DNA found on two cigarette butts was the evidence King County sheriff’s detectives said they needed to make an arrest in the homicide of Sarah Yarborough, a 16-year-old drill-team member who was found strangled on the campus of Federal Way High School nearly three decades ago.
Patrick Leon Nicholas was charged Thursday with first-degree murder with sexual motivation, according to King County prosecutors. Nicholas is accused of killing Yarborough while attempting to commit second-degree rape, the charges say.
Yarborough was strangled with her nylons on Dec. 14, 1991, and male DNA was found on several items of her clothing near her body, charging papers say. Nicholas, a 55-year-old Covington man, was 27 at the time of her death and lived six miles from the high school, according to the charges.
In the 28 years since Yarborough’s slaying, sheriff’s detectives have submitted male DNA found at the crime scene for analysis numerous times. But there was never a match.
Then last week, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist based in Fountain Valley, California, who has worked before on the Yarborough case, contacted Detective Kathleen Decker of the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit saying there was a promising lead on a person of interest, the charges say. Fitzpatrick and two other genealogists identified Nicholas and his brother through a family tree analysis based on the DNA from the Federal Way crime scene and provided Decker with the brothers’ names.
Both brothers have blond hair and blue eyes, matching composite drawings sheriff’s detectives released in February 2018 after investigators determined Yarborough’s killer was of Northern European descent and most likely had blue or green eyes based on genetic markers in the previously unknown DNA.
Decker determined Nicholas’ older brother — a Level 2 sex offender who had been convicted of first-degree rape — could not be Yarborough’s killer because his DNA was entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) years ago, and regular comparisons to DNA from the Yarborough crime scene never produced a hit, the charges say.
Patrick Nicholas has never submitted a DNA sample for entry into CODIS despite having a criminal record, the charges say. He was convicted in 1983 of attempted first-degree rape in Benton County and was released from prison in 1987. He was also charged in 1994 with first-degree child molestation but later pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault, court records show.
After identifying Nicholas as a suspect in Yarborough’s death, detectives began watching him. On Sunday, a detective saw Nicholas smoking a cigarette outside a Kent dry-cleaning business and retrieved the butt from the ground, charging papers say. A short time later, Nicholas walked out of the business, smoked a second cigarette and unknowingly dropped a napkin on the ground, and both items were collected by the same detective, according to the charges.
On Monday, Decker took the items to the State Patrol Crime Lab for DNA testing and on Wednesday, a scientist told Decker DNA found on the cigarette butts matched DNA from the Yarborough crime scene, according to the charges.
“Countless hours have been spent by law enforcement attempting to solve this horrific crime that impacted our community in a way that few people have forgotten. Patrick Leon Nicholas has lived for the last several years in a dilapidated building on a large piece of property with few community ties,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Erin Ehlert wrote in charging papers. “If he does not remain in custody, he has every reason to attempt to flee and avoid prosecution as he has done for the last 27 years. His crime was one of opportunity and extreme violence and he will always be considered a danger to our community.”
Nicholas’ DNA will be entered into CODIS and compared to DNA from other unsolved cases, Ehlert wrote.
He was arrested at a Kent sports bar on Wednesday and was booked into the King County Jail, court and jail records show. Prosecutors have requested that his bail be set at $5 million.
Laura Yarborough, Sarah’s mother, attended a Thursday news conference at the King County Sheriff’s Office in downtown Seattle and thanked all of the detectives who have worked on her daughter’s case for their dogged determination.
“They’ve been so professional and kind to our family. They never gave up, even when I gave up,” Laura Yarborough said.
She was surprised when she got the call Wednesday night with news that an arrest had been made in connection with her daughter’s homicide.
“I think for me, I’m still a little numb. I’m sure other feelings will follow,” Yarborough said.
She said her daughter loved life, people and traveling. Sarah was an excellent student, always had a book at hand, and was excited about going off to college.
Sarah’s friends, Yarborough said, have remained in touch with the family over the years and have maintained a Facebook page seeking justice for Sarah.
“Her friends were very impacted by this. They were young and it was scary,” she said.
According to charging papers:
On a cold Saturday morning in December 1991, Yarborough drove to Federal Way High School and parked in the back lot. She and other members of her drill team were to board a bus for an event at Juanita High School in Kirkland.
She arrived early — a witness saw her pull in around 8:10 a.m., though the bus wasn’t to depart until 9. At 8:20 a.m., another witness noticed her car engine was warm, despite the frigid temperatures.
A man jogging near the tennis courts at the high school looked over and saw a girl lying motionless on the ground, a man kneeling beside her and touching the girl’s breasts and thighs. The jogger thought they were a couple making out so jogged on — but later provided a suspect description to police.
Then around 9:15 a.m., two 12-year-old boys were cutting through the campus on their way to the store when a man stepped out of the bushes. Both boys got a good look at him before he walked away. The boys saw Yarborough’s body and ran home and told their parents.
One parent called 911 and another walked back with the boys to the crime scene.
Yarborough’s body was found maybe 100 yards from her car, and there was no reason for her to have walked in that direction, which means she was either lured or dragged to her death, police believe.
Over the years, investigators received more than 4,000 tips about the case. After Nicholas was identified through his DNA, his name was run through the tip database but no one had ever mentioned him, the charges say.
Though charging papers don’t detail how Fitzpatrick and her fellow genealogists identified Nicholas, in the past year, law enforcement has identified suspects through the DNA of relatives, who used sites such as Ancestry.com or 23andMe to generate their own DNA profiles then uploaded them to GEDmatch, a public genetic-genealogy website.
Genetic genealogy, which utilizes DNA testing and traditional genealogical methods to establish familial relationships, led to the arrest last year of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged serial rapist and killer known as the Golden State Killer in California. Closer to home, genetic genealogy led to the arrest of Earl Talbot II of SeaTac in the November 1987 slaying of Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and 20-year-old Jay Cook, a young Canadian couple. Talbot was convicted of murder in Snohomish County Superior Court and was sentenced to two life terms in July.