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Jurors talk about trial of U.S. man convicted in 1987 murders of B.C. couple

Three jurors offer a window into deliberations during the trial
John Van Cuylenborg (center), surrounded by family and friends, awaits the verdict of William Talbott II on June 28 at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark/The Herald via AP, Pool file)

Caleb Hutton/

The moment the state rested its case the morning of June 25 in a landmark murder trial, at least one juror said he felt underwhelmed by the evidence and thought the suspect would walk free.

“This is what we’ve got to go on?” juror No. 2, Bob Martin, a retired planning director, remembered thinking after prosecutors had spent eight days laying out evidence that Washington man William Talbott II had killed a young Victoria-area couple in 1987, including DNA linking him to the crimes that had been obtained through a genealogy website.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of discreet, not clearly connected data points,” Martin recalled. “It’s like a spreadsheet, or a crossword puzzle, with all kinds of blank cells. And we’re supposed to figure out the pattern, fill in all these holes — they didn’t provide us the connectors. How in the world are we going to go yea or nay on this?”

Yet three days later, Martin joined four other men and seven women in voting to convict Talbott of two counts of first-degree aggravated murder in the killings of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, following a high-profile trial that drew international media attention. Talbott became the first suspect identified by so-called forensic genealogy to have his case decided by a jury.

RELATED: Unsealed record suggests U.S. man convicted in murder of Saanich couple left DNA on zip tie in 1987

In interviews with The Daily Herald, three jurors shared their perspectives of the trial, including searing memories of death scene photos, restless nights at home playing devil’s advocate, and the key pieces of evidence that led them to a guilty verdict.

“As the days went on, we were able to realize we had more [evidence] than we initially had thought,” said the presiding juror, Laura, 38, who asked that her surname not be published citing privacy concerns.

“We were really literal with the jury instructions,” she said. “We put the definition of reasonable doubt on a white board, and we went back to it all the time. It grounded all the different forks of conversation.”

Sheriff’s detectives identified Talbott, 56, a trucker from SeaTac, as a suspect in 2018, when crime scene DNA was uploaded to a public ancestry site for tracing family lines.

Police use of public genetic banks has been a recent game-changer for long-unsolved crimes. In the past year, dozens of suspects have been arrested in cold cases nationwide, including the alleged Golden State Killer, a serial murderer and rapist who terrorized Californians in the 1970s and ’80s. But the practice is also controversial, with privacy advocates and others contending that such searches violate constitutional protections.

In Talbott’s case, a DNA profile of semen on Van Cuylenborg’s pants had been uploaded to GEDMatch. Second cousins on both sides of the defendant’s family had shared genetic profiles on the site. Renowned genealogist CeCe Moore built a family tree that led to Talbott’s parents, who had one son. Cheek swabs later confirmed Talbott’s profile matched the semen.

Behind closed doors, the jury did not weigh the merits of genetic genealogy. The defense did not dispute the evidence as shoddy science, a violation of the defendant’s rights or a violation of his relatives’ rights.

“It wasn’t a point of conversation during the trial, it wasn’t contended, it wasn’t debated. We knew it was a unique way to find somebody, but we weren’t presented with anybody we needed to find credible or not,” Laura said. “ … All that matters is that they found him, and he was on trial, and that’s all we had to consider.”

RELATED: Washington man guilty of 1987 murders of Victoria-area couple

In her closing statement, public defender Rachel Forde conceded Talbott and Van Cuylenborg had sexual contact.

She argued it was consensual.

She argued the presence of DNA did not prove murder.

The jury did not buy it.

The case

For Martin, the timeline was key.

On Nov. 18, 1987, Cook, 20, and Van Cuylenborg, 18, set out from Vancouver Island in a bronze Ford Club Wagon with a $750 money order for an overnight errand to pick up furnace parts in Seattle. They bought a Bremerton ferry ticket for a 10:35 p.m. crossing, with a plan to sleep in the parking lot outside Gensco.

Martin, who has a master’s degree in geography, needed a visual of the couple’s travels. So the jurors sent a note to Judge Linda Krese seeking a map of Western Washington. Krese denied the request. None of the exhibits showed an overview of Puget Sound so Martin made one from memory. He drew the couple’s route from Victoria to Port Angeles to Hoodsport to Allyn to Bremerton — to thin air.

On Nov. 24, 1987, a passerby reported a woman’s body against a rusty culvert off a rural road in the woods in north Skagit County. Van Cuylenborg had been shot in the back of the head.

The next day, in downtown Bellingham, police found the couple’s van and near it, .380-caliber ammunition and surgical gloves.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1987, a pheasant hunter stumbled upon Cook’s battered remains south of Monroe, beneath the wooden approach to High Bridge. He had been beaten with rocks and strangled.

At each crime scene, police recovered zip ties.

The medical examiner told the jury there was no scientific way to pin down when the two victims had been killed.

So jurors knew only the obvious.

The couple was alive when they were last seen alive.

They were dead by the time they were found dead.

The prosecution’s theory did not get much more specific.

Talbott did not testify.

Jurors were left to fill in the gaps.

Laura, the presiding juror, expected her civic duty to be a brief inconvenience for her coworkers and herself. Instead, it’s something she’ll carry with her the rest of her life, she said.

Before testimony began, the 118 Snohomish County residents in the jury pool received a questionnaire with a brief summary of the case, including the allegations of rape and murder. But the gravity didn’t sink in for Laura, she said, until attorneys made their opening statements.

Suddenly she could put faces to the young couple.

Suddenly they were real people, with real families, and the man accused of this brutality was sitting across from her.

After eight days of testimony and closing arguments, the jury spent about half an hour deliberating that Tuesday before being sent home.

At first Laura, like juror No. 2, felt they had little to work with.

The jury room

Much of the second day’s deliberations focused on Van Cuylenborg. Talbott’s DNA had been found on her pants in the van and on her body. Jurors ran through all of the possibilities — could the pair have been kidnapped for two, three, four days? Could they have been held hostage inside the van? Where were they killed? When? How, exactly?

Laura examined nearly every piece of physical evidence, like the blue blanket that covered Cook’s torso and the interlaced zip ties — a much longer string of them, when stretched out, than how it had looked on the witness stand.

Over the hours they searched for innocent explanations for the recovered evidence, seeking to give the defendant as much leeway as possible.

By trial’s end, all three jurors said they had a deep respect for the other jurors in the room.

“They were very objective, recognized their own biases,” Laura said. “… (Someone said), ‘I have a bias for needing data to make decisions.’ ‘I have a bias for wanting to have heard from him, I know I can’t hold that against him,’ but you’re not going to get that.”

It bothered jurors that the defense threw out theories, but offered no specifics to counter the state’s evidence. The jury had been instructed not to hold it against Talbott that he remained silent — but it is human nature to want to hear his side of the story, one juror said.

“I personally feel that, given the room he was in, that would have helped him. I can’t speak to what he might have said, or really play the whole thing out,” said juror No. 8, Cheyanne Palmer, 22. “We would’ve appreciated something to go off of, just to play advocate for him.”

The defense argued that because Van Cuylenborg’s bodily fluids were found on a swab, along with Talbott’s DNA, it showed she’d been aroused. The comment backfired horribly with a jury with seven women.

“I think it took a lot of us, myself included, everything we could to not audibly make some sort of sound at that statement, or crack a laugh,” Laura said. “It was like the one attempt at maybe making some defense of consensual sex, and it was completely off-base.”

Jurors took their first pulse of how people were feeling at the end of Wednesday, their first full day of deliberation. Some, like Palmer, were convinced of Talbott’s guilt. Martin and others remained undecided.

On the white board the jury drew a line to represent how long Cook could’ve been alive, and a shorter line for Van Cuylenborg. Over days, jurors came to believe there was a small window of time when the pair most likely met their killer — the eight hours or so between when the ferry docked in Seattle and the time the store opened in the morning. Van Cuylenborg was outside her home country, on a trip with her boyfriend, and having her menstrual period.

In a compressed timeline, it did not make sense that she would consent to unprotected sex with a random stranger, then encounter another random stranger, who killed her with a gun and happened to leave behind no DNA.

Once that was established, it seemed absurd that Talbott could be part of one killing, but not the other, Laura said. They saw no evidence to suggest the pair had split up.

“We tried to attack it from: Let’s just talk about Tanya, let’s just talk about Jay,” Laura said. “We couldn’t, we couldn’t. It was all connected. It only made sense if you looked at it from the big picture.”

The jury also took notice of the defense objecting to questions about where Talbott lived at the time of the killings.

“You wouldn’t be too worried about it if you felt it would exonerate him,” Palmer said.

Talbott’s parents had a home about seven miles west of High Bridge, and his roommates testified he’d lost his job and moved out in 1987. The jury knew that much.

“I finally told people that 100 percent is a bad word,” Laura said. “Unless you’re there and see it with your own eyes, you’re not going to be 100 percent sure of anything.”

The verdict

By Thursday afternoon, Martin’s doubt had been erased.

“I’m not used to having my world shift like it did here, because leaving the courtroom (early on), I was sure they had not given us enough,” he said. “For me, in a day and a half, to change my perspective that radically, is kind of an unusual thing.”

By then, only three jurors remained undecided.

By the next morning, they, too, fell in line with those who thought Talbott guilty.

It was a decision reached after a hard critical examination of the facts, not emotions, Laura said. She saw the families in court each day, but did not want sympathy to sway her belief one way or the other.

“I didn’t want there to be a bias for helping them find closure, if it wasn’t the right closure,” she said.

When the verdict was announced to a packed courtroom around 11 a.m. Friday, June 28, her hands shook.

Afterward, in a private debriefing with attorneys, the jury was informed of a major piece of evidence the state hadn’t been able to present at trial. Zip ties found in the couple’s van had tested as a possible match for Talbott’s DNA. In recent months, the state crime lab had obtained new equipment that was better at testing mixed samples of DNA. Results came back in the middle of the trial, and, out of caution, prosecutors did not put that evidence before the jury.

The lead detective in the case, Jim Scharf, gave jurors his opinion of what happened, and what made most sense to him. Much of it aligned with what the jury concluded over the preceding days, about who was killed first and why.

“And then I realized how powerful it was,” Laura said, “that they didn’t give a theory on what they thought happened (at trial). Like, ‘Here’s what we think happened. We think (Talbott) found them here, and then he took them here, and then he did this.’ We didn’t really get that. But we had ultimately come up with the same important proof points.”

When the guilty verdict was read aloud, Talbott had flinched in his seat and gasped.

“No,” he rasped. “I didn’t do it.”

It was the first time the jury heard the defendant’s voice.

“We hadn’t heard one word from him, one breath, the whole trial, and the one time I hear his voice is when he’s found guilty,” Laura said. “His exclamation was — it was emotional to hear. ‘I didn’t do it.’ Then you wonder how do defendants usually react when they’re guilty or innocent? Is it normal to say that? You think about every little thing. And at the end of the day, you think: I helped put away somebody that was a monster.”

Talbott was pushed out of the courtroom in a wheelchair, in an apparent state of shock.

At least three jurors plan to attend Talbott’s sentencing July 24.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

William Talbott II is helped to a wheelchair by Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputies after being found guilty June 28 at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark/The Herald via AP, Pool file)