San Clemente’s CeCe Moore finds criminals and reunites families as a genetic genealogist. Her passion for piecing together the puzzle has led to 16 arrests and a job on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.”
For 31 years, it was one of the coldest cold cases in Snohomish County, Wash. A young Canadian couple, Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, were driving to Seattle when they disappeared. Five days later, Van Cuylenborg’s body was found in a ditch. She had been raped and shot in the head. Two days later, hunters stumbled across Cook’s body. Police also found, under the back porch of a Bellingham tavern, Cook’s ID, Van Cuylenborg’s wallet, keys to their van, and a box of ammunition.
They discovered one more item under the porch, which they suspected was a taunt: a pair of surgical gloves. The killer, a Seattle detective concluded, was telling law enforcement that because he wore gloves, there would be no fingerprints and therefore no way to connect him to the crime.
He was wrong.
CeCe Moore is a genetic genealogist living in San Clemente. Using investigative techniques similar to the ones used to solve the Golden State Killer case, Moore ran the suspect’s DNA through a public genealogy website. After a weekend of research, she tracked down a few distant relatives, which eventually led to the suspect, William Earl Talbott II, a 55-year-old truck driver who police arrested in May. Talbott had no idea that semen left at the crime scene in 1987 would provide investigators with the DNA evidence that would put him behind bars.
Since Talbott was arrested, Moore—the lead genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company—has used this investigative technique to identify a number of suspects, leading to 16 arrests and 23 successful identifications. Moore also works for the PBS show “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” and has spent decades working on unknown-parentage cases, helping adoptees and abandoned babies find birth parents, aiding people in identifying sperm-donor fathers, and helping Holocaust survivors locate relatives. The Talbott case was her first law-enforcement investigation. There is a different satisfaction, she says, in helping a child find a birth mother than in solving a homicide. After she identified Talbott, she cried.
“There was no celebration, like when I find a birth parent,” she says. “Then I do a happy dance. I know something positive will come out of it, and somebody might be welcomed with open arms. With a murder, I think about how this person did something so awful, and I think about the suffering of the family. But I know it’s very important work. It might offer the victim’s family, who has been left hanging in some cases for decades, some peace of mind and a sense of justice, and it could make society a safer place.”
After police arrested Talbott, Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf said during a televised news conference, “If it hadn’t been for genetic genealogy, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Behind Scharf, Moore’s face was projected on a screen via Skype.
Moore has an unlikely background for a sleuth who tracks killers and rapists. She grew up in San Diego, attended USC, and majored in theater. After leaving college, she spent a decade working in musical theater throughout Southern California. She knew to advance her career, she would need to go on tour or move to New York, neither of which appealed to her. Instead, she worked in commercials, moving back and forth between Balboa Island and Los Angeles until she moved to San Clemente in 2004.
She’d been interested in genetics since high school, and her interest was further piqued around the year 2000 when she started working on a family tree for a niece’s wedding present. Moore has an “obsessive-compulsive personality,” she says, and the mystery and intricacies of genetics captured her right away. She continued her family research long after the niece’s wedding, interviewing dozens of family members and compiling 3,500 pages of data. In 2009, Moore joined the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, a nonprofit organization of volunteer genealogists. She took over the “newbie list,” a group for enthusiasts trying to learn how to research their own families.
The science was first used commercially when a company called FamilyTreeDNA began offering consumer DNA tests in 2000. These screenings offered subjects only the ability to trace their maternal and paternal lines, and these were the tests Moore used for her family tree. In 2009, the world of DNA detection underwent a seismic change when 23andMe introduced a test using autosomal DNA, which allows people to trace genetic material inherited from both parents.
“That changed things dramatically,” Moore says. “I could see the potential right away. I said to myself, ‘This is it! This is what I’m going to do with my life.’ ”
She continued helping the newbies and spent extensive time blogging about her family tree using detailed and sophisticated research. In assessing her blog traffic, she discovered that researchers from universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford, in addition to members of the Democratic and Republican National committees, were reading her posts. In 2010, she began to make a living as a genealogist by lecturing, consulting, and teaching. PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” hired her in 2013.
Moore has personally found birth parents for about 1,000 people on a pro bono basis. In 2015, she created the DNA Detectives Facebook group, a forum with about 100,000 followers and hundreds of volunteer genealogists who provide information and answer questions. The group has found birth parents for tens of thousands of seekers. Moore is passionate about fighting for the rights of people searching for family members.
“In the past, some people didn’t think individuals should have access to their DNA,” she says. “Many in the medical profession thought people should have to go through a doctor. I thought that was wrong. I feel very strongly that (people have) the right to know their genetic roots. So I started helping people and doing it for free. I decided to right a societal wrong one case at a time. I was working on dozens of cases a month and solving a few each month.”
A particularly rewarding case was when Moore found the mother of an infant referred to as Baby Alpha Beta, who was left in a milk crate next to a trash bin behind the Alpha Beta market in Anaheim. Kayla Tovo, the baby who had been abandoned in 1987, shared her story on social media a few years ago, and a friend who saw the post contacted Moore. Along with another genealogist, they eventually tracked down Tovo’s birth mother. After the reunion, Tovo invited Moore to her young son’s birthday party.
“Both families (were together at) the party—the newly found biological family and the adoptive family,” Moore says. “The thing I love about this work is seeing these people’s circle of support expand. Her young son got to meet two of his great-grandparents. He has a whole new family that has embraced him.”
Now she searches for some of the country’s most heinous malefactors from her living room. A large picture window in her ranch-style San Clemente home faces a grove of trees and blooming rose bushes. Perched on her beige couch with a MacBook on her lap and a steno pad, cellphone, and cup of coffee by her side, she occasionally ambles over to add details to a family tree that she sketches on a large whiteboard sitting on a stand in the dining room. She often works 18 hours without a break. She won’t pause unless her partner brings her a meal and persuades her to eat or her 13-year-old her son needs help with his schoolwork or wants to show her one of his drawings.
When Parabon NanoLabs received the go-ahead from investigators in Washington to test the DNA from the killer of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, Moore, the head of Parabon’s genetic genealogy unit, began her investigation. It was a Friday afternoon in April. Parabon uploaded the suspect’s DNA to GEDmatch.
The next day, Moore identified two second cousins whose genetic background was available on GEDmatch. She created two family trees, tracing the suspect’s paternal grandmother and his maternal great-grandparents. After scouring publicly available data such as death and marriage certificates as well as census records, obituaries, school yearbooks, social media, and newspapers.com, she began filling out more branches of the tree. She then narrowed her search, flowing forward in time, what she calls “reverse genealogy.”
By the end of the day, she had her “eureka moment,” she says. She discovered an obituary that revealed where the two family trees converged in a marriage. Talbott, who was 24 at the time of the murders, is allegedly the only male carrier who has the mix of DNA from the two families. “You have to build backward and then go forward in time to see where the branches come together,” Moore says. “Once I saw where the branches intersected, I identified the suspect, and they located him that day.”
Detectives put Talbott under surveillance as he drove around Seattle in his work truck. A paper cup fell out of his vehicle, which detectives collected. The police crime lab soon confirmed that the DNA from the cup matched the DNA collected from the crime scene.
Since the Talbott investigation, Moore has cracked cases from across the nation spanning many decades, from the 1986 murder of a 12-year-old Washington girl to the April 2018 rape and beating of a 79-year-old Utah woman. When police first began investigating the Utah case, they were extremely frustrated, says St. George police detective Josh Wilson. They sent DNA from a person suspected in the rape to local and national criminal DNA databases, but there were no matches. Detectives, he says, felt “stranded.” After the arrest in the Golden State Killer case, the department decided, “as a shot in the dark,” to work with Parabon. Moore, he says, soon provided detectives with leads that pointed to four brothers. They identified one they suspect in the sexual assault.
“All these cases are satisfying, but the one in Utah was particularly satisfying,” Moore says. “Some of the cases are very cold, but when I got this one, it was only two months old. I felt very strongly there was the risk of someone else being attacked or killed at any moment. I felt that I had to get this done right now. The clock was ticking. I worked all weekend and couldn’t wait to talk to the detectives on Monday morning and tell them what I’d found.”
About Parabon Nanolabs
Parabon is a DNA-technology company based in Reston, Va. The firm uses DNA from crime scenes to create an approximation and drawing of what the suspect might look like. This service, called Snapshot, is used by law-enforcement agencies.
In April, the company said it would offer forensic services using a public genetic database called GEDmatch. The site contains more than 1 million genetic profiles that people have uploaded in hopes of finding family members or distant relatives after having their DNA analyzed by commercial companies such as AncestryDNA.
Parabon uploads DNA from a crime scene to GEDmatch. Though Parabon wasn’t the company involved in the Golden State Killer case, it uses the same process of genealogical tracking that led to the April arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., a 73-year-old former police officer suspected of being the Golden State Killer. He has been charged with killing 13 people in California in the 1970s and ’80s.