Chelsea Rustad didn't think much about the DNA she'd uploaded years before — until two police officers showed up to her door in 2018

By Elaine Aradillas
October 07, 2020 11:00 AM
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Chelsea Rustad
Courtesy Chelsea Rustad

Chelsea Rustad knew very little about her family history.

“I couldn’t name a single one of my great-grandparents and I thought that was a little strange,” she tells PEOPLE.

In 2013, she decided to purchase a subscription to Ancestry.com to begin building her family’s tree. It became a hobby, and in 2015, she won a DNA kit after submitting a photo of herself.

She uploaded her profile but then didn't think much of it. Until 2018, when two officers from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state showed up at her door. “It was the first time I’d ever heard about the double homicide of the Canadian couple from 1987,” she says.

Chelsea Rustad (left)
Courtesy Chelsea Rustad

What the officers told her would change Rustad’s life — and her family — forever. The officers were investigating the 1987 murders of Canadians Jay Cook, 20, and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, who were killed while on a trip to Seattle. Thanks to the DNA Rustad had submitted in her test kit, they had connected evidence from the crime scene to Rustad’s cousin, truck driver William Earl Talbott II, now 57.

In June 2019 Talbott was found guilty of two counts of murder and sentenced to two life sentences — making him the first person to be convicted as a result of genealogy research. Authorities who worked for decades to solve the case say they're very grateful for Rustad’s willingness to assist the investigation.

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“The truth matters more to her,” says Snohomish County deputy prosecuting attorney Justin Harleman, “than covering up for a family member.”

Rustad had been unaware of Talbott's existence; she learned about him and his family through the Rustad branch of her tree. She connected with two of his three sisters on Facebook, but there was very little information about Talbott himself.

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“Nobody ever talked about him,” says Rustad, a quality assurance tester at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. “He’s not present in any recent photos or family gatherings.”

Still, Rustad handed over documents, photos and research to police about the cousin she didn’t know.

“Police told me that without my DNA, he would not have been arrested,” she says. “There would have been no trial. That family would have never had answers.”