Scientists hoping to find the person responsible for the 1991 slaying of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough, of Federal Way, say the girl's alleged killer could have distant ties to the Mayflower.

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A King County sheriff’s detective believes he may have found a distant relative of the man who killed a 16-year-old Federal Way girl in 1991.

A very distant relative.

Detective Jim Allen said a Southern California-based forensic genealogist has found a direct link between the killer’s DNA found on Sarah Yarborough’s body and three passengers who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. The information could help detectives narrow their search for Yarborough’s killer.

Allen said there’s a chance the killer could have the surname Fuller, the same last name as a family that arrived on the Mayflower in what is now Plymouth, Mass.

Allen said that he had been looking into the slaying for more than a year when a scientist from the state crime laboratory recommended that he contact Colleen Fitzpatrick, who runs the firm IdentiFinders with her husband. But when Fitzpatrick contacted him last month, after she compared the killer’s DNA profile with public and private databases, Allen admits he was surprised and confused.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about how genealogy works. I didn’t know what it meant; whether it was a direct DNA link,” Allen said on Wednesday.

Fitzpatrick said the King County Sheriff’s Office sent her a genetic profile, basically a series of numbers, and she linked it with the last name of Fuller. She compared the series of numbers to private and public databases that linked DNA coding to certain last names.

“The whole point of this exercise was to find a last name for the detectives. They just need a breakthrough,” Fitzpatrick said. “We didn’t go out and test a 400-year-old person’s remains.”

Fitzpatrick is quick to caution that the testing is not foolproof.

She said that the Fuller family likely has “thousands” of descendants and the killer might not even share the same last name. In addition, others with the same last name may come from a different family.

Today, there are tens of millions of people descended from the 102 passengers and about 25 crew members who arrived on the Mayflower, according to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. Nine presidents have been related to those original Pilgrims.

“All it is is a lead. All it does is generate a lead for this poor family who had their daughter murdered 20 years ago,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s interesting that it’s a DNA-Mayflower-type of thing. To me that isn’t important because I was just trying to get the last name.”

Yarborough, a Federal Way High School student, was last seen on the morning of Dec. 14, 1991, when she was leaving her house for a dance-team competition, according to the Sheriff’s Office. She was found slain on her school campus; deputies say that the girl was raped.

Witnesses told police that they saw a white man, in his 20s, about 5-feet-10 to 6 feet tall, with shoulder-length blond hair, in the area at the time. The man had a medium build and was wearing a trench coat and dark-colored pants, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Allen said that he has searched through the case file, but no one named Fuller has ever been mentioned as a potential suspect. He is now contacting two Fullers who went to high school with Yarborough, including a female who was friends with the victim.

While this is the first case in which the Sheriff’s Office has sought help through forensic genealogy (genealogy supplemented with DNA profiles), Fitzpatrick has regularly worked with law enforcement.

She has worked on cases of literary fraud involving people falsely claiming to be Holocaust survivors, and she helped identify remains found in the wreckage of a 1948 airline crash in Alaska. Fitzpatrick was able to find a relative of a plane-crash victim in Ireland using a DNA sample obtained from a frozen hand recovered on a glacier.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.