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She first appeared in Batman #404, part of the Batman: Year One storyline. Then simply Sarah Essen, she is a detective partnered with then-lieutenant James Gordon. She and the married Gordon start a brief affair, over by the end of the story arc.
Editor Denny O'Neil later chose to revive the character as both an investigator and a love interest for Gordon. The two are eventually married.
She was an unseen presence in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Gordon, by now a retiring police commissioner, inwardly repeats, "I think of Sarah. The rest is easy" as a kind of mantra. She is only glimpsed near the end, when she and Gordon embrace in silhouette. (Dark Knight Returns, however, is considered non-canon.)
She is murdered by The Joker at the end of "No Man's Land" arc (Detective Comics #741); the Joker had her catch an infant he was holding, and to prevent her leaking his location shot her in the head while her hands were full. Strangely, the Joker seemed to take no pleasure in this act, walking away with a sour frown as opposed to his usual maniacal grin before surrendering himself to the police. In retaliation, Gordon shot Joker in the leg. The Joker bawled over his wound and the fact that he would never walk again, until he "got the joke"; in Batman: The Killing Joke he had shot Gordon's daughter, Barbara, paralyzing her, and now Gordon had done the same to him (Joker would walk again)
All Star Batman and Robin
In Issue 6, the first appearances of Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon, Gordon is talking to Sarah on the phone. Dialogue indicates that Gordon still loves Sarah and may even be having an affair with her in front of his wife.