Crime

No closure, no end to the pain

By Sean Robinson

Staff writer

The thief called time steals Laura Yarborough’s smallest treasures. She no longer hears her daughter’s voice.

One morning, it was gone. She searched in vain for the memory - a sound she knew so well, familiar as a heartbeat.

Sarah’s face remains: quiet blue eyes, skin fair and freckled, ringlets of red hair, forever 16. Laura Yarborough still has pictures. The images smile in silence.

Others remember the voice. They say Sarah Yarborough sounded like her mother.

“I hear Sarah’s voice whenever I talk to Laura,” says the woman who used to be a girl named Libi Walther.

She is Liberty Walther Barnes now, 26, married, close to completing a doctorate in sociology. A decade ago, she was a 16-year-old pallbearer at Sarah Yarborough’s funeral.

On Dec. 14, 1991, someone strangled Sarah on the grounds of Federal Way High School in broad daylight. Her killer has never been found.

The murder scarred a family’s soul, wounded a school and gut-punched a young city. Horror melted naive illusions of suburban safety.

“It was an awakening,” says Bob Stead, mayor of Federal Way in the early 1990s, now a King County District Court judge. “We thought we were insulated from those kinds of things.”

In 1993, Sarah’s classmates graduated on what would have been her 18th birthday. They dedicated a memorial at the school that still stands: a bronze bench, decorated with a satchel, a stack of books, a pair of ballet slippers, a necktie and the Latin phrase “carpe diem” - seize the day.

A small sculptured dog, modeled after the dog that outlived its mistress by seven years, peeks over the bench, as if expecting someone to return at any moment. Nearby, a plaque bears the inscription:

To honor Sarah Yarborough

Seeker of knowledge, truth and holiness

Seer of truth, beauty and dreams

Not long ago, a lanky Federal Way High sophomore stood near the memorial, waiting for his ride.

He did not know the story. They gave a tour of the grounds when school started last fall, and stopped at the memorial for a brief explanation, but he couldn’t remember the details.

“It’s for some girl who died a couple of years ago,” he said.

Sarah

She liked Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and art museums. She had the mind of an engineer, the feet of a dancer, and she was always losing her glasses.

She was a Camp Fire Girl, an honor student and a second soprano. She was a daughter, a grandchild and a big sister -- when no one else would tell her little brother Andy what a bad word meant, she explained it to him.

She seemed like everyone’s daughter, her mother says. Though 10 years have passed since her death, those who knew Sarah Yarborough still speak of her with reverence. There are moments when no words will come.

“She was more than the typical bright light,” says Merlin Epp, who taught history at Federal Way High School for 37 years before retiring in 2000. “It was not an event where the pages closed easily.”

On Friday, Dec. 13, 1991, Laura and Tom Yarborough left for Ocean Shores. Sarah’s younger brother, Andrew, had a soccer game there.

Sarah was staying home. She was supposed to go to a drill team contest the following morning and catch the bus at school.

Laura fretted about leaving. Sarah teased her. She would be fine, she said. She was 16 years old. A friend was spending the night, she had Grandpa’s car, and it was only a few blocks to school. She would be fine.

Laura gave in. She kissed her daughter goodbye and told her to be careful.

The next day, a police officer came to the soccer field in Ocean Shores, looking for someone named Yarborough.

Call home, the officer said. Tom called his mother-in-law, Carol Holmquist, who said to come home right away. Sarah was missing.

They drove - 107 endless miles. It must be something really bad, Tom said.

Reaching Federal Way, they went to a friend’s house to avoid the television cameras. A waiting police detective told them to sit down.

Laura kept asking where Sarah was. Finally, the answer came.

Everything blurred. Friends answered the door and the phone. The detective told them to call Andrew, still with his team in Ocean Shores, to tell him before he heard it on television.

Sarah’s brother, Micah, 14, went outside by himself. He couldn’t stand all the crying. Laura sat on a sofa.

“I just remember saying, ‘Not Sarah, not Sarah, not Sarah,’ over and over again,” she says.

The detective told her not to blame herself. The only person who did anything wrong was the killer.

Sleep was the only comfort for a long time after that. Then Laura would wake up.

Sometimes she wore Sarah’s bathrobe, clinging to the faint traces of scent. She broke her watch one morning, and took Sarah’s from the dresser.

At work that day, Laura felt a ghost: the sweet smell of her daughter’s perfume, so unbearably near that she looked under the desk. It came from Sarah’s watchband. The fragrance bloomed in the heat of her mother’s pulse.

Libi

Libi Walther met Sarah in elementary school. They were Camp Fire Girls together, and since their birthdays were only a week apart, they usually celebrated them together.

At Halloween, they dressed up as witches. They made a haunted house in the basement, and Sarah tricked Libi’s brother into biting a rotten apple.

In high school, there were more friends, more activities and less time. They had the same honors classes, but Sarah joined the drill team, and Libi didn’t. They still talked, and Sarah always smiled, as much a friend as ever.

School was a haze the week after the murder. Rooms were opened where students could talk, grieve or think. Libi didn’t go. Counselors offered hugs, blankets and comfort. Libi didn’t talk to them.

Shortly after the murder, she was sitting in her English class when Mr. Martin asked the students what they wanted to do about Sarah’s desk.

Darrel Martin spent more than 20 years guiding students through the thickets of Anglo-Saxon literature before he retired in 1992. He could be irritable and old-fashioned, but he called Sarah’s death a grave injustice.

Her desk sat empty in the front row. Did the students want a new seating arrangement, or would they prefer to leave the desk in its place?

The vote was unanimous. The desk stayed.

Some days later, Martin was sick, and a young substitute filled in for the day. He stood near Sarah’s desk, holding a book of poetry.

What poem he was about to discuss, Libi Walther never learned. She thinks he must not have known about Sarah, because he climbed onto the chair at her empty desk, stood overlooking the class, and began to read aloud.

“Death,” the substitute said. “What is death?”

Walther ran from the room, not knowing where she was going or what she was doing, just getting away, stumbling down the hall, breathing in ragged gasps, tears streaming down her cheeks.

She saw Lois Gorne, a teacher she knew. Walther buried her face in the friendly shoulder and sobbed. What’s wrong, Gorne asked. Nothing, Libi lied.

The school felt sick. Merlin Epp couldn’t remember anything to compare with it.

“I had never experienced the kind of shock, the kind of glazed experience that kids had in their countenances,” he says. “In the halls, it was hushed. It was more than a pall that fell over the student body. It was as if the school had turned into a morgue.”

Sarah’s empty desk was holy ground in other classrooms, including Epp’s. That was where she won the necktie contest.

It started when the dapper Epp challenged a style-conscious kid who always wore ties. Sarah jumped into the fray. She wanted to take the two strutters down. Armed with her father’s Santa Claus tie, she beat them both.

Sometimes the class talked about her after she was gone. Libi Walther remembers a day when Epp mentioned Sarah.

He was burly and bearded, with a baritone that could strike like a thunderclap. In midsentence, he stopped, shook and wept.

“There were times when we simply broke down,” he says. “There were times when you just cried.”

Daydreamer

Sarah’s grandparents, John and Carol Holmquist, live in Twin Lakes. Their grandsons still visit. Andrew’s car waited in the driveway the other day; he had borrowed his grandfather’s truck.

John Holmquist, an engineer, still works at Weyerhaeuser, as does Tom Yarborough. After Sarah’s death, the company offered a $20,000 reward to help catch the killer. It waits to be claimed.

Sarah told her friends she would be an engineer, too. She was close to her grandfather. Together, they built Rocky the Robot - not an erector-set toy, but a real robot, the size of a small filing cabinet.

Rocky came from an elaborate kit for accomplished tinkerers like Holmquist and his granddaughter. The robot had a mechanical arm that really gripped, and a menu of spoken phrases. It could roll through a room and use built-in sonar to avoid the furniture.

Holmquist still has Rocky. He brings the robot out from a back room and pushes a series of buttons. Rocky whirs and spits out a metallic word or two. Holmquist paws through a stack of blue operating manuals.

The pages are marked with checks in red ink - Sarah’s writing, remnants of long hours spent putting the robot together.

Sometimes she doodled in the margins. On one page, a furry-faced caricature of her dog peeps out.

“You see,” says her grandfather, slipping into yesterdays. “You see - she daydreams.”

Bitter fame

The murder brought notoriety the family never wanted. City leaders offered condolences. Newspapers and television cameras followed the funeral and the progress of the case.

Laura didn’t like going to the store. Checkers would recognize her name. Sometimes they looked away quickly. Sometimes they were sure they knew who she was, but couldn’t remember. Then she would have to explain.

“You almost feel like a pariah or something,” she says. “You make people sad wherever you go.”

In Federal Way, Sarah became that girl - that girl who was murdered. One day Micah went to a video store to rent a movie. A clerk saw his last name and complained.

“Yarborough,” she said. “I hate that name.”

Micah asked why. The clerk said it was that girl’s name. It creeped her out. Micah said that girl was his sister. The clerk apologized.

There were phone calls: people with theories, people with sympathy. Laura thanked them. There was an angry call from another grieving parent with a lost child. Everybody cares about your daughter, the other mother said - just because she was a nice girl.

The following spring, Laura Yarborough had a roomful of daughters. Sarah’s friends sent Mother’s Day cards and flowers. On Laura’s 40th birthday, they tied her house with balloons. On what would have been Sarah’s 17th birthday, they threw a party.

They gave toys to charities in Sarah’s name. They showed Laura their prom dresses, rested their heads in her lap, and let her fuss with their hair. Some stayed in touch for years. She loved them for it.

“I really enjoyed those girly things I missed out on,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s got kind of a sting to it. You realize it’s not the same. It’s not your daughter. You don’t have that history with them.

“You don’t remember the day they were born.”

The detective

Jim Doyon hasn’t received a tip on Sarah’s murder since last summer, and he generated that one himself. There are 3,700 more.

The King County sheriff’s detective is 57. He has worked Sarah’s cold case for 10 years. He is a patient man, and he has waited longer than this before.

A few months ago, he filed the arrest report on Gary Leon Ridgway, the man charged with four murders attributed to the Green River Killer. Doyon, a member of the Green River Task Force, waited 20 years for that collar.

He recently eliminated Ridgway as a suspect in Sarah’s murder. The killer left his DNA at the scene, and it doesn’t match.

Between 65 and 71 people were on the high school campus that Saturday morning, Doyon says. Sarah arrived between 8:15 and 8:20 a.m. The 911 call came at 9:33 a.m.

Five people saw a man with blondish hair and a long dark coat. A passing jogger didn’t see the man’s face. Two boys on skateboards saw his eyes. Their memories fed a police artist sketch of a man who may still walk Federal Way’s streets.

“He has aged 10 years,” Doyon says. “His life circumstances have probably changed somewhat. He could even be married and gainfully employed.”

Doyon still believes something will shake loose. A spark of guilt, perhaps, or a distant memory. The killer’s identity may be buried in the early files of the investigation. He may have committed other, pettier crimes. Maybe improvements in law enforcement technology will pinpoint him.

Laura Yarborough hopes so, but she isn’t sure how she’ll react if that happens. She wonders, is a monster with a face worse than a monster without one?

Healing

The Yarboroughs and Holmquists are churchgoers. There was a time when Tom asked himself why God would allow such things to happen.

He knew the answer: God didn’t do it -- the killer did.

The Yarboroughs live in Gig Harbor now, and run a serene bed and breakfast in Rosedale, near the shores of Henderson Bay - a place, they say, where people can take time to remember what matters.

They donate weekends to bereaved parents who have lost children, offering their own experiences as a way to heal.

Their sons are in college; Micah is completing twin graduate degrees in counseling and divinity, while Andrew is a business major.

Laura still hears from her daughter’s friends - once young girls forced too soon to confront mortality, yet strengthened by it. They are young women now, some with families of their own.

Liberty Walther Barnes lives in California. Sarah’s name used to haunt her, until she pushed past the darkness and reclaimed her friend - her guardian angel, keeper of memories silly and sweet.

“There’s so much hate in the world,” she says. “I just have to give as much love as I can.”

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