The 1991 murder ofshook the community of Federal Way, Washington, to its core — a 16-year-old girl found strangled on the campus of the local high school, still partially dressed in her drill team uniform. It was an image that stayed with even the most experienced investigators, and Sarah's family and friends were forever affected by her death.
Generations of King County investigators worked the case – chasing down over 4,000 leads – but for decades the identity of Sarah's killer remained a mystery. When an arrest was finally made 28 years later, the suspect's criminal history revealed an alarming pattern of behavior, and to one woman, sparked outrage at what she calls a failure of the criminal justice system.
"48 Hours" contributor Natalie Morales covers the case in "The Hunt for Sarah Yarborough's Killer," now streaming on Paramount+.
It was a cold December morning in 1991 when the 16-year-old was found strangled to death on the campus of Federal Way High School, about 20 miles south of Seattle. Sarah's body had been found in an area of overgrown brush, about 300 feet away from her car in the school parking lot. Sarah had arrived at school that morning thinking she was late to meet up with her drill team, and investigators were unsure of how she ended up so far from her car.
Sarah had not been raped, but investigators extracted a full male DNA profile from semen found on Sarah's clothes. For years, King County Sheriff's detectives continually compared that unknown DNA profile against the CODIS database but there wasn't a match. It wasn't until 2019 that they finally got their break.
Through the use of forensic genetic genealogy — the practice of using software to compare unknown DNA profiles to information from public DNA databases and searching family trees to identify suspects — investigators identified a man named Patrick Nicholas as a possible suspect. Undercover officers surveilled Nicholas and obtained a cigarette he had smoked. The DNA from that cigarette matched the male profile found on Sarah's clothing. Nicholas was arrested and charged with the murder of Sarah Yarborough.
Soon after Nicholas' arrest, police in nearby Oregon knocked on the door of Anne Croney and told her that detectives in Seattle were interested in talking to her. Croney knew Nicholas because eight years before Sarah Yarborough was murdered, he had held Croney at knifepoint.
In June 1983, Croney had gone to a park by the riverfront in Richland, Washington, to think by the water. She was sitting on the hood of her car, when a young man approached her and started up a conversation. He said his name was Pat Nicholas, and they chatted for a bit about the area. Croney asked him if he had gone water skiing in the river yet since it was a popular thing to do there, but Nicholas replied that he couldn't swim.
Soon Croney noticed Nicholas' voice was becoming shaky, and she became uncomfortable. She said she had to go and went to the driver's seat of her car. As Croney went to start up the engine, Nicholas came around to the driver's side of the car and put a knife to her throat. He ordered her to take of her clothes, then stuffed her underwear into her mouth to prevent her from screaming. He proceeded to walk her down to the secluded area by the riverbank. About halfway down, Croney remembered Nicholas couldn't swim, and took off — diving into the river and swimming out as far as she could. "I swam for my life," says Croney.
Nicholas was soon arrested and pleaded guilty to attempting to rape Croney. Police learned that he had recently been released from a nearby treatment facility, where he had served time as a juvenile for raping two women and attempted to rape a third. Multiple victims had been approached near their cars, where Nicholas would strike up conversation with them, pull a knife, order them to undress and rape them.
While in police custody for the attack on Croney, Nicholas admitted to police that "I realize that I have a problem concerning raping girls. I was going to force the girl to have sex with me that day in the park, and I realize that is not right. I want help for my problem." Croney spoke at Nicholas' sentencing hearing, and a judge sentenced him to the maximum term: 10 years in prison. Croney thought justice had been served and moved on with her life, hardly thinking of Nicholas.
But that all changed in 2019, when detectives told Croney about what had happened to Sarah Yarborough. In her first interview about the case, Croney tells Morales that learning of Sarah's murder changed her entire outlook on what had happened to her. "I was crushed," says Croney. "It had never occurred to me that what I escaped from was a murderer."
What's more, Croney believed that Nicholas had served the full 10 years of his prison sentence. But he hadn't. He had been released on parole after just three-and-a-half years. "48 Hours" reviewed copies of Nicholas' file where it was noted that he did not have any "major infractions" while in prison and did not have a drug or alcohol problem. In one evaluation, it was written that he "would be safe to be at large given an ongoing therapeutic relationship and parole supervision." So, in 1987, Nicholas was released from prison early, with the understanding that he would go into an outpatient sex offender treatment program. It is not clear how long he stayed in that program.
But one thing is clear to Croney – if Nicholas had served his full sentence, he would have still been behind bars that December morning in 1991, unable to murder Sarah Yarborough. "The system failed. It really failed," says Croney. "He should have been locked up."
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