about the case, it was the high school sweethearts’ first trip together.
Jay’s mother Leona Cook told the program, “Jay and Tanya had been going out for about six months, and he was either there, or she was here. I think she was quite special to him.”
Tanya’s father William Van Cuylenborg added, “They certainly seemed to be good for each other from everything that I could gather. I certainly had no apprehension about Tanya being with Jay. I felt very comfortable with that.”
2. They Didn’t Return Home As Expected
Cook and Van Cuylenborg were expected to be gone just one night. When they didn’t return the next day, their families began to worry.
As William told Unsolved Mysteries, “If Tanya was late for anything, she would always phone. So when Tanya did not phone the next evening when they were supposed to be returning, my wife became apprehensive. So I tried to downplay it for my wife’s sake and probably to reassure myself that everything would be ok. However, on the following day when she didn’t call, we knew there was something wrong.”
Local law enforcement talked to witnesses who reported seeing Cook’s van disembark from the ferry and head south on highway 101. It was later spotted in the town of Hoodsport and then in Allyn. But law enforcement eventually found out that the couple had not made it to the furnace warehouse in Seattle.
3. Van Cuylenborg Was Found First
Six days after the couple left home, a passerby found Van Cuylenborg’s body off Parson Creek Road near Alger, Washington. She had been raped, was naked from the waist down, and had been shot in the back of the head. Because Cook was nowhere to be found, he was initially a suspect.
“We didn’t know what to think then, because they hadn’t found Jay, and, for a while, it looked like Jay might even be a suspect. They told us to be prepared for that,” Jay’s mother said
Cook’s body was found on Thanksgiving over 50 miles away in Bellingham, Washington, leading authorities to believe that he was actually murdered first because he was found closer to Seattle. He had been beaten with rocks and strangled with twine and two dog collars. He also had a pack of cigarettes shoved down his throat, according to the Everett Herald. Authorities believed the couple had made it to Seattle but were in the company of their killer.
“I think it’s safe to say that by the time they exited the ferry in downtown Seattle, they probably were in the company of the man that killed them. It would seem to me that it’s logical that the person has committed crimes like this in the past and been successful at them. And having been successful, I would certainly say that it’s likely that he’ll continue to do them,” Det. Robert Gebo told Unsolved Mysteries.
4. Both Families Received Taunting Christmas Cards From the Alleged Killer
Weeks later, both Cook and Van Cuylenborg’s families received a series of cards that were filled with descriptions of the murders. They were postmarked from New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The handwriting matched in all of the cards.
“The handwriting in these letters and the cards is very distinctive. And there are some phrases that are very distinctive, also. ‘Hallelujah bloody Jesus’ is a favorite phrase of his. He just continues to make life miserable for these parents who have lost their children. It’s important that this individual be caught,” said Chief Deputy Ron Panzero.
Eventually, authorities found the person who wrote the cards — a 78-year-old homeless man with mental health issues. His DNA matched the DNA found on the letters but did not match the DNA collected from the crime scenes, according to the Everett Herald. The authorities determined he was not involved in the murders and was sending the cards due to his mental health issues.
5. In 2018, CeCe Moore Got the Case
In April 2018, CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist who so far had only worked on familial and adoption cases, agreed to do her first law enforcement case — the case of Cook and Van Cuylenborg’s murder.
“It is just so heartwrenching. Jay and Tanya were just starting their lives,” said Moore, adding, “It could have been one of my family members who live in that exact same area. It hit home for me. I wanted to find the person who killed Jay and Tanya.”
Moore was given the DNA collected from the semen found on Van Cuylenborg’s pants. That DNA was uploaded to GEDMatch, which led to the discovery of two distant cousins of the killer. Moore used her internet research skills to track the family trees and discovered they converged on William Talbott II.
Undercover officers trailed Talbott, a 55-year-old truck driver, for days until he finally threw away a paper cup, which they seized and used to extract a DNA sample. The DNA sample was an exact match for the semen found on Cuylenborg’s pants. In July 2019, a Snohomish County judge sentenced Talbott to life in prison without parole for Cook and Cuylenborg’s murders, according to the Everett Herald.
The Genetic Detective airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. Other cases the show is going to cover include the murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley with Indiana’s Fort Wayne Police Department; the double homicide of mother and daughter Sherri and Megan Scherer with the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Department in Missouri as well as the murder of Genevieve Zitricki with the Greenville Police Department in South Carolina; the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge with Idaho Falls Police Department in Idaho; the Ramsey Street Rapist with North Carolina’s Fayetteville Police Department; and the 2018 rape of 79-year-old Carla Brooks with Utah’s St. George Police Department.