The 1991 murderThe community of Federal Way, Washington, was shaken to its core: a 16-year-old girl found strangled on the local high school campus, still partially dressed in her drill team uniform. It is an image that has remained etched in the minds of even the most experienced investigators, and Sarah’s family and friends have been forever scarred by her death.
Generations of King County investigators worked on the case – chasing down more than 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 alarming behavior and, for one woman, sparked outrage over 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” airing Saturday, Nov. 18 at 10/9c on CBS and 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 from her car in the school parking lot. Sarah had arrived at school that morning thinking she was late to meet her drill team, and investigators didn’t know how she ended up so far from her car.
Sarah had not been raped, but investigators extracted a complete male DNA profile from semen found on Sarah’s clothes. For years, King County sheriff’s detectives continually compared this unknown DNA profile to the CODIS database, but there was no match. It wasn’t until 2019 that they finally got their chance.
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 agents monitored 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.
Shortly after Nicholas’ arrest, police in neighboring Oregon knocked on Anne Croney’s door and told her Seattle detectives wanted to speak with her. Croney knew Nicholas because eight years before Sarah Yarborough’s murder, he had held Croney at knifepoint.
In June 1983, Croney went to a riverside park in Richland, Washington, to reflect on the water’s edge. She was sitting on the hood of her car when a young man approached her and started a conversation. He said his name was Pat Nicholas and they chatted a bit about the area. Croney asked him if he had ever water skied in the river, as it was a popular activity there, but Nicholas replied that he did not know how to swim.
Soon, Croney noticed Nicholas’ voice becoming shaky and she became uncomfortable. She said she had to go and walked to the driver’s seat of her car. As Croney went to start the engine, Nicholas approached the driver’s side of the car and put a knife to Croney’s throat. He ordered her to undress, then put her underwear in her mouth to stop her from screaming. He accompanied her to the secluded area by the river. About halfway there, Croney remembered that Nicholas couldn’t swim and ran away, diving into the river and swimming as far as she could. “I swam for my life,” Croney said.
Nicholas was soon arrested and pleaded guilty to attempted rape of Croney. Police learned he had recently been released from a nearby treatment center, where he had served time as a juvenile for raping two women and attempting to rape a third. Several victims had been approached near their cars, where Nicholas would strike up a conversation with them, pull out a knife, order them to undress and rape them.
While in custody for the Croney attack, Nicholas admitted to police: “I realize I have a problem with raping girls. I was going to force the girl to have sex with me that day in the park, and I realize it’s not right. I want help with my problem. Croney took the stand at Nicholas’ sentencing hearing, and a judge sentenced him to the maximum: 10 years in prison. Croney believed justice had been served and moved on with his life, barely thinking about Nicholas.
But everything changed in 2019, when detectives told Croney what happened to Sarah Yarborough. In his first interview about the case, Croney told Morales that learning of Sarah’s murder completely changed his view of what had happened to her. “I was crushed,” Croney says. “It never occurred to me that what I had escaped was a murderer.”
Additionally, Croney believed Nicholas had served his entire 10-year prison sentence. But he hadn’t done it. He was released conditionally after only three and a half years. “48 Hours” reviewed copies of Nicholas’ file which noted that he had not committed any “major offenses” while incarcerated and had no drug or alcohol problems. In one assessment, it was written that he “would be safe at large if he had an ongoing therapeutic relationship and conditional supervision.” So in 1987, Nicholas was released from prison early on the understanding that he would participate in an outpatient sex offender treatment program. It is unclear how long he remained in this program.
But one thing is clear to Croney: If Nicholas had served his entire sentence, he would still be behind bars that December morning in 1991, incapable of murdering Sarah Yarborough. “The system has failed. It has truly failed,” Croney says. “He should have been locked up.”
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