Former classmates, teachers remember murdered Federal Way teen

Sarah Yarborough was strangled on FWHS campus in December 1991; her suspected killer was arrested nearly three decades later on Oct. 2.

On the clear and crisp evening, glistening eyes and tear-stained cheeks of individuals each touched by the tragic murder nearly three decades ago shone in the October sunset. Bundled in their high school letterman’s jackets or wrapped in the arms of a loved one, many shared fond memories of Sarah Yarborough.

Sarah’s neighbors, school friends, former teachers and community members gathered near her memorial at Federal Way High School to share stories and honor the murdered teen on Friday, Oct. 11.

On December 14, 1991, Sarah’s body was found raped and strangled in a wooded area of the Federal Way High School campus around 8 a.m. She was 16 years old.

After nearly 28 years of searching for an answer, the King County Sheriff’s Department arrested the man suspected of murdering her on Oct. 2.

A crowd of 20 gathered before the Decatur versus Federal Way football game last Friday night, meeting one another at Sarah’s memorial bench behind Federal Way High School.

“We’re just forever united,” said FWHS alum Thyra McKelvie (formerly Pearson). “It shook all of us to our core and it was the day that forever changed our safety and our security …”

The community gathering, organized by McKelvie, was a time to reflect on Sarah and how her murder impacted the community.

When the news of the cold case arrest broke, hundreds of people began to reach out to one another and old friends and classmates reconnected on social media, McKelvie said.

“It’s like we’ve been reliving it all week,” she said of the emotions brought up after Yarborough’s alleged killer was captured last week.

After the incident in 1991, members of Federal Way’s football and wrestling teams developed systems to escort girls to and from their cars before and after school, McKelvin recounted while praising the faculty and staff for their support during the time.

Some stories were met with smiles and laughs from the crowd; others evoked tears.

Sarah’s former teacher, Bill Harris, said the Monday after her murder was the hardest day of his teaching career because he had to rearrange the seats so there wouldn’t be a vacant spot where Sarah used to sit, he said.

Ingrid Lyden, Sarah’s former sixth period chemistry teacher, reminsced with a smile about the teen’s classroom arrivals.

Sarah was always late to class, running in just as the bell rang. She would slide into her back row seat, flash her megawatt smile, “and I never marked her tardy…,” Lyden said.

The students in Lyden’s chemistry class voted to keep Sarah’s spot and opted not to change the seating chart following her murder, Lyden told the crowd.

In her 33rd year teaching at Federal Way High School, Lyden said she frequently visits and checks on the memorial. She, along with other community members, feel the memorial should be moved to the front of the school, where it was originally placed before Federal Way’s remodel. The memorial features Sarah’s backpack, books, a pair of ballet slippers, a tie and a dog on a bench that states “Carpe Diem.”

Julie Hagen of Fife and Janelle Hopkins of Edgewood were Sarah’s classmates, graduating in the class of 1992.

Hopkins was driving to work on the other side of the high school at the exact same time of the murder on Dec. 14, 1991. She remembers her mother frantically calling her to find out if she was safe.

“It was torture,” Hagen said upon finding out the victim was Sarah. “Even now, every December you kind of think about it.”

Once the two friends heard Sarah’s alleged killer was captured last week, Hagen said she “had chills … it was a wave of relief. Then came the anger.”

How could someone have gone on to live their life after doing such a horrendous crime? How could he have been under everyone’s noses this whole time? Why was it Yarborough’s beautiful life that had been cut so short?

“It affected me more than I thought it would,” she said about the arrest. “I’m glad it’s finally over… and that Sarah’s family has closure.”

Other attendees at the memorial told stories of their interactions with Sarah.

Tye Thompson was Sarah’s childhood friend. The two had known each other since they were little kids and the news of her death “broke my heart for a lot, a lot of years.”

Former classmate Len Badgely fondly recounted his love for innocently making her blush by putting the spotlight on her because her pale complexion would bloom into a bright rosy shade and “you’d get that smile,” he said.

A smile that would light up the room, McKelvie added.

Former neighbors at the event described Sarah as a “magical person” with a “magnetic personality.”

Sarah also touched the lives of thousands of strangers throughout the city and nation.

Collin Sawyer, a Decatur graduate, had never met Sarah, however the tragedy has stayed with him as a local community member.

“… I thought the world was just full of roses,” he said of growing up in a world where garage doors were left open and front doors unlocked. “When we found out about this, that was the first time I understood there’s evil and hate in the world.”

As a boys basketball coach in the Federal Way school district for 26 years, Sawyer said he brings flowers to Sarah’s memorial site whenever his team plays Federal Way. When his players ask why, Sawyer shares her story to preserve her life and legacy.

The 1991 tragedy swiped a piece of everyone’s innocence that day, another crowd member said.

Certain events in history alter the core of any human due to the shock, heartbreak and pain, McKelvie explained, noting tragedies such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centers in New York and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

Sarah’s murder, too.

“Those significant things that have happened in our lives — this is one of them,” McKelvie said. “This defined us, this shifted us, this changed who we became — that day.”

Memorial attendees brought bouquets of flowers to Sarah Yarborough’s memorial bench on Oct. 11. Olivia Sullivan/staff photo

Memorial attendees brought bouquets of flowers to Sarah Yarborough’s memorial bench on Oct. 11. Olivia Sullivan/staff photo

Attendees gather to share stories and memories of Sarah Yarborough at Federal Way High School on Friday, Oct. 11. Olivia Sullivan/staff photo

Attendees gather to share stories and memories of Sarah Yarborough at Federal Way High School on Friday, Oct. 11. Olivia Sullivan/staff photo