Sarah Yarborough was 16 when she was killed in the parking lot of Federal Way High School in December 1991. Well over 30 years later, a man has finally been convicted of her murder in the cold case that had long flummoxed Washington State police.
Patrick Leon Nicholas, 59, was found guilty on one count each of murder in the first degree with sexual intent and murder in the second degree by King County jurors on Wednesday afternoon. He was acquitted on one count of first-degree murder with premeditation.
The King County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of Nicholas in October 2019, who was arrested after all those decades on the strength of “state of the art ancestry DNA techniques.”
When Yarborough was raped and murdered, she was going to a drill team event. She had borrowed her father’s car and drove to school with curlers still in her hair on the morning she died. Her body was found by a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy who had cut through the bushes as a shortcut on their way to school.
The boys and a jogger provided police with enough details of the suspect for a sketch artist to produce an image of the likely killer – a man who had been seen leaving the bushes in a hurry and kept shooting them suspicious glances as he trudged away.
During the trial that began on April 18, the defense claimed that Nicholas did not match the killer’s description and argued against the qualifications and reliability of the state’s forensic expert.
Those efforts weren’t enough.
“Nothing will bring Sarah back, but this is as much justice as we can all expect after so many years, and we’re really grateful the verdict was what it was,” Mary Beth Thome, a childhood friend of Yarborough’s, told The Kent Reporter. “He’s hurt multiple people in his life. Not just Sarah. … He can’t hurt anybody else anymore.”
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Celia Lee told jurors that Nicholas himself provided investigators with “critical corroborating information” before realizing he was a suspect, according to the Seattle Times.
“After leaving the safety of her car, her assailant led or dragged her” into the bushes where her lifeless body was found, the prosecutor reportedly told the jury. And as she was attacked, Yarborough scratched at the man who killed her as she “fought for her life.”
Experts showed that DNA collected from under the girl’s fingernails and semen stains on her clothing “came from a single male contributor,” Lee said, the paper reported.
For years, the state admitted during the three-week-long trial, the DNA was run through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a database that has led to convictions in several cold cases. But the CODIS never helped with Yarborough’s case.
Then, in 2019, King County Detective Kathleen Decker uploaded crime scene DNA to a different database and came back with two possible matches, the defendant and his brother.
The brother of the convicted killer already had his DNA in the federal database. Eliminating him was easy.
So, detectives began surveilling Nicholas. They ultimately collected some cigarette butts and a used napkin he threw away at a strip mall. Then state police tested the DNA. They found their match.
Nicholas was arrested at a bar in Kent.
His sentencing is slated for May 25.
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Patrick Leon Nicholas convicted of Sarah Yarborough’s murder
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