3 decades after teen’s murder, DNA helps ID killer with a history of crimes against women
was a 16-year-old honors student on her way to drill team practice, when she was found murdered on the campus of her high school. Investigators had DNA evidence and eyewitnesses, but it would take almost three decades to . As “48 Hours” contributor Natalie Morales reports, this case had a big impact on her family, friends and generations of investigators.
A HORRIFIC DISCOVERY
Natalie Morales: How often do you think about Dec. 14th, 1991, and what happened on that day?
Drew Miller: Quite a bit. It’s a very traumatic thing to go through.
It’s been over 30 years, but the details of that day have never faded for Drew Miller.
Drew Miller: I had my friend spend the night at my house. We woke up that morning … watched cartoons, ate cereal, left to go skateboarding.
Miller, who was just 13 at the time, lived down the street from Federal Way High School near Seattle, Washington.
Natalie Morales: The school grounds have changed quite a bit, right?
Drew Miller: Drastically, yes … The tennis court is the only thing that’s still here.
Miller often took shortcuts through the school to go skateboarding, as he and his friend did that day.
Drew Miller (outside Federal Way High School): We used to hop the fence, right here … and cut through here (pointing ) … It was freezing cold that day. There was ice in all of the mud puddles. We just, you know, started smashing them because it’s fun … sounds like breaking glass.
That’s when Miller says they noticed a man in the bushes.
Drew Miller: Right where you see the edge of this dugout right here (points) … That was all bushes that were probably this tall (positioning his hand near his shoulders). So, we couldn’t see him until he stood up.
Drew Miller: He’s just staring at us from the bushes. That was pretty jarring. But then he just walked out of the bushes. So, then we just assumed he was just smoking weed or something.
The mysterious man kept to himself and walked ahead of the boys. Miller says they didn’t think much of it until they came across a horrendous scene. There in the bushes, where the man had just been, was the body of a young woman.
Drew Miller: It was horrible. Absolutely horrible. The way that he left her body. … She clearly fought for her life.
Miller says his shock turned to fear when he realized the man, who was still just feet in front of them, was now staring directly back at him.
Natalie Morales: Does that look still haunt you?
Drew Miller: Oh yeah. Yeah … It’s frozen in my mind.
Natalie Morales: The boogeyman then.
Drew Miller: Legitimate boogeyman.
The boys raced to Miller’s house and police were called to the scene.
Scott Strathy: When we approached the victim … on one of the pieces of clothing we saw the name “Sarah.”
Detective Scott Strathy with the King County Sheriff’s Office was one of the first officers on the scene.
Scott Strathy: And of course, later we found out that that was Sarah Yarborough.
Scott Strathy: Even for experienced investigators, this scene was really hard to deal with. Just the innocent nature of this young woman. In her school drill team uniform. With her hot curlers still in her hair. … This was just pure unadulterated evil.
Investigators believed this was a sexually motivated murder.
Scott Strathy: She was partially clothed, her jacket, her undergarments, her bra had been removed … and placed next to her body.
Police discovered that the car Sarah had driven that morning was parked in the school parking lot – about 300 feet from where her body was found.
Det. John Free: There didn’t really appear to be any sort of a struggle in the car itself.
Detective John Free with the King County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit would later join the investigation.
Det. John Free: She had a container of orange juice that she had made that morning. It was just sitting in the front seat. Nothing was tipped over. So the question was, how did she get from her car to this hill? What lead her there?
Scott Strathy: Sarah was one of these people that would help anyone with anything at any time. And part of our working theory was, was she coaxed into following, you know, the suspect. Did he say something like – I’m looking for my lost dog or I can’t find my car keys? Perhaps Sarah, in an attempt to assist this person, may have followed him to that area.
Natalie Morales: (pointing to photo of Sarah in her drill team uniform): Tell me about this one.
Laura Yarborough: That was less than a week, I think, before she died. I said, “could I take your photo because your Great Grandma really wants a picture of you in your drill team.” And she said, “OK.”
Laura Yarborough: It was just too incredible to believe that it could even happen.
Laura Yarborough: I mean who thinks that your daughter’s gonna be murdered?
Sarah’s parents, Tom and Laura Yarborough, had the excruciating task of having to tell their two sons the tragic news. Sarah’s youngest brother Andrew was just 11 years old at the time.
Andrew Yarborough: At that age, probably never seen or heard your parents cry much. But that pain in the voice, is very, very vivid.
Sarah, who had just started her junior year in high school, had big plans for her future — starting with college.
Laura Yarborough: She didn’t want to go to a state school. She wanted to go to a school far away (laughs). She loved to travel.
Liberty Barnes: I actually would hear her say … “I can’t decide if I wanna be a museum curator or an engineer like my father.” … And I was always rooting for the museum curator (laughs).
Liberty Barnes, Kristi Gutierrez, Amy Parodi and Mary Beth Thome were some of Sarah’s closest friends.
Mary Beth Thome (pointing at the group photo seen above): So, this was after the last day of tenth grade. When we were just kinda goofing around afterwards. And that totally, I mean you can see, there’s Sarah right in the middle of it. Just being goofy.
Natalie Morales: The fiery red hair, was that her personality a little bit?
“Yes,” Sarah’s friends replied in unison.
Amy Parodi: She was artistic, she was creative, she was smart. She was feisty …
Liberty Barnes: Imaginative.
Amy Parodi: All of those things.
Kristi Gutierrez: She would be the last one to wait for someone. … Always be there with a smile. She would help with homework. … It was her ultimate kindness.
After Sarah was ripped from their lives, they say their sense of safety was gone forever.
Amy Parodi: You grow up getting all the safety conversations with your parents and bad things can happen and its sort of a vague possibility out there. And then all of a sudden, it was like no, no, no, no it can really happen. It really did just happen.
Scott Strathy: It was all hands on deck. The Sheriff’s Office put everything they had into solving this case as soon as they could.
And the killer left behind important evidence. Sarah had not been raped, but the killer’s DNA was found on pieces of her clothing.
Det. John Free: There was semen found on her underwear and on her jacket. … We had a full male DNA profile.
DNA technology was new back in 1991, but investigators hoped that DNA would someday lead them to Sarah’s killer. In the meantime, they had eyewitnesses.
Drew Miller: I thought for sure somebody would know him.
Miller and his friend who was with him the morning they found Sarah’s body, worked with police and a sketch of the man they saw in the bushes was released to the public. Police would later release a more elaborate sketch.
Kristi Guiterrez: I very vividly remember going through yearbooks. Going, “OK, who looks like the sketch?” Everyone … it felt like at one point was, was a suspect.
But as days went by and as leads dried up, police kept coming back to Drew and his friend.
Drew Miller: They just made me feel like I was the only person that could help them solve this. … I know that wasn’t their intent. I know the officers were just doing their best.
Natalie Morales: How much pressure were you feeling?
Drew Miller: It’s unimaginable pressure.
And despite everyone’s best efforts, it would take years to find Sarah’s killer.
Scott Strathy: This case was never forgotten.
IN SEARCH OF A DNA MATCH
In early June of 1993, a year-and-a-half after Sarah Yarborough’s murder, local media were there as students gathered in the courtyard of Federal Way High School to honor her.
KOMO/ABC NEWS REPORT: Bill Fuller, a family friend who helped spearhead the move for a memorial to remember Sarah unveiled it with help from Sarah’s younger brother Andrew.
Bill Fuller: It was quite a day. … A lot of tears as they looked at it. You could see Sarah in that bench.
Bill Fuller has known the Yarboroughs for years, and his daughter was in Sarah’s class.
Bill Fuller: Sarah … she was fun to be around … probably what we missed the most is she was fun to be around.
The bench reads “Carpe Diem” — “Seize the day” — a mantra Sarah lived by. Encased in bronze are some of her favorite possessions — ballet shoes, a replica of Sarah’s beloved dog “Gibby” and books.
KIRO-TV NEWS REPORT (1993): Andrew Yarborough: It’s nice that people cared about her so much.
Andrew Yarborough, now an adult, admits that he struggled as a young teenager. It was especially difficult to see those sketches around town of the man police believed murdered his sister.
Andrew Yarborough: There was drawings of the person’s face all over in businesses and towns. I do recall that quite a bit, having that kind of a constant reminder.
Tom Yarborough: Looking back, I feel like we didn’t do a very good job with the boys. … But we were just so consumed by our own grief that we didn’t take time to help them.
Laura Yarborough: I think we didn’t really know how to help them. It wasn’t something we had experience with. We didn’t know anything about grieving ourselves or how to help them through it.
And they weren’t alone in their grief. Shannon Grant, the last friend to see Sarah alive, says she lived with constant regret.
Shannon Grant: I wish we could go back and do it all over again. That I would have asked the other drill team members what time practice was. You know, maybe dropped her off. I mean there are a lot of the what ifs.
The milestones were especially painful.
Liberty Barnes: There was survivor guilt. Like why am I filling out my college applications when Sarah wanted to go to college? This isn’t fair.
Mary Beth Thome: Every joyful occasion had this sorrow that went with it. There’s one missing from the crowd here.
Graduation day, June 12, 1993, was an emotional day but even more so since it fell on what would have been Sarah’s 18th birthday. Laura Yarborough came to support her daughter’s friends.
Liberty Barnes: I do not know where she found the strength to do that.
Laura Yarborough says Sarah’s friends helped ease her grief somewhat and she thinks she filled a void for them, as well.
Laura Yarborough: Sometimes they would say, “Well, I’m gonna date this person and I just wanted to let you know cause I wasn’t sure if Sarah would approve of this person” (laughs).
Natalie Morales: So, they would seek approval through you. You became sort of their surrogate.
Laura Yarborough: Yes (laughs).
As life slowly moved forward, investigators kept working the case.
Det. John Free: I describe it as a relay race where the baton was handed off from one detective to the next over the years and decades. … I kind of refer to myself as the fifth Beatle in this investigation.
By the early 2000s, investigators had received over 3,000 leads. And advances in technology made them hopeful. They entered the DNA from the crime scene into the recently established CODIS system – a national DNA database that includes profiles of convicted offenders.
Det. John Free: The strategy was to continually try to see if there would ever be a match … while also investigating leads.
But over time there appeared to be no match.
Det. John Free: For us to have DNA evidence from the suspect, but not have that link to anybody, it just didn’t make sense. It seemed hard to believe the suspect had not committed any other prior crimes where his DNA wouldn’t be in the system.
That’s when he says detectives realized they had to go in a different direction.
Colleen Fitzpatrick: My name’s Colleen Fitzpatrick and I’m one of the pioneers of forensic genetic genealogy.
In 2011, investigators reached out to Fitzpatrick to inquire about using forensic genetic genealogy — the practice of using software to compare unknown DNA…