Two wildly popular nonfiction TV genres — genealogy and true crime — collide in ABC News’ series “The Genetic Detective” (debuting 10 p.m. Tuesday, May 26), and the first episode depicts how a Seattle-area cold case was solved 31 years after the crime occurred.
For genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, the case made an impression: It was the first criminal cold case she worked, the quickest she’s ever been able to solve a criminal case — it took two hours — and the crime’s setting is an area she knows well.
The episode recounts Moore’s work in 2018 using genetic genealogy to uncover the killer of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, a young couple from British Columbia who were murdered in 1987 after taking a ferry from Vancouver to Seattle.
At the time of the murders, police collected evidence, including the killer’s DNA, which was stored for three decades and ultimately used to solve the crime by Moore, a self-trained genetic genealogist who is from Southern California but whose parents met at the University of Washington. Moore grew up visiting grandparents and family locally every summer.
Moore and a crew from “Genetic Detective” traveled to Seattle in April 2019 to film portions of the series premiere, including scenes of Moore talking with Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office cold-case detective Jim Scharf who Moore credits with being “very forward-thinking” in trying to find a way to use genetic genealogy to help resolve cases.
Moore’s professional background began with modeling and acting — she studied theater and vocal performance in college — but at 35 she transitioned to work behind the camera, forming a production/casting company where she wrote and produced ad campaigns.
Moore’s interest in genealogy began in 2003 and by 2010, as services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com began to grow in popularity, Moore “pretty much dropped everything I was doing” and blazed her own trail, founding online groups and helping adoptees find birthparents.
Since 2013, she’s been the in-house genetic genealogist for PBS’ “Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates,” occasionally presenting her findings on camera.
After genetic genealogy was used to solve the Golden State Killer case in California in 2018, Moore went to work for Reston, Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, using DNA technology to identify suspects by matching DNA collected at the crime scene to a relative of the suspect. The Cook and Van Cuylenborg double homicide was Moore’s first criminal case.
“I build family trees and try to put the pieces together,” Moore says. “We’re reverse-engineering the identity of the suspect based on the family tree of people sharing DNA with him. Instead of going backward in time to find long-deceased ancestors, we’re flipping the tree upside down … and coming forward in time trying to find living descendants of those ancestors.”
Moore says in some cold cases the suspect has already died. Other cases simply can’t be solved — at least not yet. Moore’s ability to successfully use genetic-genealogy techniques to point to a suspect is dependent on a suspect’s relatives uploading their DNA to one of just two websites, GEDMatch.com, which requires users to opt-in to allow law enforcement searches, and FamilyTreeDNA.com, which offers users the option to opt-out of such searches. (Direct-to-consumer companies Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com do not allow their users’ DNA samples to be searched by law enforcement authorities).
Other regional cases Moore worked on and helped solve using genetic genealogy, but not included in the first season of “Genetic Detective,” include the 1967 murder of Susan Galvin at Seattle Center, and the 1986 rape and murder of 12-year-old Michella Welch in Tacoma.
As for what might be an inevitable broadcast network drama about her crime-solving work one day, Moore has just one request: That the person playing her not be “anyone too young.”
“I’d want it to be a role for a woman like me, someone later in life, so it’s something inspirational and aspirational for women who might be reentering the workforce or looking for a more fulfilling career,” Moore says. “It’s an important part of my story that I did all kinds of other things and then went on a totally different route. I did not study science and here I am in my 40s and 50s doing this incredibly impactful and meaningful work.”