In her twenties she was homeless and broke, living in a car with her two sons. Her father was at the wind. She was pregnant again. Nine months pregnant. But she didn’t show much, and layered against the winter chill in baggy clothes, she knew no one could tell. She knew this lonely secret was both a blessing and a curse. It was too much.
I can’This one is not to be kept.The woman was arguing with her self. There’There’s no money to buy diapers, formula, pretty clothes, or any clothing. I would like to do more for this child..
When the time came, she dropped her boys off with a friend and made an excuse for why she’d be gone overnight. She gave birth to her daughter at 5 a.m. alone, on the Saturday just before Thanksgiving. She looked down at her newborn daughter. They both cried together.
She drove through Anaheim, California looking for signs of life, as the gray sky became lighter. She found them at an Alpha Beta supermarket on a busy street 10 minutes from the city’s great secular mecca, Disneyland. Workers bustled around the market getting ready for the new day. It was her chance.
When no one was looking, she placed her 2-hour-old baby, wrapped in a faded yellow blanket, by a milk crate next to the store’s grimy trash bins. She then got in her car and drove away. You would find her.The mother was figured. Soon.
Sure enough, within minutes the market’s janitor followed the sound of soft crying to the trash bins. The janitor looked down at the baby with dark hair, who was sitting in a milk container. He noticed that the infant had amniotic fluid and blood on his skin. A portion of the umbilical cord was still attached to the baby’s belly. The temperature hovered in the low fifties that morning and the skimpy blanket could not protect the baby’s hands, feet, and face. Her fingers, toes and feet were cold and tinged by blue. The janitor called for help and other workers ran over to assist her. One attempted to warm the baby with her own hands, while another ran back inside to call police. The ambulance arrived quickly and the officer immediately put the baby in the squad car.
The excitement was over and everyone resumed work. But, an hour later, an angry and furtive woman drove past Alpha Beta and stared at the trash bins. The mother was back to ensure her baby was found. She was satisfied and drove off, never telling anyone about her child. She never told her father she was pregnant.
At the hospital, the neonatologists checked on the baby’s condition. She was otherwise healthy, with the exception of a slight case of hypothermia. The all-too-practiced official response to child abandonment lurched into motion: the police launched a search for the parents while the county’s social services agency sought a temporary foster home. The local Orange County Register Sunday paper dubbed the child “Baby Alpha Beta.”
The baby had been born Nov. 21, 1987. Tanya Van Cuylenborg (18 years old) was also present at the time. Tanya van Cuylenborg left the house that day, and Tanya Van Cuylenborg left it. Tanya van Cuylenborg left it. Tanya Van Cuylenborg left it. Tanya Van Cuylenborg left it, raped, killed, and left naked beside a lonely country road in northern Washington State. And, three decades later, that little girl in her thin yellow blanket would also be the key to figuring out the identity of Tanya and her boyfriend Jay Cook’s killer.
Baby Alpha Beta was adopted by Kayla Tovo after she was fostered and then adopted by a nurse who became fascinated by her story of an infant left at her local supermarket. Kayla was a happy child in her adoptive home. However, it was difficult for her to understand the story behind her abandonment. Eventually the hurt and anger gave way to her belief that there was a reason she hadn’t been put Inside The dumpster, but right next to it. She hadn’t been thrown away. She was saved, left to live a better, more fulfilling life.
After serving her country in Afghanistan as a child, and suffering from the effects of a bomb blast that left her with severe injuries, Kayla returned to her home to start her family. Chronic health problems she thought might be inherited—thinning hair and eczema among them—sparked in Kayla an urge to search for her own origin story, her own roots. She met CeCe Moore via social media in 2014. He had previously quit acting to pioneer the field of genetic genealogy. Moore and a small band of other citizen scientists were turning the quaint old hobby of family-tree building into a secret-busting powerhouse, leveraging the reach and rapid growth of the consumer genetic testing industry to do something new: use DNA to find people who weren’t actually in any consumer or criminal justice DNA database. They knew how to help adoptees identify their birth families, amnesiacs discover their identities and sperm and embryo donor babies find their parents. Kayla and other foundling babies discovered their origins while they evaded the veil of secrecy and lost memory and confidential legal proceedings.
“CeCe Moore was the first to solve a crime entirely through genetic genealogy using techniques she invented.”
Moore asked Kayla to spit into the tube and send it off to 23andMe, a consumer DNA company. The results, combined with Moore’s combing of archival records and social media posts, allowed her to reverse engineer Kayla’s family tree, finally putting her in touch with her birth mother in October 2014. And her brother. Also, other biological relatives.
Kayla loved her parents and her upbringing, but it was the meeting of her brother that changed her life. It wasn’t filling a hole, she says, because there was no hole. However, it helped her to better understand herself.
“I finally made sense. How I walk. How I think. Things that I do. Music that I like. He’s a smart ass. I’m a smart ass. Even my thin hair. He had eczema too!”
In that first meeting, she told her brother, ‘You’re me. I’m you!’”
During an emotional meeting, Baby Alpha Beta offered forgiveness to the woman who had abandoned her. Her birth mother also admitted that she was still struggling with forgiveness. Then Kayla invited her newly discovered relatives to her own son’s birthday party several months later, with Moore in attendance as well. The entire story was complete, with the headlines on the discovery of Baby Alpha Beta in 1987, and the reunion 27 years later, all appearing on the same front page.
CeCe Moore was the first person to solve a crime using genetic genealogy and techniques she had invented. It wasn’t that she talked about it as part of a criminal investigation. To her, it was a search for a foundling’s identity, a quest to reunite child and birth mother. Child abandonment is a crime. And that’s how it would have been treated at the outset had Baby Alpha Beta languished too long alone in the cold. Then it would have been a murder investigation—one that remained an unsolved cold case until Moore came along.
The full import of her accomplishment and methods with Baby Alpha Beta wouldn’t be clear to anyone for the next few years—not even Moore herself—until her path crossed with a cold case detective by the name of James Scharf.
The case that would become the world’s first genetic genealogy murder trial began on Nov. 18, 1987, with a trip to Seattle from one of Canada’s most lovely and temperate spots, Vancouver Island. Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, on their first road trip together after five months of dating, took on an errand for Jay’s dad, volunteering to fetch a new furnace for the family heating service and repair business. With a plan to return in the evening, the van and ferry journey should have taken approximately five hours. However, the couple never made it to the furnace supplier. Investigators tracked their movements to Bremerton Washington where they bought a ferry ticket for Seattle. That was the end of their trail. They had vanished.
Over the next week, family members searched along their route—until Tanya and Jay’s bodies, their van, and a cache of their personal possessions were found one after another in different locations across 60 miles and three Washington counties. An international manhunt was launched and massive media coverage followed. Even an episode of “The Survivor” was filmed. Unsolved Mysteries They came and went. There were no eyewitnesses, or weapons of mass murder. No traffic cameras or cell towers were available back then. And crime-scene DNA, preserved in 1987 and uploaded into every iteration of the FBI’s massive DNA fingerprint database since 1994, drew blanks.
It was thirty years since then. Scharf, a Snohomish County Sheriff cold-case detective, spent decades scouring through old files and finding new leads. He had lost count of the suspects he had sought out, checked out, and ultimately ruled out because their DNA didn’t match traces left behind by Tanya and Jay’s killer.
In 2017, Scharf turned to Parabon Nanolabs’ “Snapshot” phenotyping, a technology originally developed for the military and very different from the justice system practice of generating a unique identifier from a person’s “junk” DNA—a DNA fingerprint inside our cells. Parabon was using the actual coding sequences from crime-scene DNA to create a physical description for a suspect. The team had developed a DNA mugshot.
This description and the image attracted a lot of tips from Snohomish County. Most of them were in vain, but a few merited further investigation. What Scharf didn’t know at the time was that, by then, the Reston, Virginia, company was trying to expand its law-enforcement services by bringing in CeCe Moore to do her genealogical work with those same information-rich DNA profiles it had been using for its mugshots.
“The first case involved a genetic genealogist, who then solved a mystery that had been brewing for thirty-one years in just two hours.”
Moore had been longing to tackle cold case crimes with genetic DNA for many years. She was repeatedly rebuffed by skeptical experts in forensics at law-enforcement conferences, and elsewhere. Another obstacle was another. The terms of service for the crowd-sourced consumer DNA database she relied on, an obscure genealogical search engine called GEDmatch, didn’t authorize uploading profiles of crime suspects at that time. GEDmatch had been a tool that she had promoted. Unification Moore explained that Moore was able to help it grow to almost a million users in 2018. There was no way she would use their DNA for a purpose they never envisioned or even knew existed—implicating These same relatives are involved in criminal acts. Instead, she suggested Parabon begin to build acceptance of genetic crime solving through something Parabon did welcome: identifying John Doe and Jane Doe crime victims. However, things changed before this effort could take root.
Moore’s refusal to use GEDmatch (and the two other databases) was followed by others who used GEDmatch to identify a notorious serial killer, murderer and burglar, also known as “The Golden State Killer”.
The April 2018 arrest in that case, and the novel manner in which Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was identified as the culprit, sparked global headlines—and consternation among some genetic genealogist insiders over privacy and consent. GEDmatch’s owners responded with a bannered notice on the site informing users that it had become a crime-solving tool without their knowledge or permission. At the time, GEDmatch was a small hobbyist project run on the honor system and based out of a retiree’s Florida bungalow. The owners were not able to monitor the police or spot violations of the terms and conditions. They suggested that anyone who does not wish their DNA to be used in this manner should remove their profile from the site.
Moore and Parabon realized that this announcement removed the ethical barrier that was holding back their cold case aspirations. Everyone knew the genie was out. This would lead eventually to a fracture in the close-knit group of genetic genealogy specialists, with some saying that consent is not the same as notice. Parabon, however, had 100 crime-scene profiles from its DNA mugshot research and was ready to go. Police agencies were eager to get them on the case.
The first case they tackled was finding the killer of Tanya or Jay.
All of that changed again.
It was described at the time as a moonshot-level endeavor that took months to finish a complex genealogical search. The conventional wisdom was that there’d be no rush to solve other cases that way because the resources simply didn’t exist to do more than a handful. This seemed to make sense. But only if you didn’t know just how much one CeCe Moore on her couch with an open laptop could accomplish.
That story flipped in a hurry when Jim Scharf led a press conference a few weeks later on the arrest of a suspect in Tanya and Jay’s murder. A stunned press learned this startling fact: A genetic genealogist got involved for the first time with the case just a couple of days after the Golden State Killer’s arrest, then solved a 31-year-old mystery in Two hours.
This breakthrough quickly became apparent. It wasn’t a one-off. It was the wave of tomorrow, not too difficult nor too slow to reproduce. Genetic genealogy wasn’t the backstory anymore. It was a new way of thinking about genetic genealogy. Was This is the story.
“If it hadn’t been for genetic genealogy,” Jim Scharf told them, “we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Then came dozens more cases solved. Moore claims that more than 400 cases have been identified in crimes using genetic genealogy. Moore’s team has made 250 of those identifications. The crime labs, the Justice Department, or research universities had not created a new era in forensic DNA investigation. It was a result of our fascination with our roots and the ingenuity a few citizen scientists.
Postscript: William Earl Talbott II (a Seattle trucker), was convicted by a Snohomish County jury and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Talbott was granted a new trial by the state appeals court due to alleged bias by one juror. The Washington Supreme Court is currently reviewing this decision. Many justices questioned why this appeal should win, given that defense had not used all its remaining challenges to remove the juror. Instead, they had accepted the jury panel recorded at the trial.
Based on The Forever Witness by Edward Humes published by Penguin Random House. Visit www.edwardhumes.com for more information
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