KENT — Sarah Yarborough's family and friends recalled the fear that permeated their school and community, their curfews tightened and locks double-bolted.
They detailed how a generation of girls learned far too early that there were men who wanted to hurt them and felt entitled to their bodies. And they spoke of shattered innocence — how Yarborough's long-unknown killer became Federal Way's boogeyman, a nightmare made real.
Even today, more than 30 years after Yarborough's murder and sexual assault, the cold-case killing affects her loved ones' abilities to trust strangers, their mental health and their vigilance in parenting their own children.
King County Superior Court Judge Josephine Wiggs listened intently during Thursday's sentencing of Yarborough's killer, Patrick Leon Nicholas, and read aloud excerpts from victim impact letters she received leading up to the hearing.
A jury earlier this month found Nicholas, 59, guilty of first-degree felony murder and returned a special verdict that Yarborough's killing was sexually motivated.
That finding led Wiggs to impose an exceptional sentence of just over 45 1/2 years in prison, a sentence recommended by prosecutors that all but guarantees Nicholas will die behind bars. His defense attorney, David Montes, had recommended a 20-year sentence.
"It's so cruel that someone who was so young, so generous with her spirit and so concerned with the safety of others would be the victim of such predatory, depraved conduct," Wiggs said of Yarborough, who was 16 when she was fatally strangled during an attempted rape on the Federal Way High School campus in December 1991. "When I think about this poor child and what she experienced, fighting for her life ... it's just so disturbing."
Wiggs said she was also disturbed by the fact Nicholas was on parole for an earlier attempted rape when he killed Yarborough — and that he walked free for nearly three decades before his 2019 arrest "while the community suffered."
Nicholas did not react to the sentence, nor did he address the court. He intends to appeal his conviction.
During Nicholas' 2 1/2 -week trial, jurors heard that Yarborough — an honor student and member of her school's drill team — raced out of her house and drove her father's car to the school to meet with her teammates for a competition at another school Dec. 14, 1991.
Yarborough, who left home in her drill team uniform with hot rollers in her ponytail, thought she was late and arrived a little after 8 a.m., though the team wasn't scheduled to meet for another hour.
"While it will never be known how Mr. Nicholas was able to force Sarah Yarborough away from the safety of her car, school and arriving drill team, Mr. Nicholas' prior convictions suggest he used a weapon or threats of violence," Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa wrote in the state's sentencing memo, noting that in four prior attacks, Nicholas approached women near their cars with a knife and forced them to walk to secluded areas.
Jurors heard during trial that two young boys cutting through the school campus to skateboard saw a man pop up on an embankment and quickly walk away. The boys discovered Yarborough's partially nude body, ran to one of their homes and told the boy's parents, who called 911.
Yarborough had injuries to her face, her legs were scratched and dirty, and male DNA found under her fingernails was proof she "fought for her life" before she died, strangled with her nylons wrapped around her neck, according to Barbosa and evidence presented at trial.
During the yearslong investigation into Yarborough's killing, King County sheriff's detectives sent DNA samples from nearly 100 men to the State Patrol Crime Lab to be tested against unknown male DNA found on several items of Yarborough's clothing left near her body. The men were all eliminated as possible suspects, and her murder went unsolved for 28 years.
Over the years, the male DNA was run through the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, an FBI database of DNA profiles from people convicted of felonies. There were never any matches.
Then, in October 2019, a genetic genealogist identified two King County brothers, both sex offenders, as possible suspects. The older brother, whose DNA was already in CODIS, was quickly eliminated, leading detectives to focus their attention on the younger brother, Nicholas.
A team of detectives began following Nicholas, and one of them collected the butts of two cigarettes the detective watched him smoke outside a Kent laundromat. DNA from the cigarette butts matched DNA from the crime scene, leading to Nicholas' arrest.
Before Wiggs handed down her sentence, Laura Yarborough was the first to take the podium. She called her daughter "the delight of my life" — smart and creative, with a smile that "lit up the room."
Sarah Yarborough planted flowers every spring, helped her younger brothers with their homework, was excited to attend an out-of-state college, enjoyed museums and the ballet, and once told her mother she felt alive when she danced.
"She made those of us around her better," Laura Yarborough said. "She was a person who built bridges and brought people together, but in her own quiet way."
Sarah Yarborough's death "left us broken," her mother said. "We've never been the same."
"My husband and I have three years that are a blank — they're just gone. Our lives went from full color to fuzzy gray."
Michelle Maddox said the harm Nicholas caused was compounded by the fact he evaded capture so long. Once he was arrested, Maddox said, "I had to grieve and re-grieve my best friend's murder."
After Yarborough's death, "school was terrible," with photographers trying to capture images of her friends crying and some students blaming Yarborough for what happened to her, Maddox said. "Our school was ill-equipped to deal with it."
Another woman, Anne Croney, told Wiggs she was 21 when Nicholas approached her and struck up a conversation as she leaned against her bumper in June 1983. Croney said she became uncomfortable and climbed into the driver's seat — at which point, Nicholas put a knife to her throat, ordered her to undress, stifled her attempts to scream for help and marched her down an embankment.
When he told her to stop, she kept going, straight into the Columbia River.
"I swam harder than I ever had before," she said.
Nicholas, she said, was sentenced to a maximum term of 10 years for her attempted rape.
"I had found peace and moved on with my life," Croney said. "I was naive."
She learned decades later Nicholas didn't serve even half his sentence before being released from prison — and then went on to kill Yarborough in 1991.
The Seattle Times typically does not name victims of sex crimes, but Croney agreed to be publicly identified.
"If the system had worked as it should have, he would've been in prison till 1993," Croney said. "The system failed me, it failed Sarah and countless others."
In her statements from the bench, Wiggs said Nicholas' trial gave her newfound respect for cold-case detectives who never gave up on finding Yarborough's killer.
"I'd hope Sarah's memory in this case really stands for the fact that no matter how many years [go by], there will be accountability, and today is the day," Wiggs said.