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Cold cases: New hope for unsolved murders in Federal Way

The King County Sheriff’s Office is delving into the past for some big-time results in putting murderers behind bars.

Since 2006, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and law enforcement have dedicated resources to systematically review each of King County’s unsolved “cold case” homicides.

Over the past five years, detectives and deputy prosecuting attorneys have identified 193 homicides and missing person cases believed to be homicides, dating back to 1942.

Their efforts to find justice for long-lost victims have paid off. In total, King County’s Cold Case Squad has filed 18 murder cases since its inception. The latest came in May when a jury convicted another defendant who thought he had gotten away with murder.

In February 1996, Bob Wykel disappeared in Seattle. Around the time of his disappearance, Wykel had withdrawn $5,200 from his bank account and had told friends that he was going to meet a man about a vintage Ford Thunderbird for sale. Wykel was never seen or heard from again.

After 15 years, Myron C. Wynn, the man Wykel had planned to meet, was convicted for murder.

“Each solved cold case represents a killer who thought he had gotten away with murder in King County,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “Thanks to the persistence of our cold case team, offenders have been brought to justice and the families of the victims know that their loss and suffering have not been forgotten.”

The term “cold case” refers to a crime that has not yet been solved or is the subject of a recent criminal investigation, but for which new information could emerge from new witness testimony, re-examined archives, retained material evidence and fresh activities of the suspect.

New technical methods developed after the case can be used on the surviving evidence to re-analyze the cases, often with conclusive results.

The Cold Case Squad gives new impetus to solving cases that have laid dormant at the King County Sheriff’s Office for years, such as three homicides with ties to Federal Way. The unsolved murders of Sara Yarborough, Leanne Wilcox and Debbie Gonzales have puzzled investigators for decades. The department seeks assistance from the public.

Yarborough was a 16-year-old student who attended Federal Way High School. She was last seen in December 1991 leaving her residence to attend an early morning dance team function. She was later found dead on the school’s campus. Witnesses saw a suspect, and detectives have evidence that is able to be compared to a specific suspect, according to the King County Sheriff’s website.

Gonzales’ body was found in September 1987 in the 20400 block of the Auburn-Black Diamond Road in an area that was used frequently by local teenagers to party. The 14-year-old Hispanic female was last seen by her mother in August 1987 at their home in Federal Way.

Police say Gonzales was a chronic runaway who frequented the Timberlane area in Covington.

A machete was recovered from the area where her body was located. The investigation revealed that Gonzales had intimate contact near the time of her death and she may have been attending a party at the location where her body was recovered.

On Jan. 21, 1982, workers were checking on machinery in a landscaping equipment storage lot located at 38016 Military Road South in Federal Way, when they found the body of Wilcox. She had been murdered and her body was disposed in the lot.

The three unsolved murders are listed on the King County Sheriff’s website, along with several others from the 1970s through present day. The cases are being investigated by the Cold Case Squad, which includes Det. Scott Tompkins and Det. Jake Pavlovich, both experienced homicide detectives. The team includes civilian analyst Tom Jensen, a retired sheriff’s detective with more than 20 years experience working the Green River Killer homicides, the most famous cold case in King County’s history.

The threesome gave the Cold Case Squad a little more beef when they were assigned full time in 2009, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department. The grant has assisted the squad in investigating and resolving unsolved homicides and missing person cases.

The Sheriff’s Office is the only law enforcement agency in the state to receive grant money from the National Institute of Justice. Because of King County’s success rate, the institute renewed the grant in late 2010 by giving the Sheriff’s Office another $544,147 to continue its Cold Case Squad.

The grants cover the costs of the two detectives, the analyst and other miscellaneous expenses associated with those investigations. The 18-month grant can be renewed again next year after another review to determine if the unit was productive and has a likelihood of continued success.

Prior to forming this unit, unsolved homicides were investigated by King County’s Major Crimes detectives, along with their normal caseload, which includes robberies, kidnappings and serious assaults. However, the Major Crimes unit was reduced by three positions as part of the 2009 budget cuts to the Sheriff’s Office.

The Cold Case Squad initially reviews homicides for solvability factors, including the status of possible suspects, witnesses and evidence, especially the possibility of DNA evidence.

Once a case passes the initial review, it faces a priority screening where it will be reviewed again and presented to a team that includes cold case detectives, a prosecutor and, depending on the case, colleagues and experts in a particular field.

Screening criteria will include, in addition to solvability factors, threat to the community, likelihood of successful DNA or other forensic testing, repeat offender, cost/benefit analysis of other investigative options, and the general strength of the case, according to King County.

The Cold Case Squad is hoping the new technology will help solve more cases. The Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday that detectives have exhumed the unidentified remains of a homicide victim in Seattle who died in 1969, hoping to find out who the person was, then find her killer.

Detectives exhumed the body to obtain DNA that can be entered into the database at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, and then into the FBI’s CODIS system.

How to help

A webpage has been set up on the King County Sheriff’s Department website (kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff/Contact/TIPS.aspx) describing the nearly 200 outstanding cold cases from the last 40-plus years. The cases are specifically directed toward homicides or missing person cases thought to be homicides. Detectives are asking the public to view the cases and report any information that may be related to these or other crimes.

King County cold cases with Federal Way ties

Sara Yarborough

Case number: 91-392815

Background: Sara Yarborough was a 16-year-old student who attended Federal Way High School. She was last seen in December 1991 leaving her residence to attend an early morning school function. She was later found dead on the school campus. Witnesses saw a suspect and two versions of a suspect composite had been distributed over the years. Detectives have evidence in this case that is able to be comparable to a specific suspect. Anyone can provide a suspect’s name anonymous via the phone or email.

Contact: King County Major Crimes, Cold Case Squad at (206) 296-7530.

•••

Debbie Gonzales

Case number: 87-214577

Background: Debbie Gonzales’ body was found in September 1987 in the 20400 block of the Auburn-Black Diamond Road in an area that was used frequently by local teenagers to party.

She was last seen by her mother in August 1987 at their home in Federal Way. She was a 14-year-old Hispanic female, 5-foot-6, 120 pounds, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. She was wearing a blue jean jacket and white pants. She was a chronic runaway who frequented the Timberlane area in the city of Covington.

A machete was recovered from the area where her body was located. Investigators are looking into what role the machete played in this case, if any. The investigation revealed that Gonzales had intimate contact near the time of her death and she may have been attending a party at the location where her body was recovered.

Investigators are interested in talking to anyone who saw Gonzales during the week of Aug. 7, 1987, and they are seeking information about the machete depicted in this photo.

Contact: King County Major Crimes, Cold Case Squad, (206) 296-7530.

•••

Leanne Wilcox

Background: On Jan. 21, 1982, workers were checking on machinery in a landscaping equipment storage lot located at 38016 Military Road S. in Federal Way, when they found the body of 17-year-old Leanne Virginia Wilcox. She had been murdered and her body was disposed in the lot.

Leanne had ties to Pacific Highway South in Seattle, Long Beach (California) and Portland (Oregon). She used the aliases of Christy Maloney, Renee Ramirez and Michelle Massey. There is DNA evidence in this case, and detectives invite tips that may lead to the identification of the suspect.

Contact: Detective Scott Tompkins, Cold Case Squad, (206) 205-7810.

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