KENT — A King County judge sentenced a former Des Moines resident to over 45 years in prison Thursday for the cold-case murder of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough, who was found fatally strangled on the Federal Way High School campus over 30 years ago.
A jury found Patrick Leon Nicholas, 59, guilty of first-degree felony murder two weeks ago and returned a special verdict that Yarborough’s killing was sexually motivated. Though Nicholas faced a standard sentencing range of 26 to nearly 35 years, the jury’s finding allowed prosecutors to seek the exceptional sentence of more than 45 years.
“The sexually motivated murder of a child at her own school is exceptionally heinous,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa wrote in the state’s sentencing memo.
Defense attorney David Montes recommended Nicholas be sentenced to 20 years, the mandatory minimum for first-degree murder. He noted in his sentencing brief that Nicholas, who was 27 when he killed Yarborough, didn’t commit any crimes in the 30 years following her murder, essentially arguing that Nicholas’ youth was an underlying cause of his conduct. There’s no evidence Nicholas would reoffend if released from prison at age 75, Montes wrote.
King County Superior Court Judge Josephine Wiggs, who presided over Nicholas’ trial, ultimately decided the exceptional sentence of over 45 years was appropriate, given the facts of the case and Nicholas’ history of sexual violence. He’s expected to die behind bars.
During Nicholas’ 2½-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 up with her teammates for a competition at another school on Dec. 14, 1991.
Yarborough, who left her house 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,” Barbosa wrote in the state’s 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, who were cutting through the school campus to go skateboarding, 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 found 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.
In a later search of Nicholas’ residence, detectives found a 1994 newspaper article about Yarborough’s unsolved killing and at least one image of a teenage girl in a cheerleader uniform.
Nicholas was on parole for a previous sex crime when he attacked Yarborough in 1991.
When Nicholas was 19, he tried to rape a woman at a park in Richland, Benton County, after ordering her to undress at knife-point, but she escaped by jumping into the Columbia River, the state’s memo says. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in August 1983 but was released after serving 3½ years and was undergoing sex offender treatment while on parole at the time of Yarborough’s murder.
Nicholas also raped two King County women at knife-point in June 1980 and attempted to rape a third woman that July, according to the state’s sentencing memo. The attempted rape charge was dismissed during plea negotiations, and Nicholas was sentenced to 103 to 129 weeks in the custody of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, though the state’s memo doesn’t indicate how much time he served before he was released.
Information from The Seattle Times’ archives is included in this story, which is developing and will be updated.