Patrick Leon Nicholas convicted of Sarah Yarborough's murder
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Patrick Leon Nicholas (L) and Sarah Yarborough (R)

Patrick Leon Nicholas, left, and Sarah Yarborough, right. (King County Sheriff’s Office)

A Washington State man will almost certainly die in prison for the cold case rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1991.

Patrick Leon Nicholas, 59, was found guilty by King County jurors earlier this month of one count each of murder in the first degree and murder in the second degree for killing Sarah Yarborough. The jury found he committed both crimes with sexual intent.

Nicholas was acquitted on one count of premeditated murder – but this acquittal did not particularly matter for sentencing purposes. Washington State does not have the death penalty as of late last month. And the defendant was sentenced to 45 years and eight months behind bars – an effective sentence of life in prison.

“[This] outrageous violation of a child,” King County Superior Court Judge Josephine Wiggs intoned, before sentencing the killer, in comments reported by Seattle-based CBS/Telemundo affiliate KIRO. “This outrageous sexual assault upon a child, culminating in her murder [is] a basis for an exceptional sentence.”

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.

At around 9:40 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1991, her body was found by a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy who had cut through a patch of bushes as a shortcut on their way to school.

She was discovered wearing her skirt and a sweater; her nylons had been wrapped around her neck; her cause of death was determined to be a combination of ligature and manual strangulation.

“When we lost her, our family was irrevocably changed,” the girl’s mother, Laura Yarborough, said, during a victim impact statement before the sentence was issued, local NBC affiliate KING reported.

“I next recall the pain in my father’s voice over the phone telling me that Sarah was dead,” her younger brother, Andrew Yarborough, who was 11 years old when she died, testified, KIRO reported. “I recall the sounds of my parents crying through the walls at night as I laid in bed.”

The two boys and a jogger also in the area that morning provided police with enough details of the suspect for a sketch artist to produce an image of the killer – a man who had been seen leaving the bushes in a hurry and who kept shooting the witnesses a series of suspicious glances as he trudged away from the crime scene.

The sketch of Sarah Yarborough

The sketch of Sarah Yarborough’s killer. (King County Sheriff’s Office)

Yarborough’s homicide was the first cold case to use genetic genealogy to generate investigative leads, according to Identifinders International. Such methods would later become the subject of much acclaim in the press and law enforcement when they were used to identify and arrest the long-elusive Golden State Killer, former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., in 2018.

Genetic genealogy was used in the Yarborough case beginning in 2011; Nicholas was finally arrested by the King County Sheriff’s Office in October 2019 while sitting at a bar in Kent, Washington.

During his two-and-a-half-week trial, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Celia Lee told jurors that Nicholas 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 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 enough for investigators.

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.

In 1983, Nicholas was sentenced to 10 years in prison for rape in the first degree; he served just over three years of that sentence. The victim of that crime, Anne Croney, also gave a victim impact statement before the sentencing.

“Why was a repeat offender allowed to be released after serving less than half his sentence?” she asked out loud, KIRO reports. “He reached through the open driver’s window and put a knife to my throat, and told me to take off my clothes. And I ran as fast as I could and dove into the river, and I swam harder than I ever swam before until I couldn’t anymore.”

Patrick Leon Nicholas in a 1994 mugshot

Patrick Leon Nicholas in a 1994 mugshot. (King County Sheriff’s Office)

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