DNA found on two cigarette butts was the evidence King County Sheriff's detectives needed to make an arrest in the cold-case 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 Nicholas, who also goes by his middle name, Leon, 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 6 miles from Federal Way High School, according to the charges.
In the nearly 28 years since Yarborough's slaying, sheriff's detectives have submitted male DNA from 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, Calif. who has previously worked on the Yarborough case, contacted Det. Kathleen Decker of the sheriff's Major Crimes Unit, the charges say. Fitzpatrick and two other genealogists identified two brothers through a family tree analysis based on the unknown male DNA and provided Decker with the brothers' names.
Both brothers have blonde hair and blue eyes, matching composite drawings sheriff's detectives released in February 2018, which 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 was previously 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.
Nicholas 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. He has never submitted a DNA sample for entry into CODIS, the charges say.
After identifying Nicholas as a suspect in Yarborough's killing, 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 exited the business, smoked a second cigarette and unknowingly dropped a napkin on the ground, which were also collected by the same detective, say 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 business 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 Yarborough 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 parking 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 while the other parent walked back with the brothers to the crime scene.
Yarborough's body was found maybe 100 yards from her vehicle, 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.