The Forever Witness
reviewed by Pam Guynn
The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder by Edward Humes is a suspenseful, riveting true crime book that combines great storytelling, cold case investigations, technological advances, and genetic genealogy in a captivating crime read.
In November 1987, Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her boyfriend Jay Cook leave on an overnight trip to Seattle. They vanish until a week later when their bodies are found in rural Washington. The brutal crime leaves few clues and an international manhunt turns up empty. The case and evidence eventually goes into long-term storage until thirty plus years later when Detective Jim Scharf looks at the case files hoping to find new clues that were missed in the original investigation.
The prologue gets one’s heart racing and immediately pulls readers into what is happening. Then readers get a look at the case from the beginning including the pieces of the puzzle that Detective Scharf and his team pull together of the trip taken by the young couple, the struggle the families had to get the police involved initially, and the original investigation, as well as the next steps Scharf takes.
Humes provides the latest information on their case at the time of writing the book. This includes using DNA advances to help identify suspects as well as re-interviewing people, looking for missed opportunities in the original investigation, looking at other ways to identify a suspect, and much more. Detective Scharf contacts various genealogists for help including CeCe Moore.
Meanwhile there is a discussion of technological advances in police investigations, including those involving DNA, ranging from DNA fingerprints to a national DNA database known as the Combined DNA Index System.
However, more is also occurring in the realm of DNA, with DNA matching originating from amateur genealogists searching for their roots. This includes CeCe Moore, who has had a fascination with genetic genealogy and how it can be used, not just for family tree hobbyists and adoptees hoping to find their birth parents, but also for solving cold cases.
Additionally, Parabon, a firm in Virginia, says it has the capability of creating genetic mugshots. The book covers the use of genetic mugshots and genetic genealogy in Jay and Tanya’s case and how CeCe Moore and Parabon work together to identify a suspect. There’s a fascinating discussion of the proponents and opponents to using genetic genealogy as a crime-fighting technique among genealogists, police organizations, keepers of genetic databases, and privacy advocates.
Overall, this story is startling, horrifying, thought provoking, and emotional. The author has a notes section at the end that explains who was interviewed and the sources of information used to construct this true crime story. Additionally, the author does a great job of explaining the science and the controversies in terms that can be easily understood. Those that enjoy well-written and suspenseful true crime and books involving genealogy or DNA will likely find this an amazing story.
PENGUIN GROUP Dutton and Edward Humes provided a complimentary digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley. This is my honest review. Opinions are mine alone and are not biased in any way. Publication date is currently set for November 29, 2022.