Hi Reddit,

My name is Chelsea Rustad and I am a genetic witness. In 2015, I won an AncestryDNA kit in a Facebook contest. In 2018, two investigators knocked on my door and I learned that my second cousin William Earl Talbott II had been arrested as the suspect of a double homicide cold case from 1987. He was identified using my DNA via a breakthrough technique called genetic genealogy, and in 2019 was found guilty in the murder of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. I attended the sentencing in support of the victims' families, and wrote a memoir about my experiences entitled "Inherited Secrets". Ask me anything.


Inherited Secrets

Comments: 77 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

Baby-knees34 karma

Thanks for the AMA. So did anyone ask you for permission to use your DNA? Or are the store bought Ancestry DNA kits going into a Database and that’s how they found you?

ChelseaRustad69 karma

I won an AncestryDNA kit in 2015, and from there, I linked it to my Ancestry tree. But no one can access someone's DNA if all they did was take an AncestryDNA kit. I also uploaded the raw DNA file from the kit to GEDmatch at the suggestion of my genealogist cousin. This was before GEDmatch changed their policy allowing people to choose to "opt-in" or "opt-out" of their DNA being available to assist with criminal investigations.

So while technically I was not asked, I knew that by sharing my DNA on GEDmatch, there could potentially be some surprising discoveries and I was OK with that. The fact that it ended up solving a 31 year old cold case was shocking but something I support because of what it meant to the families, and the horrific nature of the crime and what happened to Jay and Tanya.

Tempsew6 karma

If you had been asked do you think you would have opted in? I'm of two minds. I know some family I have would be against anything being uploaded and we share those genes, but I'm also very ok helping solve crimes.

Are any of your family members uncomfortable this happened? Or what was thier response?

ChelseaRustad25 karma

My feelings are that if someone committed a horrific assault like rape or murder, it doesn't matter to me if we are related. They don't deserve to be shielded from consequences for that. If that happened to our loved ones we would demand justice, and rightly so. I just have no sympathy for anyone capable of such terrible acts. So I absolutely would have opted in no matter what.

My immediate family had no problem with it, but Talbott's sister, my second cousin Malena, unfriended me from Facebook after the sentencing. We weren't close at all and I barely knew her, so I think that her refusal to accept the guilty verdict is her issue to deal with. If she wants to be mad at me for her brother's behavior, it seems like a pretty clear case of misplaced anger.

Tempsew4 karma

I very much agree. I did opt in, after quite a bit of back and forth, but I haven't told some aunt's and uncles to avoid drama. It's sort of silly they'd unfriend you. It's not like you even were asked to test to "trap" someone.

ChelseaRustad16 karma

And it's just very interesting to me how some of the opponents of IGG seem to frame this so that the rapists and murderers are the victims, and we're the bad guys for "exposing" them. There's a really easy way to guarantee that they don't get the finger put on them as a suspect for a crime, and that's to not kill someone or commit a sexual assault. It's just really telling that the immediate knee-jerk response people seem to have is "But what about the murderer's privacy?" They surrendered that when they left their DNA all over a crime scene.

depressionisreal118 karma

What was your reaction to finding out your second cousin was a killer?

ChelseaRustad37 karma

It was a strange combination of being deeply disgusted by his actions and also weirdly ashamed of being related to him, even though I had never met him or his immediate family in my life. I felt that because of my connection to him, and the research I had conducted on my family that could help with the investigation, that it was incumbent upon me to try to help the victims' families however possible. I tried to put myself in their shoes and think about what they were going through, and realized maybe they were worried that his cousins from GEDmatch would take his side or defend him. So I wanted to make sure they knew that wasn't the case.

depressionisreal14 karma

Thank you for your answer, I can only imagine how hard it was. Also happy birthday!!

ChelseaRustad3 karma

Thanks very much! :)

frankzzz7 karma

Were there any other 2nd or 3rd cousin DNA matches of his that might have helped identify him, if you had never tested or hadn't uploaded to Gedmatch?

ChelseaRustad9 karma

When Parabon uploaded Talbott's DNA to GEDmatch, there were two hits: mine (his second cousin) and one other (his half first cousin once removed). That second hit was significantly more challenging for CeCe Moore to identify because of the more complex relationship, and because there were only initials on the user who uploaded the data.

It's certainly possible that someone else could have shared their DNA, but Gary Baanstra (Jay Cook's brother-in-law) told me that I was the main link in the case. A second cousin is a strong connection and easier to research, and because they had two hits, one paternal and one maternal, CeCe was able to build both sides of the tree and discover the intersection. Out of thousands of profiles on GEDmatch, only two hits... it was so fortunate that we were both on there, and both uploaded before GEDmatch automatically opted us out after the privacy backlash! It's scary to think how close this came to not being solved.

frankzzz5 karma

Thinking of how many thousands of matches I have on Gedmatch, I can't imagine having only 2 matches. Or did you mean only 2 hits in the 2nd-3rd cousin range?

ChelseaRustad8 karma

Oh, yes, I was referring to the number of actual hits that showed up on GEDmatch for Talbott's DNA. It's very possible that other relatives could have matched him too. But they would have had to take a DNA test, AND share the results in GEDmatch, AND not be opted out, AND be a close enough relative that a genetic genealogist could deduce the connection, AND have a username that makes the person who uploaded the file identifiable. It's actually surprising to me that there were two people who ended up fitting all those criteria.

DragonBorn764 karma

When Parabon uploaded Talbott's DNA to GEDmatch, there were two hits: mine (his second cousin) and one other (his half first cousin once removed). That second hit was significantly more challenging for CeCe Moore to identify because of the more complex relationship, and because there were only initials on the user who uploaded the data.

Can you give more details on how these hits helped to identify Talbott ? I get that you matched up as his second cousin and the other matched up as a first.

How did they get to the point that they identified Talbott out of all this? Sorry if this has been explained somewhere .

ChelseaRustad12 karma

No problem. When I uploaded my raw DNA file to GEDmatch, I had my full name attached, "Chelsea Rustad", and GEDmatch showed CeCe that we shared 3.35% of our DNA. That told CeCe right away that I was probably a second cousin, so if she could identify our shared ancestors, she could go forward identifying descendants and try to find the suspect.

Eventually CeCe figured out who the parents were: the father was from the other cousin, and the mother was from my Rustad branch. Those two people had four children. Three were daughters, and there was only one son -- and they knew it was male DNA because of the semen at the crime scene. So it could only be Talbott. He had no twins, there were no other adopted out sons.

Then the investigators tailed Talbott for about a week, hoping to collect DNA and confirm beyond a doubt that he was their man. Talbott was a trucker and he dropped a coffee cup out of his truck. They picked it up and tested it against the original crime scene DNA sample. It was a 100% match, confirming that CeCe's report had been correct.

DragonBorn765 karma

Thank you. That makes sense. I'm glad you contributed your DNA . Does anyone in your family hold any grudges against you about this? well other than Talbott of course.

ChelseaRustad9 karma

My immediate family (mom, dad, and grandma) has been completely supportive. Unfortunately my dad and grandma have since passed away, but my dad told me he was proud that my DNA "solved the case". My grandma got to see the documentaries from Fifth Estate and W5 about the Talbott case, really enjoyed them and expressed her hope that more people can be helped with IGG.

None of Talbott's immediate family have contacted me directly and said anything, but I'm pretty sure his sister Malena is not pleased with me. She deleted me off Facebook shortly after the cover story about me ran in the Everett Herald, and apparently was ranting to a reporter about how she was "furious" with me. She said in her statement to police that she would accept the outcome if he was proven guilty, yet he was convicted and she not only doesn't accept it but blames me, seemingly. It's not like it was a major connection so I wasn't particularly upset by her unfriending me, but her repeated insistence that Talbott was innocent or that I was a bad person for supporting the families was pretty offensive to me.

NegligentPlantOwner7 karma

Have you been met any of his immediate family since you found out? If so, what was that like, do you maintain contact?

ChelseaRustad14 karma

Strangely enough, before the investigators knocked on the door and I knew anything about the case, I had been invited to the funeral of Talbott's sister Angel, who had passed away just a couple weeks prior. Then I found out that Talbott was arrested, and asked to make sure there was no chance he would be there. I don't think he would have gone anyway as apparently he skipped his own mother's funeral, but I had to be sure.

I did attend Angel's funeral. I was pretty nervous because I hadn't met any of the Talbotts in person before, but they were all there: his father Bill Talbott Sr., his sisters Inga and Malena, his brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, etc. One of the first things said to me after I was welcomed in was the question: "Did you hear about what happened with Bill?" I realized then that they didn't know it was my DNA that identified him. So I said yes, and they assured me that they just didn't want that to be the topic that sidetracked from Angel's memorial. I agreed in full.

I'm still in contact with Talbott's nephew, my second cousin once removed on Facebook, but we haven't really chatted or hung out since his mother Angel's funeral.

NegligentPlantOwner7 karma

Was there any contact with them when it became apparent that it was your DNA?

ChelseaRustad9 karma

There was no contact directly to me. One of the reporters covering the story reached out to the Talbotts for fact-checking, and told me that "someone" from the Talbott family (they wouldn't identify who) was absolutely furious at me and felt that I was only trying to get attention for a political campaign (I was not and am not running any political campaign). As if I possibly could have known that my DNA would identify a killer, or that it's a bad thing that Talbott was convicted. I'm certain that person was his sister Malena. Her statement to the police was loaded with victim-blaming and repeated suggestions that he didn't do it despite the DNA evidence.

mypurplebrains6 karma

If you were given the chance to go back in time and take the Ancestry test again but not upload your DNA, would you do it? (Obviously you did not expect to be a key part in convicting him)

Would you do another Ancestry test and upload your DNA in another life, if you retained the knowledge of what happened when you did so in this life?

Would you recommend others to upload their DNA if given the chance? It could potentially help catch more criminals, but also have some negativity attached.

ChelseaRustad17 karma

I definitely still would have made the choice to share my DNA, knowing what I know now. It made me feel empowered, not just as a genetic witness, but as a survivor of assault myself. Victim advocacy is very important to me, and this is something folks can do to significantly improve the odds of these cold cases being solved.

Still, I would certainly always advise people to stay cautious, maintain healthy skepticism, and keep their wits about them any time they are dealing with police. Remember that you don't have to answer any questions you don't feel comfortable with. You don't have to send them your DNA file -- by the time they've found you, they've already identified the suspect. And it's OK to ask important questions about privacy and how these consumer DNA companies are using our data. Ensuring that encryption and other security measures are in place to protect your data is important, the same way you'd protect your credit card info or Social Security Number. Use with discretion and handle with care.

rarehulahoop5 karma

I have not read the memoir, but I want to read it!

  1. What was your reaction when the two investigators knocked on your door?
  2. How did your family react?
  3. Do you still keep in contact with your second cousin?

ChelseaRustad5 karma

Thanks! I do get into more detail in the book but I can answer here too:

  1. When we first heard the knock, I was just confused because neither myself nor my then-fiance (now husband) Ben were expecting company. When I looked through the peephole and saw two cops on my doorstep I was immediately apprehensive and concerned. I unfortunately had some very disappointing and hurtful experiences trying to report assaults in the past and not being helped, so I was feeling distrustful and wondering what on earth they could be at my house for. Figured it must be a mistake and they were at the wrong house. Of course, when I opened the door and asked what this was all about, my outlook changed. I was still cautious going forward but I am passionate about victim advocacy and felt this was a way to help the families of Jay and Tanya.
  2. I actually had never met William Earl Talbott II before any of this happened. He was estranged from his own immediate family for about 20 years at the time of his arrest in 2018. The first time I ever saw him in person was when I attended his sentencing hearing in support of the families in 2019. He had never met me and had no reaction to me. I imagine he had no idea who I was.

ChelseaRustad3 karma

I'm sorry, I completely skipped question #2. My immediate family has been completely supportive of me every step of the way. They were proud. As for Talbott's siblings, I strongly suspect that William's sister Malena believes he is innocent and angry that my DNA resulted in his conviction. She unfriended me off Facebook. I never got to meet his sister Angel before she passed away a couple weeks before his arrest, unfortunately. Inga's statement was very straightforward regarding Talbott's past abusive behavior and held nothing back. But I only met Malena and Inga in person once at Angel's funeral. There's been no contact since.

ricobirch4 karma

So they couldn't get a DNA sample from him so they took one from you and used it to connect him to the evidence?

ChelseaRustad10 karma

They had his DNA from the original crime scene. Semen was found on Tanya's pants and body, but there were no hits in CODIS, and genetic genealogy did not exist back then. It wasn't until 30 years later that genetic genealogy was developed as a new technique to identify a suspect by building a tree based on relatives.

There is a very common misconception that my DNA was taken or stored by police. Thankfully, that is not the case. I shared my DNA raw file voluntarily on GEDmatch, so when Parabon uploaded Talbott's sample, it matched mine and told them how many centimorgans we shared. But at no point were cops able to download, take, or save my DNA file.

_FaunaAndFirearms_3 karma

Did you have a personal relationship with your second cousin, if so, have you spoken to him since? How did that news impact you?

ChelseaRustad2 karma

I actually never met or spoke to him. The only time I ever saw him in person was at his sentencing hearing in July of 2019. I don't think he saw me or knew who I was.

He also didn't really have a relationship with his own family. He was estranged from them for about 20 years at the time of his arrest, despite living nextdoor to his sister Angel.

shallwetrythisagain3 karma


ChelseaRustad5 karma

Thank you! I did touch on this a bit in my memoir as well, because it was so critical to the momentum happening in the Talbott case.

The Golden State Killer was the first use of genetic genealogy to solve a cold case, as pioneered by Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, and was the gateway to the solving of the Talbott case. Detective Scharf asked Parabon labs if they could do something like that to find new suspects in the case of Jay and Tanya, and sure enough, they found two hits in GEDmatch. As a result, the GSK was the first to be arrested, but Talbott's case was the first to go to trial and result in a conviction due to IGG, worldwide.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter at the Midwestern Conference for Investigative Genetic Genealogy in Wichita this past January. She was in Time's top 100 most influential people. Absolutely brilliant woman, and it was fascinating hearing how creative and resourceful she was in forging a path forward with this groundbreaking new technology she helped develop.

bros4023 karma

What site did you have your kit on? GEDmatch? Family Tree DNA?

ChelseaRustad4 karma

I won an AncestryDNA kit in 2015, linked the results to my Ancestry tree, and then downloaded the raw DNA file from Ancestry and uploaded it to GEDmatch.

bros4023 karma

Did you opt in your kit after GEDMatch auto-opted everyone out, or are you now opted out?

ChelseaRustad3 karma

It hadn't occurred to me to log back into GEDmatch until Caleb Hutton asked me that question while interviewing me for the Everett Herald. I wasn't sure if it was likely that my DNA would be used for something like this again, but for that matter, I never would have expected this to happen once, either. So I did make the decision to opt back in. It's everyone's personal choice, but I do think it's unfortunate that the default decision has been to opt out everyone by default, shutting out thousands of profiles. This includes profiles of deceased users who can never log back in and opt in.

Adiantum3 karma

What did it feel like to talk to the police the first time? What sort of questions did they ask you? Did you have to go to court as a witness? I think that would be super stressful even if I was helping the case and not personally involved. I followed this case closely and the breaking news of genetic genealogy a couple of years ago and it was very exciting to get answers to a case.

ChelseaRustad7 karma

It was a stressful moment when they first knocked on the door, because I unfortunately had a history of negative and disappointing experiences when I tried to report in the past. But when I understood what had happened and my role in identifying Talbott through my DNA, I felt strongly compelled to cooperate (while still being cautious and only doing what I felt comfortable doing) and help the families achieve the right result.

We talked for about 2 hours and they asked me lots of questions about how I had built my tree, what I knew about each of the Talbott family members, what my impression of William Earl Talbott II was, and how I had come to share my DNA on GEDmatch. They were very interested in the records I saved for Talbott on Ancestry, and in documenting my connection to him. I went into much more detail about this interview in my memoir as well.

They never did ask me to testify, as thankfully the defense did not challenge the admissibility or accuracy of the genetic genealogy "tip" that had identified Talbott. But I definitely would have done so if asked. Thankfully, the IGG evidence was strong enough to convict him. And I was still glad for the opportunity to support the families by attending the sentencing, after being invited by Detective Jim Scharf.

question44772 karma

Did you personally know William, if so what was he like?

ChelseaRustad1 karma

I had never met him or spoken with him before all this happened. He was also estranged from his own family for 20 years at the time of his arrest. But ever since he was arrested, I made a point of learning everything I possibly could about him -- reading every article, watching every documentary, researching his full family tree, and requesting the public record of police statements from his family so I could learn more about his background. I get into it in great detail in my memoir, but essentially he was an abusive person his entire life. Bullied others at school, hurt animals, only got a girlfriend when he came into money and she left when it ran out, got into altercations with his whole family, dropped out of high school, couldn't hold a job, borrowed money from family constantly and cut them all off when they asked to be paid back. So essentially a terrible person even if he had never committed the murders, but he did that too. Definitely fits the profile you might expect of a delinquent, entitled, violent person who was atrocious to his family, but acted just normal enough at work to become a trucker later in life.

Kghp112 karma

Did you have a tree attached on GEDMatch or did the police contact you because you didn’t have a tree and you were so closely connected? My family whose kits I manage let me upload to GEDmatch but only without trees since it’s public (in that you can view strangers’ matches and trees, not that you can view or download their actual DNA sequencing), though I do have trees linked at Ancestry, 23andme, MyHeritage, and Familytreedna.

ChelseaRustad3 karma

I had only built my tree on Ancestry, and I actually had never heard of GEDmatch before despite being involved in genealogy as a hobby for a few years at that point. But my cousin recommended that I check it out and look for matches there. It was only because of her offhand remark that I shared my DNA file on GEDmatch. I uploaded the file, basically never used the site again, and forgot about it. Three years later, Parabon uploaded Talbott's DNA to GEDmatch, and that's how they finally got a hit and CeCe Moore was able to build the tree identifying Talbott as the suspect.

I believe when the investigators visited me, they just wanted to confirm the relative connection, and that it was only my DNA that I had shared on GEDmatch.

cosmosforest2 karma

What was your opinion of the entire process, and would you encourage others to opt-in if given the choice? Would you have opted in yourself when originally uploading your results?

ChelseaRustad4 karma

When it comes to my own experience, I would characterize it as very positive. Having the opportunity to contribute in this way to two families finally receiving the answers and justice they'd been denied for decades felt cathartic and meaningful. It also helped that the Cook and Van Cuylenborg families were beyond welcoming, gracious, kind, intelligent, and funny, every step of the way. It was painful for them to relive the loss of their loved ones, but I also know that they are happy and grateful for the outcome. It's strange to think that if anything had happened differently, if I had never just so happened to take this test or shared my DNA on GEDmatch, these families might have never found out who took their loved ones or had the opportunity to hold him accountable.

I can never pretend to know what they've been through, but I believe that if I were in their position, I would be desperate for more people to come forward and choose to opt in. It's so easy to do and means more than people can realize. Also, they don't necessarily have to enter the public eye. That was a choice I made to send a message that it is important to visibly support victims and their families.

Fredelas2 karma

With modern methods, DNA can be recovered from a wide variety of evidence. If improvements are made in efficiency and automation, it could be used to identify suspects in less serious crimes.

Can you think of any crimes you would not want police to investigate using your DNA?

ChelseaRustad6 karma

I think that a good moral framework for the use of IGG is the MOU (memorandum of understanding) adopted by Ventura County, CA in July of 2019. It states that the crime being investigated must be a violent felony (or have critical public safety implications), the investigating agency must have exhausted all other leads, there were no hits in CODIS or NDIS, etc. I think this is a good guideline because it ensures they don't just start using DNA to convict people for loitering, jaywalking, or other relatively trivial non-violent crimes, and that it isn't used as a first resort but a last resort after all other avenues have been explored.

reinainoue2 karma

Have you been able to expand your family tree since then? If so how big is it, and have you made any new discoveries?

ChelseaRustad3 karma

Absolutely! I am constantly re-checking my Ancestry tree for changes, updates, and new hints, almost daily. My Rustad family tree is public and visible to anyone (Ancestry requires an active subscription to see other users' trees): https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/62425280/family?cfpid=30090599584

It has 7,309 people in it right now! By far the largest tree I've worked on. By comparison, the tree I built for my husband contains 2,416 people.

After I learned about the Talbott case, and when I set about writing my memoir, I set aside some time specifically to research and flesh out the paternal side of Talbott's tree. It was challenging because there were multiple marriages, a name change, and an adoption, but I had a few exclusive tips to work off of based on my interactions with the Talbott family on social media, and was able to piece it together, even without the direct assistance of the Talbotts and before CeCe's show The Genetic Detective shed light on the full tree.

There is still one mystery that eludes me, though -- a few months before my dad passed away in 2018, my dad told me that I had another first cousin who was adopted out. I shared my DNA on an adoption site in hopes of matching with them, but no dice. I did get a response from someone who sounded like a very likely possibility, but eventually he stopped responding to me. It very well may be him, but I hope that I can confirm with 100% certainty someday who my long lost first cousin is.

eri7602 karma

is this the bear brook case?

ChelseaRustad5 karma

Oh, no, this one is different. This was from the 1987 murder of Jay Cook and his girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg, in Washington state. They were two Canadians visiting the Seattle area, and were murdered by William Earl Talbott II, my second cousin.

SmugDrunk2 karma

Do you worry about legal ramifications of this new evidence/trial technique? While I’m all for catching murderers I always worry about the amount of information governments keep on its citizens and this opens the door to that in my eyes. However, I do want to say your story is incredibly interesting and again catching murders in not bad in my eyes.

ChelseaRustad2 karma

I think it's always smart to seek as much information and understanding as possible when handling sensitive personally identifying data such as your DNA. And I also think the government has no business randomly taking DNA from anyone. My personal opinion is that DNA should only be taken from crime scenes, rape kits, and maybe from people convicted of violent crimes (rape/murder) for CODIS. No one should have their DNA taken simply because they were arrested, for instance. Arrest != guilt.

As far as I know, there has not been a breach of data where, for instance, someone's DNA was downloaded against their will. Sites like GEDmatch are great because they're 100% voluntary. If folks are interested in connecting with people or opting-in to criminal investigation access, they can choose to do so. And they can reverse that decision or delete their DNA from GEDmatch at any time.

Overall, I think that agreements like Ventura County's memorandum of understanding delineates some solid guidelines for the very specific circumstances under which IGG is even eligible to be used. It's important to maintain trust in the process because DNA data is ripe for abuse if it fell into the wrong hands or was used for malicious purposes.

Farisee1 karma

I had been waiting for a case involving genetic genealogy to go to trail. Of course the fact the defense didn't challenge the DNA makes the outcome less legally interesting.

This case has been one I have followed for a number of years and I am very happy to see a conclusion. Good for you for your contribution. I also uploaded to GEDmatch and opted in to allowing LE access.

I heard an interview with the defense attorney who appears to really believe in his innocence. I have a bit of sympathy for her because sometime one is convinced of a position and no one else sees it. However that "we had consensual sex just before someone killed her" defense never rings true to me. How thoroughly unlucky would a guy have to be?

Anyway, I plan to read your memoir.

ChelseaRustad1 karma

Thanks, I hope you enjoy it.

I was honestly pretty disturbed by the behavior of Talbott's defense team. When the guilty verdict was read, they shook their heads, rubbed his back, and told the press to stop recording him and "not be vulgar". It seemed like the media were just quietly doing their jobs.

In addition, when I attended the sentencing hearing, I was present as Jay's mother Lee approached the stand and gave her victim impact statement. It was heartbreaking to listen to and I couldn't hold back the tears. Then Talbott's attorney Rachel actually yelled out "objection" in the middle of Lee's statement, with nothing to gain whether it was sustained or not. I thought it was so tasteless, and I know that the families were not impressed.

And as you mentioned, their suggestion that Talbott had consensual sex with Tanya, while she was traveling with her boyfriend, and on her period, and then someone else killed both Jay and Tanya, was really absurd on its face.