REVIEW: The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder by Edward Humes
A relentless detective and an amateur genealogist solve a haunting cold case—and launch a crime-fighting revolution that tests the fragile line between justice and privacy.
In November 1987, a young couple on an overnight trip to Seattle vanished without a trace. A week later, the bodies of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend Jay Cook were found in rural Washington. It was a brutal crime, and it was the perfect crime: With few clues and no witnesses, an international manhunt turned up empty, and the sensational case that shocked the Pacific Northwest gradually slipped from the headlines.
In deep-freeze, long-term storage, biological evidence from the crime sat waiting, as Detective Jim Scharf poured over old case files looking for clues his predecessors missed. Meanwhile, 1,200 miles away in California, CeCe Moore began her lifelong fascination with genetic genealogy, a powerful forensic tool that emerged not from the crime lab, but through the wildly popular home DNA ancestry tests purchased by more than 40 million Americans. When Scharf decided to send the cold case’s decades-old DNA to Parabon NanoLabs, he hoped he would finally bring closure to the Van Cuylenborg and Cook families. He didn’t know that he and Moore would make history.
Genetic genealogy, long the province of family tree hobbyists and adoptees seeking their birth families, has made headlines as a cold case solution machine, capable of exposing the darkest secrets of seemingly upstanding citizens. In the hands of a tenacious detective like Scharf, genetic genealogy has solved one baffling killing after another. But as this crime-fighting technique spreads, its sheer power has sparked a national debate: Can we use DNA to catch the murderers among us, yet still protect our last shred of privacy in the digital age—the right to the very blueprint of who we are?
CW – descriptions and discussions (some in graphic detail) of several violent crimes – including against children.
Thirty five years ago – eerily almost to the day that I’m writing this review, a violent crime was committed against a young Canadian couple. Almost immediately, their families knew something was wrong, in part because of Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s faithful habit of always calling her family when she was going to be late. Their worried parents reported them missing but, stymied by the then police policy of waiting three days before beginning an investigation, Tanya’s father launched his own search for them. He and Tanya’s older brother were the ones to identify her body which was found, rolled down into a ravine, naked from the waist down except for her socks. Jay’s battered and strangled body was found by hunters two days later.
Roughly two decades later, a Washington State cold case detective got involved. The case had received wide publicity and coverage at the time but after years of chasing down leads and having the story on TV unsolved crime shows, they were no closer to cracking it. But by this point, use of DNA in solving crimes was about to enter a third stage. The first stage was collecting it from crime scenes and then using it to compare to suspects who were identified by standard means as at that point, DNA databases were small. In stage two, growing databases gave law enforcement officers something to compare collected samples to. But if a suspect’s DNA had never been entered into a database, LEOs were at a loss.
Then the growing field and hobby of DNA genealogy began. Spit in a cup, send it in and learn all about yourself. Upload your data and learn all about your family. Contact someone who knows more about mining databases and discover information about your adoption, or if your listed father is really your father, and more! When the identity of the Golden State Killer was discovered and announced, DNA use in crimes reached stage three, as people began to learn about how these databases could be reverse engineered to reconstruct a family tree and catch criminals.
How does all this affect individual privacy? Are there rules and laws to govern this sort of use of information that people didn’t realize could be used this way? Is it acceptable if it helps find violent criminals who have evaded justice for decades or a criminal who just recently committed his crime and whom police are afraid will strike again? And was a suspect in the murders of Tanya and Jay identified and brought to trial?
Author Edward Humes lays all this out in an easy to understand and follow book. It’s chilling, it’s fascinating, it’s horrific to read about the crimes, and it’s satisfying – in some ways. As of now over 200 cold case crimes have been solved. US States, LEOs, lawyers, and genealogists are discussing, debating, and passing laws regarding the use of genetic genealogy to solve crimes. As the book says, the genie is out of the bottle and consumers who get incensed at having their computer information and credit cards hacked are the ones happily handing over the key to their entire being to companies that are profit oriented. What will happen next, we don’t know. B+