Investigators hope a new composite sketch created from DNA can help solve the homicides of two young Canadians who disappeared during an overnight trip to Seattle nearly 31 years ago.
EVERETT —The man who killed a young Canadian couple more than three decades ago was hunting for victims and was prepared with zip ties, a handgun and extra ammunition, according to a Snohomish County sheriff’s detective who has spent 13 years working the cold case.
“He was a hunter. He was hunting for victims to do what he was fantasizing about and these were the vulnerable people who came across his path,” Detective Jim Scharf said of the November 1987 homicides of 20-year-old Jay Cook and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg.
Their deaths remain an enduring mystery as detectives have exhausted hundreds of leads over the years, said Capt. Jeff Miller, head of the Snohomish County sheriff’s investigations unit.
On Wednesday, detectives from the Snohomish and Skagit counties’ sheriff’s offices joined Cook’s sisters in again appealing for the public’s help, this time armed with drawings created through DNA phenotyping that puts a potential face to whoever is responsible for the gruesome double homicide.
Most Read Local Stories
- Seattle's dirty air among world's worst, but relief is in sight
- Seven members of Washington family dead in head-on Oregon crash
- Logging in Upper Skagit River watershed put on hold as Seattle has ‘grave concern’
- Chinatown's elders are being priced out of their traditional neighborhood
- Environmentalists sue federal government in Seattle to protect endangered orcas
DNA recovered during the investigation didn’t match any DNA profiles of known felons in law-enforcement databases in the U.S. or Canada, Scharf said during a news conference in Everett.
A couple of months ago, the DNA was submitted to Parabon NanoLabs, which provided scientific approximations of what the killer might look like based on traits embedded in his genetic code.
The unidentified suspect is a white male, likely of Northern European descent, with green or hazel eyes and blond or light-brown hair with fair skin and freckles, accordingly to information released by the sheriff’s office.
Phenotyping technology can’t predict height, weight, age or environmental factors like hair length, facial hair or scars.
“It’s not 100 percent guaranteed; it’s not a photograph,” Miller said of the age-progressed composite images of what the killer may have looked like at ages 25, 45 and 65. But hopefully there’s enough similarity to jog someone’s memory, he said.
Even if the killer is no longer alive, he could be identified through DNA of close relatives — which would still provide answers for the victims’ families, Miller said.
Scharf said sexual assault was likely the motivation for the double homicide. Cook was killed first — he was beaten over the head with a rock then strangled inside the couple’s van, the detective said. Van Cuylenborg was raped and shot in the back of the head with a .380-caliber handgun outside of the van, Scharf said.
It’s unknown how the couple crossed paths with their killer, but Scharf said it’s been speculated he may have been someone they met on the ferry to Seattle. The couple could have also stopped to ask directions or been attacked as they bedded down for the night in their van somewhere, he said.
The victims’ families are offering a $50,000 reward for information that leads to a DNA match. Anyone with information is asked to call the Snohomish County sheriff’s tip line, 425-388-3845.
Parabon NanoLabs, of Reston, Virginia, is the same company that created drawings of a suspect in another Seattle-area cold case, the 1991 slaying of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough near Federal Way High School.
DNA phenotyping uses predictive formulas created from DNA obtained from volunteers who also take a physical traits survey or have their faces scanned by recognition software. Predictive models created from the information are used to search the DNA samples for specific markers and rate the likelihood that certain characteristics exist.
While a growing number of law-enforcement jurisdictions have used DNA phenotyping to generate drawings, some have questioned the release of such drawings without actual eyewitnesses.
Steve Armentrout, the CEO of Parabon NanoLabs, told The Associated Press that phenotyping is an investigative tool and not intended to replace court-tested methods of identifying suspects.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Laura Baanstra — flanked by her sister Kelly Cook and husband Gary Baanstra — recalled the last time she saw her brother alive.
Jay was getting ready to pick up his girlfriend for the trip to Seattle and asked for a bite of the sandwich she was eating.
Like a typical sister, she said, she didn’t want to share but ended up giving him half. She then waved goodbye to him from the window.
“Jay and Tanya were an innocent young couple in love at the start of their lives,” Laura Baanstra said.
According to Scharf, the sheriff’s detective, and news reports, Cook and Van Cuylenborg set out for Seattle on Nov. 18, 1987, taking the 4 p.m. ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles and purchasing a ferry ticket — presumably for the 10:35 p.m. run — from Bremerton to Seattle.
Police later learned they had stopped outside Port Angeles to ask directions to Bremerton, but perhaps got lost, because they drove south on Highway 101 through Mason County instead of driving across the Hood Canal Bridge to get to Kitsap County.
The couple ended up buying gas in Allyn, nearly 20 miles south of Bremerton, and were remembered by the store owners, who spoke with the couple and told investigators neither showed signs of stress, The Seattle Times reported at the time.
The pair, who were running an overnight errand for Cook’s father, never appeared at the Seattle furnace-supply store to place their order the morning of Nov. 19, 1987, and didn’t arrive home that night as planned. The next day, they were reported missing to police in Saanich, B.C., a Victoria suburb and the couple’s hometown.
Van Cuylenborg’s partially clothed body was found on Nov. 24, in a ditch in Alger, Skagit County. Police said Van Cuylenborg’s hands were bound behind her back with a plastic zip tie.
The next day, police found the bronze 1977 Ford van the couple had been traveling in abandoned in a parking lot in downtown Bellingham. They found the ticket for the Bremerton-to-Seattle ferry inside the van, along with Cook’s ID and plastic ties like the one used to bind Van Cuylenborg’s hands. Her wallet, keys for the van, a pair of surgical gloves and a partial box of .380-caliber ammunition were found under the back porch of a Bellingham tavern.
Two hunters found Cook’s body under a bridge south of Monroe on Nov. 26, 1987 — Thanksgiving Day.
The couple, who met in high school and dated for about five months, were described as clean-cut and from good families. Initially police considered robbery as a possible motive, but that was cast in doubt after police recovered $300 in traveler’s checks, though investigators wouldn’t say if they had also recovered $260 in cash the couple had brought with them.
In 2010, police publicly revealed for the first time that the DNA of the killer had been found where Van Cuylenborg’s body was discovered, The Vancouver Sun reported. That same year, the homicides were reviewed by a group of FBI profilers and British experts during a local crime-solving conference, but their analysis did not yield any new leads, according to the Vancouver newspaper.