In an alternate universe, Sarah DeLeon is a mother, a wife, a talented executive in the travel industry.
In that world, she finished college, saw where her relationship with her boyfriend went and continued to make memories with her family and friends.
In that version of events, Sarah lived past the age of 19.
But the reality Sarah’s loved ones have lived with since 1989 is far less blissful, though filled with just as many blank spaces concerning what happened to the outgoing Kansas teen.
“Here’s a beautiful 18-year-old girl that was coming home, going home from her boyfriend’s house, and then the next day her body’s found by railroad tracks and she’s been stabbed multiple times,” investigator Paul Holes told InsideEdition.com.
The first sign Sarah was in trouble was her abandoned black Mustang discovered hours after she had left her boyfriend’s Kansas City home on the way to her own around 1 a.m. on Dec. 29, 1989. The car’s door was open and there was no blood or evidence of a struggle, authorities said.
What had led to the girl’s gruesome murder was unknown. How her body was transported from her black Mustang under the Interstate 70 overpass at 78th Street to near the railroad tracks around Interstate 435 and Wolcott Drive, was also a mystery.
The case went cold, was reopened, saw an arrest made and then went quiet again when the charges against that suspect were dropped. But those hoping to see a resolution in the case may finally get what they wish as an expert cold case investigator has thrown his hat into the ring. His name is Paul Holes.
Holes became a household name with the 2018 arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, an incredible development in a case that spanned decades, crossed jurisdictions and left communities devastated.
But it was no fluke Holes played an instrumental role in the development for which so many people had waited so many years.
“During the course of my career, I was helping law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area to try to solve their unsolved cases,” Holes said. “I started out as a forensic scientist, worked as a crime scene investigator, and then ultimately became a cold case investigator. So when I go after unsolved cases, I bring all those skill sets to the table. … I got a lot of media attention as a result of the Golden State Killer case and the novel approach that was used to solve that case, this forensic genetic genealogy approach.”
Holes retired three weeks before the suspect in the Golden State Killer case was officially arrested, giving him time to pivot the attention he received and the skills he had acquired through years of work into helping solve more cold cases. That led to his new show on Oxygen, “The DNA of Murder With Paul Holes.”
“So ‘The DNA of Murder With Paul Holes’ is me going across the nation, doing what I used to do when I was an active investigator,” Holes explained. “I’m meeting with law enforcement who’s giving me access to their case files or crime scene photos or forensic testing results. And then I proceed to do an active investigation to see if I can find something that will help advance the case, with the ultimate goal of solving the case.”
Each episode of the show focuses on a different case and follows Holes and another expert as they tap the latest technological advancements and their own experience to develop a profile of the perpetrator.
But at its core, the show is about the person whose life was lost.
“I'm so victim-centric,” Holes said. “One of the first things that I do once I get into a case is start talking to the victim's families.”
In Sarah’s case, Holes and Las Vegas Metro Police veteran Yolanda McClary sought to learn as much as possible about her personality, her life and the relationships she had, as any or some of that information could be pertinent to how she died.
“As I’m talking to Sarah’s mom, her brother, her friends, I start to learn who Sarah was,” Holes said. “And she was a bright, very, very kind of flamboyant type of personality that was feisty. And that's such an important thing for me to learn about …... If she's confronted by an attacker, how would she respond?”
Sarah’s demeanor led Holes and McClary to believe she would likely defend herself.
“I start taking that information and looking at, ‘Well, what happened to her during the dynamics of the crime scene? … Did Sarah fight? Is there the chance that she injured the offender? Is there evidence that I can exploit in order to identify who that offender was?’ So that's part of the process,” Holes said. “It's learning the victim. It's learning who Sarah was and that's what I do. I learned who Sarah was.”
In October 2016, police announced a suspect they believed may have been motivated by a romantic rivalry had been arrested.
Carolyn Heckert, who was by then 48, was charged with first-degree premeditated murder. But in April 2017, a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to tie her to the unsolved crime and the charges were dropped, Wyandotte County prosecutors announced. Heckert has always maintained her innocence.
Holes took the case’s developments concerning potential suspects into account, but stressed he would not be influenced by previous investigators’ conclusions as he himself looked into Sarah’s murder.
“This person to this day is still has not been convicted, so it has to be presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Holes said. “But as I go through this case, we are cognizant of that legal aspect of the case. But we are still also telling what happened to Sarah and what evidence there is in order to be able to say why or why not … Our ultimate goal is really to help Kansas City, Kansas PD solve this case and part of this assistance is being able to get information about the facts of this case out there.”
In addition to providing his investigative know-how to the case, Holes noted that by bringing to attention Sarah’s case and those like hers, the likelihood an important tip could come in rises, as technology is not the only thing to have changed since 1989.
“By getting the information of the case out there into the public domain, it just takes that right person to hear that information and go, ‘yes, I know something,’” Holes said. “And why didn't they come forward 20 years ago? Well, they may have been scared. Their lives may have been in a position where they didn't feel they could come forward. But over the course of the years, relationships change. The reason why they may not have come forward 20 years ago has gone away, and now they feel they can.”
Revisiting cases like Sarah’s is important to Holes, who knows that for many people, these are more than just a case to read about or watch unfold.
“Some of these cases are decades old, and many people out there may have never even heard of these cases, so the first time they hear about this case say they're not necessarily realizing how long the victims’ families have lived with this loss of their loved one,” he said. “This is something these victim's families think about day in and day out.”
He continued: “It was a natural thing for me to want to continue to do what I’m good at, what I’m passionate about. And fortunately I’ve been given that platform to do that with the DNA of murder show … I've become very invested emotionally in all of these cases, but each of them, as I’ve dug into them, the actual story aspect of the case has become that much more intriguing.
“So each episode, I think the viewers will be fascinated just to hear about the case, to learn about the case, but they will also be sympathetic to who the victim was and how the victim's families are struggling to this day to finally get an answer.”
Sarah DeLeon's murder is the focus of “The DNA of Murder With Paul Holes” episode “Taken in the Night." It will air Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on Oxygen.