When an Everglades National Park ranger found a young woman sleeping in her car late Saturday night, nothing seemed too terribly out of the ordinary. Visitors sometimes mistakenly “camp” in the visitor center parking lot.
Then the ranger ran the license plates.
It turned out that the 19-year-old, Sarah Brooke Gonzales McLinn, was wanted in connection with the mysterious murder of a pizza franchise owner in Kansas two weeks earlier. She and his car, a 2008 Nissan Altima, had been missing ever since.
On Monday, the slender, dark-haired young woman had her first appearance in Miami federal court, where she was charged with illegal camping and drug possession and assigned a federal public defender. On Wednesday, a magistrate judge will decide whether to transfer McLinn to face the far more serious charge back home in Kansas: First-degree murder in the death of her former employer, Harold Sasko, 52, who also shared his Lawrence home with her.
Lawrence police investigators found Sasko lying on the floor of his home on Jan. 17. He suffered traumatic injuries from an “edged instrument,” according to a police spokesman. McLinn, who had lived at Sasko’s home for more than a year and worked at one of his three Cici pizza restaurants in the Lawrence-Topeka area, was missing along with his car.
After searching the home, police officers distributed a nationwide law enforcement alert for McLinn and Sasko’s vehicle.
For more than a week, investigators pursued leads, talking to friends and family members in Kansas. The killing riveted Lawrence, a city of about 90,000 that is home to the University of Kansas and hadn’t seen a murder since 2008 until a spate of four beginning in mid-2013.
The break came in the most unexpected of places: Everglades National Park.
The arrest, however, wasn't dramatic, according to park’s spokeswoman, Linda Friar.
A park ranger was on a routine patrol when she found McLinn sleeping in the Nissan Altima at 10:25 p.m. Saturday at the park's main visitor center near Florida City, Friar said. Parking in that area overnight is illegal.
When the Everglades ranger ran the license plates, it showed that Kansas police were looking for the car, which belonged to the murder victim, Sasko. The ranger called for back-up and then two rangers woke the slumbering McLinn. They contacted the Lawrence police and determined she was a murder suspect.
Friar said she did not know if McLinn had shared any information with rangers about how she had come to wind up in the park.
Police spokesman Sgt. Trent McKinley said detectives had to “fill in the blanks” as McLinn went from being classified as a missing person prior to her arrest to a murder suspect. The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office did not issue a complaint charging McLinn with first-degree murder until Monday.
According to an account in PEOPLE magazine last week, Sasko’s relationship with McLinn dated to at least 2012.
Sasko had told his then-girlfriend how one of his employees, McLinn, was coming to live with him. The girlfriend, Kimberly Qualls, said she deeply dreaded that something would go wrong.
She said that Sasko was very spiritual and often looked out for others. He was trying to steer McLinn away from drugs and friends in gangs, she said.
“I told him: ‘Be sure you know what you're getting into,’ ’’ Qualls, who dated Sasko for eight months, told PEOPLE.
After the killing, Qualls said she found herself grappling to understand how something so awful could happen to someone she insisted always strived to help others.
“He liked to help people,” Qualls said. “He had said that, rather than die rich, he'd prefer to die broke knowing he helped a lot of people.”