Patrick Nicholas was sentenced to 45 years and 8 months in prison on May 25 for the 1991 first-degree murder of 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough in Federal Way.
His sentence — met with emotion and a single “whoop” in the courtroom — is what prosecutors asked for. The jury had found that Nicholas was sexually motivated in killing Sarah, which allowed for a longer, or “exceptional” sentence.
Prosecutors pointed to Nicholas’ criminal history — which included the rape of two women and attempted rape of another — in asking for the nearly half-century prison stay. Defense attorney David Montes had asked for a sentence of 20 years in prison, the minimum possible.
“It’s important for me to say this,” Judge Josephine Wiggs said: “There will be accountability, no natter how many years it takes. And today is that day. Today is the day, Mr. Nicholas, for you to be held accountable for what you did.”
Nicholas, 59, will not be released from prison until the age of 105 if he serves his full sentence. He is only eligible to earn up to 10 to 15% “good time,” King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Casey McNerthney said in an email.
“The expectation is that he will serve all 45 years, 8 months with a maximum of 5-6 years of earned release time,” McNerthney said.
“The murderer … met the hand of justice today,” Sarah’s childhood friend Mary Beth Thome said after the sentencing, adding that Nicholas’ sentence was the “culmination of dedicated, diligent, difficult work” on the part of the officers, detectives, scientists and the prosecutors who handled Sarah’s case.
Nicholas had pleaded not guilty in the case and had maintained his innocence in Yarborough’s killing. He did not take the stand during the trial or give a statement during sentencing, and made no visible reaction when he was found guilty nor when he was sentenced.
Montes filed an appeal in court that day, meaning Nicholas will challenge the sentence in the state Court of Appeals.
After the sentencing, Sarah’s mother Laura Yarborough told a gathering of news media that she felt justice had been done.
“We’ll always pine for Sarah,” she said. “We still miss her.”
Her goal throughout the trial, Yarborough said, was “to make sure that no other … women were injured or killed” by Nicholas.
Yarborough said she doesn’t think about him much, and avoids even naming him.
“I try to give him as little space in my head as possible,” she said. “I don’t think he deserves my time and attention.”
A tragedy “beyond words”
“Mr. Nicholas is a prolific sex offender,” prosecuting attorney Mary Barbosa said in court May 25 in asking for an exceptional sentence. “He killed Sarah Yarborough while he was on parole from attempted rape of another women. … While he has no other convictions since 1994, the damage he is capable of inflicting is obvious and the risk to the public is too great to assume he is safe.”
But the 548-month sentence imposed on Nicholas was not sought out of vengeance, she said. Instead, Barbosa said, the sentence should reflect the severity of the crime as well as recognize his previous victims, and the many years he remained free on parole that should have been revoked.
Nicholas was previously convicted of two counts of first-degree rape in King County in 1980, when he was 16, and attempted first-degree rape in Benton County in 1983, according to prosecutors.
That 1983 attempted rape earned Nicholas a 10-year sentence. He earned parole and served less than half that time. Had he served the full sentence, he would not have been released from prison until after Sarah had graduated high school. And had he been caught soon after killing Sarah, his parole would have been revoked, causing him to serve the rest of that sentence, prosecutors pointed out.
The victim of that attempted rape, Anne Croney, gave an impact statement during sentencing and agreed to be named. She recalled fleeing into the Columbia River, only 21 years old, after then-19-year-old Nicholas had put a knife to her throat, ordered her to undress and begun marching her down an embankment.
After learning Nicholas had been convicted and sentenced, she began moving on from the ordeal. But Croney’s life became tied up with the Yarboroughs in 2019, when she learned that the man who’d tried to rape her decades before had been arrested for the murder of 16-year-old Sarah.
“The emotion that keeps coming up the strongest is anger,” Croney said, locking eyes at times with Nicholas as she spoke. “Anger because we rely on a system of justice designed to protect us from predators like Nicholas. And this system failed me, Sarah, her family and friends and countless others.”
Defense attorney Montes pointed to Nicholas’ relative youth, especially in his prior convictions, in asking for leniency.
“Mr. Nicholas is a tragic example of how our past failures to deal correctly with youth harm not only the youth but our entire community,” Montes wrote in a presentence report.
While his criminal offenses “were incredibly impulsive and serious,” Montes wrote, they ceased after the age of thirty — indicating, Montes argued, that his criminal history had more to do with the impulsive and reckless behavior typical of an adolescent mind than of a irreparably depraved mind.
“There is only one explanation for this: Mr. Nicholas fits into the taxonomy of people whose offending is limited to youth,” Montes wrote. “Unfortunately, he was prosecuted and punished for his prior alleged youthful offenses during one of the most punitive periods in our history and as a result, did not benefit from rehabilitation that could have changed things before Sarah Yarborough was killed. This tragedy is truly beyond words. Mr. Nicholas, who very clearly was capable of change … had to mature out of offending behavior without guidance, leading to tragic consequences.”
He pointed to an interview with detectives where Nicholas talked about getting nightmares about his past.
“This does not mean that no sanction is appropriate,” Montes wrote. “Obviously such a heinous and senseless crime must have a response. Twenty years is a severe response, especially since this almost certainly represents the rest of Mr. Nicholas’s life.”
Wiggs said she took Nicholas’ relative youth during his prior convictions seriously.
“The court has to grapple with that,” she said during court. “Because young people are different.”
But “what I see here is not conduct that was a product of an undeveloped or developing youthfulness,” Wiggs said. “When I consider the history that Mr. Nicholas has, and the facts of this case, it speaks to a not an immature developing brain. It speaks to a calculated, predatory, depraved, brain.”
Inside the juror’s room
Earlier in May, after a day and a half of deliberating, jurors on May 10 found Nicholas guilty of first-degree murder.
Sarah was a 16-year-old junior, honor student and drill team member who had mistakenly arrived at the school an hour early on the morning of Dec. 14, 1991, thinking she was late for an event. But from the parking lot, she encountered her assailant — Nicholas — who led or forced her north into the brush by the tennis courts.
Nicholas strangled her with her own nylons and left her body on a hill adjacent to her high school’s parking lot on Dec. 14, 1991, police said. He left semen on several items of her clothing, DNA from which was used to identify him as a culprit.
In 2019, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick helped police narrow their search to Nicholas, from whom detectives covertly collected DNA evidence.
Nicholas faced three charges at trial — two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder. The charges concerned the same killing but differed on why Nicholas did it.
Jurors found him not guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, but convicted him of first-degree murder and second-degree murder.
Juror Sean Gapay told The Mirror that the jury easily came to a consensus about the latter two charges, but several jurors couldn’t agree that that the act was premeditated.
Defense attorney David Montes argued in trial that Dr. Fitzpatrick’s methods weren’t reliable. Gapay said the jury found that argument irrelevant because Dr. Fitzpatrick merely brought Nicholas to police attention — it was detectives and police scientists who actually confirmed him as the killer.
“Honestly, when we got to deliberation, it was a moot point,” Gapay said. “For us, it was a way to get a lead. It didn’t compromise any chain of custody. … it was really simple for us.”
Gapay said he remains “dissatisfied” that Nicholas was acquitted of the first murder charge.
“The whole scene screamed premeditated to me,” he said. “He had a specific thing he was doing there. … I felt we should have easily handed three guilty verdicts, almost no questions asked.”
But he said he understood the perspective of the dissenting jurors, and he wanted to avoid causing a hung jury or mistrial, which could force the family to relive the entire trial all over again.
Does he feel justice was ultimately done in the case?
“In a way,” Gapay said. “Add 30 years to that, maybe. Because he should have been in the whole time. Two weeks after she was murdered, he should have been in.”
Gapay met his wife in 1991, when she was around Sarah’s age. He has a 17-year-old daughter now, too. So Gapay said that when he saw the crime scene photos during trial, he saw his daughter, his wife and his friends in addition to seeing Sarah.
“There were days during the trial … (when) I’m just waking up crying just because of the enormity of it and how horrible of a scene it was,” he said.
Gapay moved to the greater Seattle area in 2004. He now lives in Enumclaw.
Even though he has no personal connection to the Federal Way area, “I felt like I knew Sarah,” Gapay said. “I started understanding what kind of impact this had on the community over 30 years, and just how big of a case it really was. … The gravity of it was enormous.”
At sentencing, friends and family of Sarah shared memories of her life to the court.
“Sarah was our only daughter and the delight of my life,” Laura Yarborough told Judge Wiggs at sentencing. “I love my husbands and my sons … but a mother-daughter relationship is different.”
Sarah was a kind and gentle girl, strong in a quiet way, her mother said. She was artistic and philosophical, had a way of putting people at ease, and was anxious to spread her wings and begin her college career before her life was violently cut short.
“My husband and I have about three years of our lives that we don’t even remember,” Laura Yarborough said. “I could barely get out of bed in the morning. Our lives went from full color to a fuzzy gray.”
Yarborough said she received letters from classmates she’d never heard of after Sarah’s death — a testament to her daughter’s ability to make people feel included and cared about.
Laura Yarborough never got to help Sarah pick out a prom or wedding dress, she said. Sarah never got to attend college, fall in love, marry or have children.
“He [Nicholas] is incapable of remorse and empathy,” Laura Yarborough concluded. “He should spend the rest of his life in prison, and never be paroled. He’s had 28 years of freedom Sarah never got. … He’s used his life to destroy others without compunction. … His time is up.”
Bobbi Jo Yarborough, Sarah’s sister-in-law, spoke on behalf of her husband and Sarah’s brother Micah.
The trauma of Sarah’s sudden death rocked Micah, Bobbi Jo Yarborough said, and he went on to suffer from mental illness and nightmares about Sarah’s killer.
“My husband still grieves the loving tenderness of his older sister,” she said.
Retired King County sheriff’s sergeant Michael Hatch, the first homicide detective to arrive at the high school the morning of Sarah’s death, said that he still lights a candle for Sarah every December 14th.
After all these years, he expressed wonder and gratitude that Sarah’s death was finally solved.
“Thank God we processed (the scene) the way we did,” Hatch said. “Laura Yarborough, I apologize that it took so long. … The morning I notified you, your husband and family, it broke my heart. … God bless all of you, and please sentence him to the full extent that you can.”
Judge Wiggs also reflected on the many letters written to her for sentencing — each sharing tiny moments of profound humanity.
One letter-writer from a friend and neighbor of the Yarboroughs recalled seeing the light go on in Sarah’s bedroom after her death. It was Laura Yarborough entering her daughter’s room and grieving.
“All I wanted to do was hug her,” the letter-writer said. “I cannot imagine the sadness and emptiness they all must have felt looking at that empty bedroom where their daughter should have been.”
Another letter, from a teacher, marveled at Sarah’s philosophy of cultural inclusion and respect of diversity — traits for which she was ahead of her time, the letter-writer said.
“It’s so cruel that someone who was so young, and so generous in her spirit, and concerned about the safety of others, would have been the victim of such predatory, depraved conduct,” Wiggs said. “The cruelty and irony of that does not escape this court.”
Wiggs also praised the “incredible” work of detectives who remained vigilant for three decades in solving the murder.