The Forever Witness

Books

“What an amazing world we live in today,” Laura Baanstra said. She was speaking at a 2018 press conference to announce the scientific process that had been used to solve the 1987 murders of her brother and his girlfriend. The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder details this brutal crime, the failed efforts to solve it and how its eventual unraveling led to the first genetic genealogy murder trial. Fans of Michelle McNamara’s acclaimed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark should clear their schedules, because Edward Humes’ riveting account is nearly impossible to put down.

Pulitzer Prize winner Humes is no stranger to true crime writing. His 16 books include Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia and Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t. In The Forever Witness, he takes on the murders of 20-year-old Jay Cook and 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg, who set out by van from Victoria Island, Canada, to Seattle, Washington, to pick up a furnace for Jay’s father. Baanstra vividly remembers waving goodbye to her brother as he drove away in the family van for what was meant to be a quick overnight trip. Instead, Tanya’s body was dumped alongside a lonely road in Washington, Jay’s body was tossed over a bridge, and the van was abandoned. There were no eyewitnesses, no way of knowing what happened and little physical evidence, except for semen and a palm print on one of the van’s rear doors.

Hume’s account brings the young victims alive: Tanya, a photography buff planning to head to Europe as an au pair, and Jay, a kindhearted soul toying with becoming a marine biologist. Their families’ ongoing anguish is palpable, and details of the police investigation offer sharp reminders of how difficult such cases were to solve before the advent of technology such as cell phones and surveillance cameras, not to mention widespread DNA processing. 

Deputy Sheriff James Scharf had been working the graveyard shift in Snohomish County, Washington, when he got an alert to be on the lookout for the missing Canadian couple. Decades later, after becoming a cold case investigator, he would take the case to CeCe Moore, a self-taught genetic genealogist featured on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Her amazing detective work—done in just two hours from her couch—led the authorities to William Earl Talbott II, a truck driver with no criminal convictions or known connection to the victims. Along the way, Hume explains the advent of DNA technology and databases in highly readable terms and examines the continuing debate about their use.

With over 30 years separating the crime from the arrest and trial, Hume does an exceptional job of navigating the vast time frame and re-creating the victims’ last journey. The results are heartbreaking as well as heart pounding. The Forever Witness has earned a well-deserved place among top-notch true crime reads.

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