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Crime News Cold Cases

Discarded Cigarettes and Napkins Solve 1991 Cold Case Murder of Washington State 16-Year-Old

Patrick Nicholas was convicted of the 1991 Washington State murder of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough, whose body was found beaten and strangled with pantyhose. Advances in genealogical DNA helped solve the case. 

By Christina Coulter
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A Washington state man was convicted last week for the 1991 murder of a 16-year-old girl beaten to death and strangled with her own stockings, after genealogical DNA and a discarded cigarette led police to an arrest in the long-unsolved case.

A King County jury deliberated for a day and a half before finding 59-year-old Patrick Nicholas guilty of first-degree felony murder with a sexual motivation in the death of Sarah Yarborough, a Federal Way High School honors student who disappeared after an event with her drill team on Dec. 14, 1991, according to The Seattle Times.  

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During his two-and-a-half week trial, Nicholas' attorney David Montes argued that his client did not match the description of Yarborough's assailant given to police at the time, specifically, that he did not possess the acne or acne scars described by two witnesses. 

The witnesses, then 12- and 13-year-old boys, discovered Yarborough's body around 9:30 a.m. two days after her disappearance when they took a shortcut through bushes outside the school, shortly after they saw a man emerge from those bushes. 

A mugshot of Patrick Nicholas

Those witnesses, along with a jogger who was nearby at the time of the murder, were able to help investigators create a composite sketch of the teen's killer, according to KING 5. The jogger had noticed a man kneeling over the girl's unmoving body earlier that morning, according to court documents reviewed by ABC News, but thought "they were a couple making out."

Although the sketch led to more than 4,000 tips, none of them yielded any leads. 

Montes also argued that King County sheriff's detectives, desperate to solve the three-decades old cold case, rushed to an untrained genetic genealogist who offered up other potential suspects before identifying Nicholas.

But in her closing arguments last week, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa detailed how DNA in semen stains left on Yarborough's clothing, and skin left under her fingernails, matched DNA retrieved by detectives from two cigarette butts and a discarded napkin Nicholas left behind outside a strip mall in Kent, according to People.   

A photo of Sarah Yarborough

Earlier, genetic genealogists hired by the King County Sheriff's Department were able to zero in on two potential suspects in 2019: a pair of brothers who lived near the site of the murder. One brother was quickly ruled out: because of a prior rape conviction, his DNA was in the national CODIS database and wasn't a match, according to ABC News. 

After confirming the DNA match using the discarded cigarettes, Nicholas was arrested at a bar in Kent in October of 2019, according to KING 5. 

Although Patrick Nicholas had served time for an attempted rape in 1983 and had been convicted of child molestation in 1993, the outlet reported, his DNA was never entered into the database.

According to KOMO News, Nicholas allegedly approached a young woman in her car in the 1983 incident and threatened to kill her with a knife, forcing her to take off her clothes and walking her toward a river. She jumped into the body of water and was able to swim to safety, according to court documents reviewed by the outlet. 

Lori Yarborough, the slain teen's mother, said at a press conference after Nicholas' arrest that she still thought about her daughter every day. 

"She loved life, she loved people, she loved to travel," the mother said. "She had big hopes and big dreams and was a great sister and a great daughter."

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Yarborough's friend, Mary Beth Thome, told KOMO in the wake of Nicholas' conviction last week that it was "really sad that the world didn't get to see who [Yarborough] would've become." 

"She loved art, she loved to dance, what would she have become in those years that were taken from her? I think she would've been a beautiful person," she told the outlet. 

According to KIRO 7, Nicholas' sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 25. 

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