’48 Hours: The Hunt for Sarah Yarborough’s Killer’ on CBS News features the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough. Her body was found behind her school in King County, Washington, in mid-December 1991. Despite generations of investigators from the King County Sheriff’s Department attempting to solve the murder for nearly three decades, the perpetrator remained elusive until the case was finally cracked in 2019 with cutting-edge forensic technology. The episode features interviews with the investigators involved in the probe and the victim’s close friends and family to provide a comprehensive overview of the case to the viewers.
How Did Sarah Yarborough Die?
Sarah Louise Yarborough was born in Portland in Multnomah County, Oregon, on June 12, 1975. Ingrid Lyden, who once taught Sarah during sixth-period chemistry in a Washington high school, fondly reflected on the charming moments of the teen’s entrances into the classroom. The 16-year-old Federal Way High School student consistently arrived late, dashing in just as the bell chimed. As she hurriedly took her place in the back row, she would flash a radiant smile, and the chemistry teacher noted with a grin, “I never once marked her tardy.”
In the aftermath of Sarah’s tragic murder, the students in Ingrid’s chemistry class collectively decided to preserve her seat, choosing not to alter the seating arrangement — a testament to the lasting impact she had on her peers. Len Badgely, a former classmate, warmly recalled his penchant for playfully teasing Sarah, causing her to blush. By focusing the spotlight on her, her fair complexion would transform into a vibrant reddish hue, and he recalled, “You’d get that smile.” A smile, as Thyra McKelvie chimed in, that had the power to illuminate the entire room.
Former neighbors spoke of Sarah as a “magical person” possessing a “magnetic personality.” Their descriptions painted a vivid picture of a young woman who left an indelible mark on those around her. On December 14, 1991 morning, Sarah embarked on her journey from home to high school. Her destination was a meeting with the rest of her drill team, gathering to board school buses en route to a competition. Despite her anticipation of the event, Sarah’s absence became evident as her classmates began boarding the buses; she never joined the team.
Around 9:00 am, two 12-year-old boys noticed a man emerging from the dense foliage on the hillside behind the school. Once the man disappeared from view, the boys approached the area and were confronted with the harrowing sight of a lifeless young girl clad in her drill team uniform. Sarah’s body form lay in an area of overgrown brush adjacent to her school, approximately 150 yards away from her parked car. The 16-year-old had been strangled to death, though the medical examiner determined no signs of sexual assault.
Who Killed Sarah Yarborough?
Following the discovery of Sarah’s lifeless body, the authorities mounted a massive operation to apprehend her killer, grabbing widespread attention from both the media and the community. The motive behind her seemingly random and senseless murder remained elusive. As fear gripped the community in the wake of the homicide, with the perpetrator still at large, people hesitated to venture out at night, and a collective sense of unease prompted children to walk in groups for safety. Over 4,000 tips flooded the King County Sheriff’s Department.
Despite this massive influx of information, the investigators struggled to identify a viable suspect or persons of interest. A pivotal breakthrough came in the form of a complete male DNA profile recovered from Sarah’s clothing, derived from a semen sample left by the aggressor. However, running the DNA through the national CODIS database failed to yield a match. As weeks turned into months and months into years, the investigation yielded only a handful of potential leads — all vetted and eventually cleared.
The show focuses on how Sarah’s classmates slowly moved on with their lives while she remained frozen in time, her murder unsolved. The sole physical description of the killer, as supplied by the two witnesses, then minors, indicated a man in his late teens to early twenties, sporting shaggy, dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. Despite efforts by a forensic sketch artist to create a composite sketch, no substantial leads emerged from this depiction. By 2018, the composite sketch required an update as the suspect was almost three decades older.
Collaborating with Parabon NanoLabs, the investigators utilized the technique of “polymorphism” to create an age-progressed portrait of the suspect based on DNA markers. However, it also failed to result in an arrest. In a bid to crack the decades-old cold case, the police turned to ancestry websites, utilizing genetic genealogy to trace any DNA profiles linked to the killer. By October 2019, the genealogists focused on two brothers, with the DNA of one brother ruled out due to a prior rape conviction already present in CODIS.
The focus then shifted to the other brother — Patrick Leon Nicholas, then 55, was potentially 27 at the time of Sarah’s murder in 1991. With a history of criminal convictions, including a 1983 attempted rape and a 1993 arrest for child molestation, he became the prime suspect. The King County Sheriff’s Department initiated surveillance, with the detectives awaiting an opportunity to collect a DNA sample. The breakthrough came when Patrick dropped a cigarette and a napkin, providing the means to compare his DNA with the semen sample from 1991.
With the comparison resulting in an exact match, Patrick was arrested and charged with first-degree murder with sexual motivation for the 1991 murder on October 2, 2019. He was convicted on May 10, 2023, and handed a prison term of 45 years and eight months a fortnight later. While handing down the virtual life sentence, the judge exclaimed, “[This] outrageous violation of a child. This outrageous sexual assault upon a child, culminating in her murder, is a basis for an exceptional sentence.” He was also ordered to pay restitution to Sarah’s family.