Robert Lee Yates, Jr.
At 6.30am on April 18,
Robert Lee Yates Jr, 47, a married father of five, was arrested for the
murder of 16 year old Jennifer Joseph.
As Yates sat at the police station
more charges of murder were added to the initial murder charge after a
taskforce closed it trap around Yates. A task force had been mobilized
to track the serial killer. Yates became a prime suspect when witnesses
described seeing Yates' 1977 white corvette in the area on the nights
that the women disappeared. Last spring, Yates was questioned and
detectives found enough evidence from Jennifer Joseph in the car, which
led to his initial arrest.
Detectives begun round-the-clock
surveillance of Yates for the two days preceeding his arrest. After he
returned from a two-week Army National Guard camp where he has continued
to his service as a helicopter pilot in the 66th Aviation Brigade of the
Washington Army National Guard, which is headquartered at Gray Army
Airfield, which is located on the base at Fort Lewis near Tacoma.
It appears Spokane's Serial Killer
grew bolder with each murder he committed. At first he relied on time
and distance to separate himself from the crimes.
Later on the gunman grew confident
in his abilities dumping his victims were they could be easily be found.
In the beginning, serial killer
victims were turning up miles from where they worked here along Sprague
Avenue. Late in august of 1997, a farmer found Jennifer Joseph's body
underneath this pine tree in the Mt. Spokane foothills.
The remote location is 12 miles
from Sprague Avenue.
The next known serial killer was
Darla Scott. Her body was also discovered in a rural area of the Hangman
Valley. But in this case, the gunman had cut the distance from Sprague
Avenue in half.
The killer's comfort zone would be
cut in half again with the discovery of Shawn McClenahan and Laurie
Wason at 14th and Carnahan.
Their bodies were found just three
miles from Sprague Avenue's "Red Light District".
More than a half year later, in
the serial killer's boldest execution, Michelyn Derning died just a few
blocks from where she entered the serial killer's vehicle.
It appears the gunman had become
quite comfortable with attacking and disposing of his targets even in
this very urbanized area.
Task Force officials won't comment
on concentric pattern of killings.
However they do believe that as
their investigation turned up the heat, Robert Yates gave up his alleged
campaign of murder.
The 47-year-old Spokane resident
is currently employed as a replacement worker at Kaiser Mead, where he
was hired in December 1998 as a strikebreaker after workers at the plant
walked off the job.
Yates would cruise a well known
prostitution strip just a short drive from his average suburban home
from August 1997 to July 1998.
His main objective was to find
prostitutes to murder. Most of the victims were white, with only one
being asian, and they were all involved in prostitution or drugs or
Yates' style was to shoot the
victims in the head with a .25-caliber gun after covering their heads in
several plastic grocery bags. Investigators suggest that the bags were a
"signature" -- things serial killers do to their victims that
are not necessary for murder. He would them dump the bodies where they
would be found in remote locations but near well-traveled roads and in
close proximity to each other. Almost all the victims had been killed
elsewhere before being transported to "dump sites" where they
Semen was found on eight of the
bodies. Three of the victims' bodies were within 50 yards of each other,
and two of the bodies were touching. Three victims were found with
vegetation from Yates' own home on top of their bodies, which also
assisted in linking Yates to the crimes.
On October 26, 2000 after many
appalling plea bargains Yates was finally sentenced to 408 years in
prison for 13 killings. Yates was then transferred to Pierce County
where he is to face two further counts of first-degree murder of Melinda
Mercer and Connie LaFontaine Ellis.
October 4, 2002 - A
Pierce County court sentenced Robert Lee Yates Jr. was sentenced to
death for the murders of Melinda Mercer, 24, in 1997 and Connie
LaFontaine Ellis, 35, in 1998. The two cases went to court after Pierce
County prosecutors refused to sign off on the Spokane plea deal and
charged Yates with aggravated first-degree murder, the state's only
capital crime. "He richly deserved the death penalty," said
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Jerry Costello.
Susan Savage, 22, and Patrick
Oliver, 21 were the first to cross paths with the Robert Yates. In 1975
the young couple were picnicking on Mill Creek, near Walla Walla, when
Yates happened upon them while practicing his target shooting in the
Patrick Oliver was shot three
times in the head before Yates turned on Susan and shot her twice. Yates
buried the couple's bodies under a pile of brush where the were found
within days. Yet it took a further 25 years before the families of the
couple would find out they were the first victims of a serial killer,
when Yates admitted he was responsible for the murders.
Twenty-three year old Stacy
Elizabeth Hawn from Seattle was the first prostitute known to be killed
by Yates around July 7, 1988. Her skeletal remains were found five
months later in Skagit County outside of Mount Vernon. Stacy had been
shot once in the head
Initially Hawn was listed as a
possible victim of the Green River Killer, however Yates' finally
admitted to her murder and was able to pinpoint the location she was
found as well as her injuries. His confession was part of a plea bargain
so he could avoid the death penalty.
Jennifer Joseph, aged 16, was
found on August 26, 1997. Her body was found in an advanced state of
decomposition in a small secluded spot at the corner of Forker and
Judkins Roads on the Peone Prairie. She had been killed by a close-range
gunshot to the chest. DNA was able to be extracted from semen swabs and
were undeniably matched to Yates. A sleeve button found in the white
Corvette formerly owned by Yates was matched to the shirt worn by Joseph
at the time of her death. The analysis of blood smears found in the
Corvette produced a match with a DNA profile generated through samples
from Joseph's parents.
The decomposed body of twenty-nine
year old prostitute Darla Sue Scott, was found on November 5, 1997 by a
man walking his dog off Hangman Valley Road. Two plastic bags that had
been covering her head were also found in her shallow grave. Her cause
of death was two gunshots to the head. DNA found on Darla's body was
matched to Yates.
On December 7, 1997 the body of
twenty-four year old Melinda L. Mercer, 24 was found on S. 50th St. in
Tacoma. She had four plastic bags covering her head and she had been
shot three times.
The body of Shawn L. Johnson, aged
36, was found on December 18, 1997. Her decomposing remains were found
off Hangman Valley Road with two plastic bags covering her head. The
cause of death was two gunshots to the head. Semen samples taken from
her body were matched to Yates' DNA.
Thirty one year old Laurel Wason's
body was found on December 26, 1997, in a gravel pit near the Hangman
Valley Road. Her head was covered with three plastic bags cover her head
and she had died from two gunshot wounds to the head. Foreign
vegetation, peanut shells, packing Styrofoam and chips of broken
concrete were found covering her body that matched debris found in
Yates' backyard. Semen found in her body matched Yates.
Shawn A. McClenahan, 39 was also
found December 26, 1997, next to the body of Laurel Wason. Three plastic
bags covered her head and the cause of death was two gunshots to the
head. DNA evidence from semen was matched to Yates as well as a
fingerprint on one of the plastic bags. Foreign matter covering her body
was also from Yates' backyard. Semen found in her body was matched to
Sunny G. Oster, aged 41, was found
on February 8, 1998. Her remains are found in a wooded area in Western
Spokane County and have all the hallmarks of a Yates' murder. Her head
is covered with three plastic bags and she ahs two gunshot wounds
to the skull. Yates' semen was also found on her body.
Thirty-four year old Linda
Maybin's decomposed body is found on April 1, 1998. Her shallow grave is
only 50 yards from the site of Wason and McClenahan's gravesite.. Two
plastic bags cover the victim's head. Cause of death is one gunshot to
the head. Semen in her body was matched to Yates' DNA. Non-indigenous
plant trimmings covering her body were matched to vegetation in Yates'
The next victim was found on July
7, 1998. Forty seven year old prostitute Michelyn Derning was
found under a bath cover by a transient in an area frequented by
prostitutes in Spokane's East Central neighborhood. Cause of death is
gunshot wound to the head. Unlike all of the other victims, she was seen
alive a week before her body was discovered. The others were found
weeks, or sometimes months, after they disappeared. Derning was not
raped and was murdered where she was found.
Connie LaFontaine Ellis, 35, was
found October 13, 1998, in a ditch near the 1700 block of 108th Street
South in Tacoma. Her decomposed body has three plastic bags covering her
head and she had suffered only one gunshot wound to the head.
Melody Ann Murfin, 43, who
disappeared in 1998 and was always regularly included in the Spokane
Serial Killer victim list. Her body was found October 18, 2000, buried
in the side yard under the bedroom window of Yates' home. Although
authorites thoroughly searched the yard after his arrest, they found
Murfin's body after Yates provided them with a man pinpointing its
Christine L. Smith, 32, was robbed
and assaulted by a man in his van on August 1, 1998. Smith was grazed by
the gunshot to her head but managed to escape and report the attack to
Smith had agreed to perform oral
sex for $40 in the back of Yates' van in a secluded parking lot in
Spokane on Aug. 1, 1998. According to Smith, Yates was driving a black
van with a bed and mattress in the back. Smith asked Yates
if he was the "psycho killer." that had been killing
prostitutes at the time, Yates responded by saying "he was
not the killer because he had five kids and would not do that."
After several minutes when Smith
had failed at arousing Yates with oral sex Yates shot her in the head -
(Smith had thought she had been hit rather than shot), nearly causing
her to lose consciousness however Smith struggled to stay awake and keep
her wits about her as she fell backwards. Luckily the bullet had
only scraped the side of her face. Smith did not know she had been shot
until a later x-ray showed fragments in her face and skull.
She contacted police again on
April 18 after recognizing Yates as her attacked from his mugshot
published in The Spokesman-Review. Police found blood stains, a
.25-caliber bullet casing and a bullet encrusted in the roof of a van
similar to the one described by Smith that was once owned by Yates. The
fragments of bullet were later removed from her head for ballistic
comparison to other bullets from Yates' victims.
Robert Lee Yates Jr. is an Army
veteran who served nearly two decades as a helicopter pilot for the U.S.
Army. He is the married father of four daughters and a son, ranging from
age 11 to 25.
He grew up in nearby Oak Harbor,
Wash., a Puget Sound community where the quiet calm is often punctuated
by the rumbling of jet engines from strike aircraft and patrol planes in
the flight pattern at nearby Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
After dropping out of college in
the early 1970s, Yates married and enlisted in the Army on Oct. 4, 1977.
Within 3 years, Yates was a warrant officer attending flight school at
Fort Rucker, Ala., the home of Army aviation. He graduated with a pair
of flight wings authorizing him to fly helicopters.
Yates flew the OH-58 Kiowa, the
military version of the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. Sleek, fast and
highly maneuverable, the scout helicopter served as a battlefield
commander's eyes and ears.
Yates was stationed overseas in
Germany during the height of Cold War tensions between Western Europe
and the former Warsaw Pact. His decorations included three Meritorious
Service Medals, three Army Commendation Medals, three Army Achievement
Medals and a Humanitarian Service Medal for participating in a relief
mission to South Florida to help clean up the devastation left by
Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
He also received two Armed Forces
Expeditionary Medals one for each tour he had spent flying in
peacekeeping missions with the Unified Task Force in Somalia in 1993 and
in Haiti during Operation "Uphold Democracy" in 1994.
"It's real gutsy he would go
out there and look for the enemy with no weaponry," said Chief
Warrant Officer-3 Jay Enders, who would later fly with Yates in the
Washington Army National Guard. "He [Yates] was a true professional
when he was out here, very proficient."
Yates ended his career as a chief
warrant officer-4, the highest rank a warrant officer could attain in
the Army. He had amassed more than 5,000 hours of flight time in
helicopters without a single mishap and had been awarded the title of
Master Army Aviator.
After 18 years as a career
military aviator, Yates was almost within sight of the coveted 20-year
mark, when servicemen are eligible for retirement benefits. Instead,
Chief Warrant Officer Yates retired from the Army in March 1996.
He was a civilian again, finally
settling with his family into a beige two-story rancher on Spokane's
South Hill. Within months of retiring, however, Yates was looking to get
back into the cockpit. In April 1997, the Washington Army National Guard
granted his request.
But Yates was unable to fly. A
performance evaluation report filed by his commanding officer in May
1998 noted that his "morale and dedication remained high"
despite not being able to fly "due to delays in processing [his]
While Chief Warrant Officer Yates
was grounded, detectives were working to unravel the mystery behind a
growing number of bodies that were being discovered across Washington
Robert Lee Yates, Jr.
His friends and family called him Bobby.
He was married from 1972 till 1974 with Shirley Nylander.
He married again in 1974 with Linda Brewer.
Linda and Robert had four daughters and one son.
Confessed to 13 killings (12 females, 1 male)
and admitted the murder of another.
He also confessed to one attempted murder.
He was sentenced on Oct. 26 to 408 years in prison.
But that's not it, because Yates may face the death
penalty in Tacoma for two more murders.
And he is still a suspect in many other murders.
Detectives found blood in his vehicles that doesn't match known victims.
And law enforcement officers in Germany are
investigating whether Yates might be involved in the deaths of as many
as 26 women in that country.
Yates served two tours of duty in Germany with the Army.
Robert Lee Yates Jr. is an Army veteran who served
nearly two decades as a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army. He is the
married father of four daughters and a son, ranging from age 11 to 25.
He grew up in nearby Oak Harbor, Wash., a Puget Sound
community where the quiet calm is often punctuated by the rumbling of
jet engines from strike aircraft and patrol planes in the flight pattern
at nearby Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
After dropping out of college in the early 1970s,
Yates married and enlisted in the Army on Oct. 4, 1977. Within 3 years,
Yates was a warrant officer attending flight school at Fort Rucker,
Ala., the home of Army aviation. He graduated with a pair of flight
wings authorizing him to fly helicopters.
Yates lew the OH-58 Kiowa, the military version of
the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. Sleek, fast and highly maneuverable, the
scout helicopter served as a battlefield commander’s eyes and ears.
Yates was stationed overseas in Germany during the
height of Cold War tensions between Western Europe and the former Warsaw
Pact. His decorations included three Meritorious Service Medals, three
Army Commendation Medals, three Army Achievement Medals and a
Humanitarian Service Medal for participating in a relief mission to
South Florida to help clean up the devastation left by Hurricane Andrew
He also received two Armed Forces Expeditionary
Medals – one for each tour he had spent flying in peacekeeping missions
with the Unified Task Force in Somalia in 1993 and in Haiti during
Operation "Uphold Democracy" in 1994.
"It’s real gutsy he would go out there and look for
the enemy with no weaponry," said Chief Warrant Officer-3 Jay Enders,
who would later fly with Yates in the Washington Army National Guard.
"He [Yates] was a true professional when he was out here, very
Yates ended his career as a chief warrant officer-4,
the highest rank a warrant officer could attain in the Army. He had
amassed more than 5,000 hours of flight time in helicopters without a
single mishap and had been awarded the title of Master Army Aviator.
After 18 years as a career military aviator, Yates
was almost within sight of the coveted 20-year mark, when servicemen are
eligible for retirement benefits. Instead, Chief Warrant Officer Yates
retired from the Army in March 1996.
He was a civilian again, finally settling with his
family into a beige two-story rancher on Spokane’s South Hill. Within
months of retiring, however, Yates was looking to get back into the
cockpit. In April 1997, the Washington Army National Guard granted his
But Yates was unable to fly. A performance evaluation
report filed by his commanding officer in May 1998 noted that his "morale
and dedication remained high" despite not being able to fly "due to
delays in processing [his] medical examination."
While Chief Warrant Officer Yates was grounded,
detectives were working to unravel the mystery behind a growing number
of bodies that were being discovered across Washington State.
The killing fields
What police believe was the first victim in the
serial killings was found on Aug. 26, 1997. The body of Jennifer Joseph,
the teenager from Spanaway, Wash., was found along Forker Road on the
Peone Prairie in northern Spokane County.
Other victims were to follow:
Nov. 5, 1997: The body of 28-year-old Darla Sue Scott
was found in a shallow grave near Hangman Valley Road in the Spokane
area. Medical examimners found that she had been killed by multiple
gunshot wounds from a small-caliber handgun, taken to a remote location
Dec. 7, 1997: On the other side of the state,
officers from the Tacoma Police Department responded to a call of a body
lying along the road in the 5000 block of South Adams St. The body was
partially covered by brush, with the head enclosed in a plastic bag.
Investigators determined that the murder had been committed at another
location. The subsequent autopsy confirmed that the woman – later
identified as 24-year-old Melinda Mercer – had died from multiple
gunshot wounds to the head.
Dec. 18, 1997: A body, later identified as Shawn
Johnson, was found near a steep embankment along South Hangman Valley
Road. Her head was wrapped in a plastic bag. An autopsy confirmed that
she – like Joseph, Scott and Mercer – had died from multiple gunshot
wounds to the head.
Investigators found that all the victims had
something in common. All had a history of drug abuse or prostitution,
some of them both. All of them had been shot in the head with a small-caliber
handgun. A ballistic comparison of the bullet wounds and fragments of
the bullets found on several of the victims confirmed that the weapon
used was a .25-caliber weapon, most likely a semiautomatic pistol. With
the exception of Mercer, the bodies had been dumped in remote locations
in Spokane County.
Forensic scientists retrieved everything they could
from the bodies and the crime scenes – acrylic fibers, hair and grass
clippings that were used to partially conceal several of the bodies.
Evidence was sent to the State Crime Lab, which determined that some of
the DNA found with each of the women’s remains came from the same person.
Detectives saw a pattern that was becoming more
recognizable as the trail left by a serial killer: one person and a
series of victims, all with similar backgrounds, all killed in a similar
fashion, all disposed of in relatively remote locations.
Armed with this information and alarmed by the
growing number of victims, authorities in Spokane announced the
formation of a Homicide Task Force on Dec. 22, 1997, to investigate the
Four days later, on the day after Christmas, two
bodies were found partially concealed under brush along the 4800 block
of East 14th Street on Spokane’s South Hill. Laurel Wason and Shawn
McClenahan had both been killed elsewhere and dumped at the location.
Both had a history of drug abuse and prostitution. And autopsies on both
revealed that both had been killed by multiple gunshot wounds.
Over the next 10 months, four more victims were found.
The body of Sunny Oster was found in February 1998 in a shallow ditch in
rural Spokane County. Linda Maybin was found in April 1998, only a short
distance from where the bodies of Laurel Wason and Shawn McClenahan were
discovered four months earlier. On July 7, Michelyn Derning’s body was
found in a vacant lot at 218 N. Crestline. On Oct. 13, Connie LaFontaine
Ellis’ body was found in the 1700 block of 108th Street South in Tacoma.
Again, all had a similar history; all were killed by multiple gunshots.
The white Corvette
On Nov. 10, 1998, Yates was pulled over again, this
time at the corner of First and Crestline in a late model car – a Honda
Civic. Police said Yates had picked up a known prostitute, but he
maintained that he was picking up the woman at her father’s request.
Yates was released but the police officer recorded the contact.
During the investigation, detectives had come up with
a promising lead: the first victim was last seen riding in a white
Corvette, witnesses told police.
Detectives started the painstaking process of
compiling a list of registered owners of white Corvettes in Eastern
Washington. Then they cross-referenced that list with the names of
people who had been stopped by police in the area frequented by
prostitutes and formally identified in field reports.
Yates’ name came up. In addition to the incident on
Nov. 10, 1998, there was an earlier encounter in September 1997 near the
corner of Sprague and Ralph, also an area frequented by prostitutes. On
Sept. 15, 1999, Yates met detectives in the lobby of the Public Safety
Building for an interview. He was one of several people who had both a
white Corvette and had been identified in the area of Sprague Avenue.
At the beginning of the meeting, Yates was told that
his name had surfaced during the investigation but he was not considered
a suspect, was free to leave at any time and could refuse to answer any
questions. He and the detectives talked about the latest encounter with
police, when he had been stopped after picking up a prostitute. Yates
said that he was giving the woman a ride home at the request of her
father, who worked with him, but he had a hard time remembering the name
of either the woman and her father.
Detectives said they warned Yates that they thought
he was lying, but he stuck with his story. He told investigators that he
once owned a white Corvette but had sold it. When investigators asked
for a blood sample, Yates said he would have to think about it.
The following day, detectives talked with the woman
that Yates had picked up. The woman said Yates had agreed to pay her $20
to perform a sex act, but when stopped by the police, Yates made up the
story about her father. She said her father did not work with Yates, and
that he had given police a false address for her father’s house.
Three days later, Yates called investigators and
declined to give them a blood sample.
In January 2000, detectives tracked down the new
owner of Yates’ Corvette and asked to collect some fiber samples from
the car. On April 5, Kevin Jenkins, a forensic scientist with the
Washington State Crime Lab, told detectives on the Homicide Task Force
that the fibers taken from the Corvette "quite closely matched" those
retrieved during the investigation of the first victim, Jennifer Joseph.
Two days later, the task force towed the Corvette to
the Sheriff’s Vehicle Processing Station for a more-thorough search.
Investigators found what appeared to be dried blood on the passenger-side
seatbelt buckle, the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. Under the
passenger-side floorboard, detectives said they found a small, white
DNA was not available from Joseph, but police
collected some from her parents and compared it with that extracted from
the upholstery blood stains. Police found that there was an "extremely
high likelihood" that the DNA evidence recovered from the blood stains
in the Corvette was from "a child of Joseph’s parents." The buttons –
those from Joseph’s blouse and the one found under the Corvette’s
floorboard – were nearly identical.
Six days later, at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of April
18, 2000, police officers pulled over a car heading north on Market
Street in Spokane. Yates, who was on his way to work at Kaiser Aluminum,
was arrested in connection with the killings.
His home at 2220 E. 49th on Spokane’s South Hill was
quickly cordoned off as detectives began the painstaking process of
searching the interior and exterior of the house for evidence. While
moving swiftly to preserve evidence at Yates’ home, authorities were not
yet prepared to identify Yates, who was now sitting in custody at the
Spokane County Jail, as a suspect in the deaths of a number of other
"We are very specifically not saying he is our serial
killer," Cpl. David Reagan, Spokane County Sheriff Public Information
Officer, said at the time. "We have evidence that ties him to the
homicide of one prostitute."
That would soon change.
By the end of the next day, Yates had been charged in
the death of Jennifer Joseph. Several days later, Sheriff Mark Sterk
announced that Yates was the suspect in eight other killings: Darla
Scott, Shawn Johnson, Laurel Wason, Shawn McClenahan, Melinda Mercer,
Sunny Oster, Linda Maybin and Michelyn Derning.
While eight of the victims were found in Spokane, two
were found in Tacoma, where Yates would later be charged by Pierce
County prosecutors. The two bodies were found near the front gate to
Camp Murray, the headquarters of the Washington National Guard, and the
location where Yates conducted his monthly training with the Guard.
Although Spokane prosecutors have agreed not to seek
the death penalty for Yates, authorities in Tacoma have not yet agreed
to the same deal.
Robert Lee Yates Jr.: The Search for the Spokane
by Gary C. King
The First Bodies
The stark realization that the deaths of seven women since late
summer 1997, four of whom were killed during the year’s final weeks,
was the work of a serial killer, renewed fears among the public and
law enforcement officials alike that the infamous and elusive Green
River Killer had found a new killing ground in and around Spokane,
Washington. It was only talk and speculation, fueled in large part
by the numbers of bodies being found and the fact that many of the
victims were prostitutes.
The talk and speculation was only quelled by the fact that the
killer’s method of operation was markedly different from that of the
Green River Killer. Nonetheless, it was a possibility that had to be
considered, at least initially, given the fact that serial killers
have on occasion changed their M.O.s. Disturbingly, the number of
bodies would more than double before they stopped, and many others
would be attributed to the same killer.
The first indication that a serial killer was at work in and around
this eastern Washington city began on February 22, 1990, a Thursday,
at approximately 8:30 a.m. when the homicide division of the Spokane
Police Department was called to the 4100 block of East Upriver Drive
on a report of a young black female whose nude body was lying over
the embankment near the Spokane River.
The responding officers and later the detectives observed that the
young woman had been shot a number of times, and the size of the
entrance wounds suggested a small caliber gun had been used. An
extensive search of the area failed to turn up any of the victim’s
clothing or personal effects.
The search also failed to turn up any bullets or spent shell
casings, an indication that either the killer took care in cleaning
up after himself, used a gun that did not eject shell casings, or
killed the victim at a different location and then transported the
body after death. All that was found with the body was the victim’s
black wig, a green blanket like those used in the military, a multi-colored
blanket, and a white towel.
After some of the details of the discovery of the victim’s body were
made public, the victim was identified as 26-year-old Yolanda Sapp.
The investigators soon learned that Sapp had a history of
prostitution arrests and was known to use drugs. She was last seen
two days before her body was found in the 3200 block of East
Sprague, an area frequented by prostitutes and pimps.
At that time she had been wearing black jeans, black slip-on
flat-soled shoes, black panties, a black t-shirt, and a beige rabbit
fur coat, none of which was found with her body. After interviewing
those who were close to her, police determined that nine bracelets
were missing from her wrists, as was a silver chain necklace, two
rings (one of which was a wedding ring), and a jean or denim purse.
As would be done with all of the victims, hair and fiber samples
were taken during autopsy, as were oral, anal, and vaginal swabs.
little more than a month later another body was found. This time, on
Sunday, March 25, 1990, the Spokane Police Department was called to
the 3200 block of East South Riverton regarding a report of a body
found in the road shortly after 6 a.m. The victim was a white
female, and it was clear to the investigators that she had been shot
She was eventually identified as 34-year-old Nickie I. Lowe who,
like the previous victim, had a history of prostitution and drug
abuse. Lowe was last seen a day earlier in the East Sprague area of
Spokane. During Lowe’s autopsy, a .22-caliber bullet was retrieved
from her body relatively intact, and it was noted that a strong odor
of motor oil emanated from her body. Toxicology tests results
confirmed the presence of cocaine and cocaine metabolites in Lowe’s
Although the detectives investigating the murders of Yolanda Sapp
and Nickie Lowe were reasonably certain that both women had been
done in by the same killer, little headway was made in the
investigation over the next seven weeks and no additional bodies
were found, leaving investigators wondering whether their killer had
moved on to another locale or was just lying low for awhile.
However, they weren’t left wondering for long.
On Tuesday, May 15, 1990, at approximately 7:45 p.m., the Spokane
County Sheriff’s Department responded to a report of a body found in
the Trent and Pines area near the banks of the Spokane River. The
victim was a white female, and was nude except for rings on her
fingers. She also had contusions and lacerations to the head,
prompting the investigators to believe that she had been beaten with
a blunt object. They also observed gunshot wounds.
Crime scene investigators recovered articles of female clothing from
the scene, as well as a pair of shoes, a plastic bag stained with
blood, a cigarette butt, and vegetation samples. This time, however,
they also found tire tracks, the tire tread patterns, which were
The latest victim was identified as Kathleen Brisbois, 38. Bullets
were recovered from her body during the autopsy, and trace evidence
such as hair and fiber was collected and sent to the state crime
laboratory. Toxicology tests revealed the presence of morphine and
cocaine metabolites in Brisbois’ body, indicating that she had used
cocaine and most likely heroin prior to her death. Investigators
believed that she had been engaged in prostitution activities at the
time of her death.
By now, because of the similarities of the victims’ deaths, the fact
that a small caliber gun was used, and the fact that all were
engaged in prostitution left little doubt in the investigators’
minds that they were dealing with a bonafide serial killer. Just
when and where he would strike next was anybody’s guess. In the
meantime, they were not anywhere close to identifying the killer,
and everyone realized that he could leave a large number of bodies
in his wake before being apprehended.
Two Years Later
Two days short of two years passed without any additional victims
being found that could be attributed to the Spokane serial killer.
By the time the fourth victim came to the attention of the police,
the investigators probing the original case didn’t know if the
killer had moved on to another locale to carry out his dark deeds or
if he had merely been more careful in hiding his victims’ bodies.
Investigators opted for the theory that the killer had been
murdering women during the two-year interim in another locale.
The awareness that the killer had started up again in Spokane came
about on Wednesday, May 13, 1992, when a nude female body was found
on Bill Gulch Road, about a quarter mile east of Mt. Spokane Park
Drive. Articles of clothing were tangled in the area of the victim’s
arms and head, and a plastic bag covered her head. As with the
previous victims, shoes and other clothing articles were found near
Criminalists found what they believed to be a bullet near the body,
but no spent shell casings. There was no sign of a struggle and no
significant blood pooling in the area of the body, which indicated
to the cops that the victim had been killed at a different location
and brought to the site and dumped.
As with the others, the cause of death was determined to have been
gunshot wounds. Bullets were again obtained from the victim’s body,
along with hair, fiber, and orifice swabs. The Caucasian victim was
identified through fingerprint analysis as Sherry Anne Palmer, 19,
the youngest victim to date.
Subsequent follow-up investigation determined that Palmer had last
been seen leaving Al’s Motel, known for its use by prostitutes and
their johns, located at 1421 N. Division in Spokane, on Friday
evening, May 1, 1992. Detectives learned that she had left the motel
in a taxicab at approximately 11 p.m. to meet her boyfriend.
However, she never arrived at the location where he was to meet her.
Although she had a history of involvement in prostitution, Palmer
was not known to use illicit drugs.
More than three years passed before the next victim attributed to
the Spokane serial killer was found. By this time, Spokane
investigators were communicating with their colleagues in other
locales to try and come up with anything that would link the victims
to a suspect. Unfortunately, all they had were victims linked by
histories of prostitution who had all been killed similarly by
gunshot with a small caliber weapon and whose nude bodies had been
dumped at various locations.
With the latest victim on the other side of the state, in Kitsap
County northwest of Seattle, linked to the Spokane serial killer,
the investigators now knew that he was working in different locales.
The fact that the latest victim was found in western Washington also
renewed fears that the Green River killer might still be at work.
It was on Friday, August 25, 1995, that the nude body of 60-year-old
Patricia L. Barnes, a white woman, was found in the vicinity of the
15900 block of Peacock Hill Road in Kitsap County. Kitsap County
Sheriff’s Department Detective Ron Trogdon was called to the scene,
where he observed that the body was partly covered with cut foliage
brought there from a different area. Trogdon located a number of
hair curlers at the scene, but little else.
However, he found a second pile of foliage similar to that where
Barnes’ body was found about a mile from the body discovery site.
When the criminalists went through the second foliage pile they
found two plastic bags that contained hair curlers like those found
with the body. Blood was also found at the second location that was
later determined to be Barnes’.
Trogdon’s follow-up investigation showed that Barnes, so far the
oldest victim of the Spokane serial killer, was last seen alive in
Seattle on or about August 22, 1995, and was seen wearing curlers in
her hair at that time. Barnes was characterized as a street person,
but had no known links to prostitution or use of illicit drugs. She
was known to drink alcohol, which was found in her system during
The autopsy also recovered two .22-caliber bullets from her body.
Based on the evidence that was recovered, the victim’s lifestyle,
ballistics, the manner in which her nude body was found and the fact
that it appeared that Barnes had been killed at a different location
and her body subsequently transported and dumped at the location
where it was found, prompted Trogdon to contact Detective Marvin R.
Hill, assigned to the Spokane Police Department’s serial killer task
force. When the evidence and Barnes’ background was compared to that
of the Spokane victims, there was little room for doubt that both
Trogdon and Hill were looking for the same killer.
The horror that was taking its toll on the eastern Washington city
of Spokane re-emerged ten months after the Kitsap County case. On
Friday, June 14, 1996, the decomposed body of 39-year-old Shannon R.
Zielinski was found near the intersection of Mt. Spokane Park Drive
and Holcomb Road in Spokane.
Unlike previous victims, who had all been found nude, Zielinksi was
clad in a short gray dress. According to Detective Hill, a towel had
been draped over her torso, and a pair of pantyhose, a pair of white
socks, and one high black boot was discovered nearby.
There was no purse or identification found at the scene, and
Zielinski’s identity was learned following fingerprint analysis. A
shell casing was discovered at the scene and, like the others, there
was little blood pooling and no sign of a struggle, all of which
indicated that she had been killed at a different location. Like all
the others, she had been shot to death.
As Detective Hill probed Zielinski’s background, he learned that she
had known links to prostitution and was known to use illicit drugs.
However, due to the decomposed condition of her body, toxicology
tests were not possible.
Zielinski was last seen on May 27, 1996, at approximately 1 p.m., in
the vicinity of Sprague and Helena streets in Spokane. At that time
she was seen drinking alcohol with a group of males and was
contacted by a police officer, but not arrested.
According to witnesses, Zielinski left a nearby residence that same
evening to work as a prostitute. She was wearing the same gray dress
and high black boots, and was not seen again until her body was
Tuesday, August 26, 1997, more than a year after Shannon Zielinski’s
body was found, was a busy day for Spokane detectives when two
bodies were discovered. The first body found that day was that of
20-year-old Heather L. Hernandez, a known prostitute. Hernandez’
decomposing remains were found in a field behind 1817 E. Springfield
in Spokane, clad only in a shirt and bra.
There was no other clothing, shoes, purse or identification found
with the body. Detective Hill observed a visible trail of blood that
led from the northeast portion of a parking lot to the field where
her body was found, showing that her body was dragged to its final
location. She had been killed by gunshot.
In another location Detective Rick Grabenstein, also a member of the
Spokane serial murder task force, investigated the discovery of the
body of an Asian female near the north 9800 block of Forker Road.
The body was later identified through fingerprints as 16-year-old
Crime scene investigators recovered a light blue towel, a blouse
that was missing a mother-of-pearl button, black full-length pants,
two shoes, panties, a portion of a radio antenna, and a used condom.
Like all of the others, the investigation suggested that she had
been killed at another location and transported to the area where
her body was found. The cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds.
It was noted during the autopsy that Joseph’s fingernails and
toenails were painted with a polish that contained glitter,
fragments of which were found on other parts of her body. Three
stud-type earrings with small pale stones were present in her left
ear, but only two were found in her right ear, indicating that one
was dislodged during the ordeal with her killer. Similarly, one
false eyelash was missing from her body, indicating that it likely
came off during the incident with the killer.
Grabenstein determined that another prostitute who had been working
with her in the East Sprague area last saw Joseph alive at 11:35
p.m. ten days earlier, on August 16. The prostitute last saw Joseph
traveling eastbound on Thor in the company of a white male,
approximately 30 to 40 years old, in a car believed to have been a
white Corvette. The car, it turned out, would be the first real lead
in the case that tied any of the victims to a suspect.
A Suspect Emerges
While the investigation into the prostitute murders was in full
swing, with detectives and undercover officers frequenting those
areas where prostitutes were known to work, a police officer on
routine patrol made the first contact with Robert L. Yates, Jr., 45.
Yates, driving a 1977 white Corvette with Washington license plate
KIH442, was stopped for a minor traffic infraction at 12:45 p.m. on
Wednesday, September 24, 1997 in the vicinity of Sprague and Ralph.
Yates was ticketed and allowed to proceed.
However, the connection between Yates’ Corvette and the murder of
Jennifer Joseph was not noted immediately because the patrolman had
mistakenly written in his report that Yates had been driving a
Camaro. The connection was not noted until later, after the task
force checked the “Camaro’s” registration and learned that it was
actually a Corvette. In the meantime, the bodies continued to pile
On November 5, 1997, a Wednesday, a local resident stumbled upon a
decomposing corpse in the vicinity of South 12600 Hangman Valley
Road. The body, in an obvious attempt to conceal it, had been buried
in a shallow grave, and was located near a small stream. No
clothing, with the exception of a blouse, was recovered.
The corpse was later identified as Darla Sue Scott, 29, who had an
extensive history of prostitution and drug arrests. Scott had been
shot, possibly with a .25-caliber or smaller caliber gun. A plastic
bag with handwriting on it was recovered with Scott’s body, as was a
second “grocery type” plastic bag. A Styrofoam “packing peanut” was
found nearby in the road.
Meanwhile, a month later, another body was found in the western part
of the state. On Sunday, December 7, 1997, the Tacoma, Washington
police department responded to a call of a body found in the 5000
block of South Adams Street at 1:30 p.m.
The woman’s body was nude, and was found partially obscured by brush
near the road. What was believed to be the victim’s clothing was
strewn over her body, and plastic bags covered her head. A
.25-caliber spent shell casing was recovered from the scene. The
body was subsequently identified as that of 34-year-old Melinda L.
Missing from the crime scene was a large green purse that Mercer was
known to carry, as well as several costume jewelry type rings. The
missing items of Mercer’s, as well as the numerous items not
recovered from other victims, prompted the detectives to theorize
that the killer had kept some of his victims’ belongings as trophies
or souvenirs of his “kills.”
The Tacoma investigators learned that Mercer was last seen during
the late evening hours of December 6 in the parking lot of a QFC
grocery store in the 1800 block of Northeast 45th Street in Seattle
in the company of a man driving a newer, burgundy colored minivan.
Mercer had a history of prostitution and drug abuse, and toxicology
tests revealed that she had used cocaine and opiates prior to her
death. The autopsy showed that she died from gunshot wounds.
Another body was found on Wednesday, December 17, 1997, a week
before Christmas, in the same area of Spokane where Darla Sue
Scott’s body had been found in November, this time in the 11400
block of Hangman Valley Road. The body, which was fully clothed but
had plastic bags placed over the head, had been tossed over the side
of a steep embankment where it rolled down the hill and came to rest
about 25 feet from the edge of the road.
Crime scene investigators recovered a number of hairs and fibers,
which were sent to the state crime laboratory for processing. She
had been shot to death. The body was later identified as that of
36-year-old Shawn L. Johnson, who was last seen leaving a home in
northeast Spokane two months earlier, on the evening of October 17,
to work as a prostitute in the East Sprague area.
Johnson was supposed
to have called her roommate later on the evening that she
disappeared, but she failed to do so and was not seen again until
her body was found. Although Johnson’s vehicle was found in a K-Mart
parking lot on East Sprague on October 19, reported as abandoned by
a store employee, it was not taken as evidence by authorities until
December 23, after her body had been found and it had been
determined that she was a victim of the elusive serial killer. It
was processed for evidence and a number of items were recovered,
including hairs and fibers.
The Body Count Continues
Two more Caucasian
female bodies were found the day after Christmas, Friday, December
26, 1997, in the 4800 block of East 14th Avenue in Spokane. Unlike
many of the previous bodies, these two were fully clothed—except
that they were both missing their shoes.
Both of the bodies
were covered with debris from a wide variety of vegetation alien to
the area—lace leaf maple, Arbor Vitae, birch, rose, hydrangea,
Oregon grape, maple, honey locust, forsythia, Japanese barberry,
Chrysanthemum, among others.
In addition to the
vegetation, crime scene investigators recovered soil, rocks,
concrete pieces, wood pieces, white paint chips, a red dyed feather,
peanut shells, cherry pits, and a plastic plant identification tag
like that found on a plant at a nursery that read “Sweet William.”
The bodies were
identified as Laurel A. Wason, 31, and Shawn A. McClenahan, 39. Each
of the victims had three plastic bags over their heads, and
autopsies showed that each had been shot to death. As with all of
the other victims, the site where their bodies were found was
believed to have been only a dumping site after their murders
It was also
determined that Laurel Wason was wearing a black trench coat when
last seen, and Shawn McClenahan was wearing a blue nylon coat. Both
coats were missing from their bodies and were not recovered. Were
these additional trophies for the killer to savor? The police could
only guess at this point.
Since it appeared
that a substantial attempt had been made to conceal the bodies,
along with the fact that a large variety of debris and plant
material was used, the investigators theorized that the debris and
plant material may have been brought from the suspect’s home or
other place that he had access to.
They noted that when
a suspect was eventually identified, comparisons of the vegetation
and debris material could be made with that found at the suspect’s
premises and could prove important in forming a link between the
perpetrator and the dumpsite locations.
On Sunday, February
28, 1998, two full months into the new year, a white female body was
discovered in a ditch on Graham Road in a rural area of Spokane
County. The body was identified as that of 41-year-old Sunny G.
Oster, a known prostitute and drug user. Oster’s body was fully
clothed, and a pair of shoes had been discarded near the body. Oster
died of gunshot wounds, and three plastic bags had been placed over
The last time anyone
saw Oster alive was on November 1, 1997, while she was working as a
prostitute on East Sprague. She had been carrying a beige purse,
which was not located and which police believe may have been taken
as a trophy.
On Wednesday, April
1, 1998, the body of 34-year-old Linda M. Maybin was found in the
4800 block of East 14th Avenue only a short distance from where the
bodies of Laurel Wason and Shawn McClenahan were found the previous
Similar to Wason and
McClenahan, Maybin’s body had been covered with vegetation that did
not grow in that area and consisted of many of the same species
previously found there, bolstering the investigative theory that
perhaps the plant material had been brought from the perpetrator’s
home. Maybin’s body was fully clothed, and there were remnants of
plastic bags in the area of her head. The body was badly decomposed,
and animals had disturbed it. It was obvious that it had been there
for some time.
The animal damage
and degree of decomposition fit the time Maybin was last seen, which
had been on November 21, 1997 when she had been contacted by a
police officer on East Sprague. It was possible that she had been
seen the following night, but that could not be confirmed.
She was reported
missing on November 29, 1997 by a Spokane County Health District
employee that works with prostitutes. The fact that Maybin’s body
was found in such close proximity to where Wason’s and McClenahan’s
bodies were found prompted investigators to believe that the killer
was using the site as a cluster dump site. However, an exhaustive
search of the area failed to turn up any additional bodies.
investigation showed that Maybin was known to use illicit drugs,
particularly crack cocaine. Acquaintances told the police that she
usually carried a pipe for smoking crack tucked inside her pants in
her pelvic region. However, the pipe was not found—only a folded
paper towel was recovered from this area of her body. She was also
known to carry a velvet, drawstring bag like that sold with Crown
Royal whiskey, but this, too, was missing from her body.
On Tuesday, July 7,
1998, a white female body was found in a vacant lot near 218 N.
Crestline in Spokane. It was subsequently identified as that of
Michelyn J. Derning, 47, who had a history of prostitution and was
last seen on July 4, 1998 in Spokane. Derning’s body had been
covered with grass.
A piece of Styrofoam
and two hot tub covers also covered her, which, the detectives
determined, had come from a pile of debris in the vacant lot.
Derning’s body was nude, and her lower denture, engraved with her
name, was missing from her mouth. Cause of death was gunshot wounds,
and a toxicology examination revealed the presence of
methamphetamine in her body.
On Tuesday, October
13, 1998, the body of 35-year-old Connie L. Ellis, also known as
Connie L. LaFontaine, was found in the vicinity of the 1700 block of
108th Street South, in Tacoma. When the Pierce County Sheriff’s
Department responded, they found that the body was badly decomposed,
had three plastic bags placed over the head, and the victim had
sustained a gunshot wound to the head.
A 9mm caliber bullet
was found at the scene, but follow-up investigation revealed that
Ellis carried a small gun capable of firing a 9mm bullet, prompting
the investigators to believe that the bullet found at the scene had
belonged to Ellis and not her killer. Ellis’ gun was not found. Like
all of the others, Ellis was known to be involved in prostitution
and drug usage.
Because of the
ongoing investigations of murdered prostitutes in several counties
that were obviously linked to the Spokane serial killer, who was
clearly traveling across the state to carry out his murders, Pierce
County detectives promptly notified the Spokane cops of their
discovery. The discovery of Ellis’ body brought the official body
count attributed to the Spokane serial killer to 17. There were
likely many others that were not yet found or linked to the elusive
evidence from the cases of Nickie Lowe and Kathy Brisbois, conducted
by Gaylan Warren of the Columbia International Forensic Laboratory,
showed that those two cases were without question related. It was
Warren’s opinion that the same-.22-caliber weapon, most likely a
handgun, killed Lowe and Brisbois. Warren further determined that
Sherry Palmer had been shot with a .32-caliber firearm which, in his
opinion, was most likely a semi-automatic pistol.
The Washington State
Patrol Crime Lab examined ballistics evidence in the case of
Patricia Barnes, and the .22-caliber bullets found in her body had
been too badly damaged from passing through tissue and bone and had
been rendered useless for comparisons under a microscope.
Although it was
possible, even likely, that the bullets had been fired from the same
gun that was used to kill Lowe, Joseph, and Brisbois, their
uselessness made it impossible to conclusively make that
firearms evidence in the Zielinski case, as well as several of the
other cases, was deemed inadequate for comparison with other bullets
and bullet fragments recovered from the other victims.
scientist Ed Robinson of the Washington State Patrol Crime
Laboratory determined that Zielinski had been shot with a .25-caliber
weapon, most likely a semi-automatic pistol, he was unable to
determine whether any of the other victims that had been shot with a
.25-caliber weapon had been shot with the same gun. Robinson was
able to determine that Magtech, a brand that had limited
availability within the state, manufactured the bullets recovered
from Zielinski’s body.
evidence in the Hernandez, Wason, Maybin, Johnson, McClenahan, Oster,
and Ellis cases showed that the victims had been shot with a .25-caliber
weapon, most likely a semi-automatic pistol. Ballistics comparisons
of the bullets from each of those cases showed that all of the
bullets had been fired from the same gun, with the exception of the
bullets recovered from the bodies of Hernandez and Ellis.
recovered from Hernandez’ and Ellis’ bodies had similar
characteristics as the bullets recovered from the other
aforementioned cases, but they could not be linked conclusively as
having been fired from the same gun. It was pointed out to the
investigators that the ammunition used in the Hernandez case was
identified as Magtech brand, the same brand of bullet that was used
to kill Zielinski, but the bullets used in the Ellis case was of a
different brand, similar to Remington or Winchester.
evidence in the Mercer case was compared with the evidence from the
other cases. The bullets were determined to be Magtech brand again,
and it was determined that the bullets that killed Mercer were fired
from the same gun that killed several of the other victims.
evidence in the Derning murder included a .25-caliber CCI brand
cartridge case that matched general characteristics of those found
in the Mercer case, indicating that Mercer and Derning had been
killed by bullets fired from the same gun. However, the evidence
linking those two cases only bore similarities, and it was not
conclusively shown that bullets fired from the same gun had in fact
killed both women.
learned that the hair and fiber evidence found on and around each of
the victims’ bodies came from a wide variety of sources. For
instance, cat hair, deer or elk hair, and foreign human hair was
found on Sapp’s body. Similarly, human hair not belonging to the
victim was found on Lowe’s body, and cat and foreign brown human
hair was found on Brisbois’ body.
A cat hair was found
in McClenahan’s bra, and black and burgundy dyed animal hair was
recovered from Barnes’ body. One Mongoloid pubic hair and one
Negroid body hair was also found on Barnes’ body. Several short,
light brown Caucasian head hairs were found on the blue towel
recovered with Asian victim Jennifer Joseph’s body. In addition to
the hair evidence, a variety of acrylic and acetate fibers of
varying colors were also found on the victims’ bodies.
during autopsy from the orifices and cavities of Scott, Johnson,
Wason, McClenahan, Mercer, Derning, and Oster revealed the presence
of human sperm, as did the condom recovered from Maybin. DNA typing
of the sperm evidence showed that it belonged to the same person.
Although in many of
the cases the bodies were too decomposed to obtain useable samples,
the DNA typing was a major breakthrough that would enable the
investigators to conclusively link several of the murders to a
single suspect once, of course, a suspect was apprehended and
samples of his blood was obtained for purposes of comparison.
Since it is common
knowledge that a prostitute is normally paid for their services in
advance, each of the victims in this case should have had at least
some money on their person at the time of their deaths. The fact
that none of them did, coupled with the fact that purses,
identification, and wallets were also missing, indicated that each
woman had been robbed either before or after being murdered.
On Tuesday, November
10, 1998, the Spokane serial killer task force operatives were out
in numbers as they had been for some time now. It had been less than
a month since Connie Ellis had been killed on the other side of the
state, and based on the killer’s prior activities the cops knew that
it would be only a matter of time before he struck again.
It was 1:25 a.m.
when Spokane officers observed a man driving a silver 1985 Honda
Civic, Washington license plate identification 918AJH, pull over and
pick up known prostitute Jennifer Robinson on the corner of 1st and
Crestline, another area of Spokane well known to be frequented by
working prostitutes. The officer identified the driver of the Honda
Civic as Robert L. Yates, Jr., and his encounter that evening would
be the second time his name came up during the task force
When Yates was
confronted by the police officer, he told the officer that he had
been instructed by Jennifer Robinson’s father to drive to the area,
find his daughter, and bring her home. With Robinson acknowledging
that she knew Yates, there was little that the officer could do.
Unable to hold either one of them, the officer took a field report
of the incident, which made its way to the task force. Robinson
probably didn’t realize it at the time, but she was one of the lucky
As the investigation
into the prostitute murders slid forward into 1999, task force
detectives became aware of a report that had been filed on August 1,
1998. According to the report, 30-year-old Christine L. Smith had
been the victim of an assault and robbery while working as a
prostitute on East Sprague.
According to what
Smith told the police, she had been picked up by a “date” near East
124 Short Street driving a 70’s model black van with orange coloring
on the passenger side exterior. She described the van as having dark
brown vinyl seats, with a wood framed bed with a mattress in the
She described the
driver as a white man, approximately 50-years-old, about 5’10” tall,
175 pounds, with a medium build. She said that he had sandy blond
hair, average length, with no facial hair and a somewhat pockmarked
face. She said that her “date” did not seem nervous, nor did he
smell of alcohol or act drunk, things that she said she normally
notices about her customers.
After negotiating a
price for her services, she told her “date” to drive to a parking
lot behind a clinic on East 400 Fifth Street. While enroute to the
location, the “date” told her that he was a helicopter pilot with
the National Guard. Smith said that she asked the man if he was the
“psycho killer,” and he had responded that he was not. He told her
that he had five kids and would not do something like that.
After arriving in
the parking lot, the man paid her $40 for oral sex. They went to the
rear of the van and got onto the raised mattress, where the man
pulled down his pants and she performed oral sex on him for
approximately 5 to 7 minutes.
During the entire
time, she said, his penis did not become erect. At one point after
the 5 to 7 minute period, the man hit her over the head with
something, but she wasn’t sure what he hit her with. The blow nearly
caused her to lose consciousness. She fell backward and struggled to
keep her senses intact.
The man told her to
return his money to him, and she struggled to find a door handle to
the sliding side door. To her horror she could not find one. She
made her way to the front of the van, all the while trying to
retrieve the money the man had given her from her pants pockets.
With blood dripping from her head, she made it to the front seat
area and out the passenger door.
Fleeing for her life,
Smith made it to nearby St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center where she
obtained assistance from a security guard. The guard gave her a ride
to Sacred Heart Hospital, where she received three stitches to close
a ˝” long wound above and behind her left ear. After leaving the
hospital, she contacted the police and provided the details of what
had happened to her.
Smith was unable to provide task force detectives with an
identification of the suspect that had attacked her.
As the investigation
moved forward day-by-day and month-by-month, the task force
detectives became more convinced that Yates was their man. He fit
the general identification of the suspect who had attacked Smith
including age and appearance right down to the pockmarked face, he
drove a white Corvette and a Honda Civic and, they learned, he was a
member of the Washington National Guard and served in the capacity
of a helicopter pilot!
September 14, 1999, one of the task force detectives paid a visit to
the Yates home, located at 2220 East 49th in Spokane. Yates was
either not at home or was unavailable, and the detective left a
message for Yates to contact Detective Marvin Hill as soon as
Yates complied and
contacted Hill that same day, and arrangements were made for him to
meet with Hill and other detectives, including David Bentley, the
following day at the Public Safety Building. When Yates showed up
detectives greeted him in the lobby. They immediately noted that he
had light brown hair, and observed that he was sweating profusely.
After being taken
into an interrogation room, the detectives advised him that his name
had surfaced in connection with the serial murder investigation.
They told him that he was not being considered a suspect at that
point, that he did not have to answer any questions and that he was
free to leave at any time. Yates acknowledged that he understood.
Yates was first
questioned about the contact he had made with the girl and the
police on November 10, 1998, and he basically repeated the same
story that he had told the police officer that stopped him, namely
that he had been instructed to pick up the girl after being asked to
do so by her father. It was a fairly common story that johns
typically tell police when they’ve been caught picking up a
prostitute, and the detectives told him so.
stuck with the story. When asked to recall the girl’s name, he had
difficulty doing so but said that he thought her name was Jennifer.
When he was asked her father’s name, he told the detectives that he
could not remember it. When asked how he knew Jennifer Robinson’s
father, he claimed that they had worked together for a short time.
As he continued responding to their questions, Yates claimed that he
drove the young woman to her home, which he said was about two
blocks off of Mission Avenue.
bluntly confronted Yates by telling him that they didn’t believe his
story. They also told him that acts of prostitution, drugs, and
other minor offenses were not important to their inquiry and that
there would be no consequences regarding him if he made any
admissions regarding such acts. However, they stressed that the
impetus of their investigation centered on the murders that had been
committed, and told him that lying to them would only arouse
additional suspicion toward him as a suspect. When they told him
that contacting the girl’s father could easily check his story about
Jennifer, he maintained that he had told them the truth.
When asked about the
earlier traffic infraction on September 24, 1997, in which he had
been stopped by the police while driving a white Corvette, he
claimed that he had made an abrupt lane change to avoid colliding
with a bus.
He claimed that he
had been on his way back to work at a business called Pantrol,
located on East Riverside in Spokane, and admitted to having owned
the white Corvette but had since sold it to a friend. When asked
about any other vehicles he drove or owned, Yates said that he owned
a silver 1985 Honda Civic and a dark blue 1985 Honda Accord. He said
that he had access to vehicles at work, but drove them sparingly and
never took them home with him.
Next they asked him
about any contact he may have had with prostitutes. Yates said that
there was one occasion in the autumn of 1998 in which he had picked
up a female hitchhiker because it was very cold outside. When she
got into his car she propositioned him, at which time, he said, he
dropped her off about a mile from where he had picked her up. He
said that he had not been involved with any other prostitutes in
Spokane, but admitted that he had hired prostitutes in Germany
several years earlier while serving in the military.
Yates was then asked
if he would voluntarily provide a sample of his blood to the
detectives to help eliminate him as a suspect. He stated that he
wanted to discuss the issue with his wife first, and would call them
with his decision. He then left the building, but called back later
to say that he would not be providing the requested blood sample.
Aviator, Husband, Father, Ordinary Guy
The father of four
daughters and a son, Robert Yates Jr. led a relatively ordinary and
unremarkable life that was characterized by exemplary military
service. Yates grew up on Whidbey Island, Washington, where his
mother died while he was still in high school.
Records show that he
was allegedly repeatedly sexually abused by an older neighbor boy
when he was approximately six-years-old, and it isn’t clear whether
he received psychiatric help or counseling. Following graduation
from high school, he enrolled at Walla Walla College but dropped out
after only two years. In 1975 he obtained a job as a guard at the
Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he worked for
only six months.
The following year
he married a young woman named Linda, and later enlisted in the Army
where he served his country for 19 years as a helicopter pilot,
opting to leave less than a year before becoming eligible for
retirement benefits. He flew an OH-58D Kiowa, the type of helicopter
that the Army uses for reconnaissance missions. Yates served in
Germany, participated in Desert Storm, served in relief efforts
after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, and flew in a UN
peacekeeping mission to Somalia.
In addition to
holding a military pilot’s license, Yates was also rated
commercially to fly transport planes and helicopters. During his
military service, Yates received a number of distinguished awards
and medals including three meritorious service medals, three Army
commendation medals, three Army achievement medals, and two Armed
Forces expeditionary medals. After receiving an honorable discharge,
Yates went to work for an aluminum smelter. He also joined the
Washington National Guard.
While serving in the
National Guard, Yates attained the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4
and was the only commander the Guard had east of the Cascade
Mountains for the OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter, making him a
valuable commodity, so-to-speak. He was characterized by his fellow
guardsmen and guardswomen as a true professional who was very
proficient in his job. He was also characterized as brave, and it
became well known that he scouted hostile territory, often drawing
enemy fire, while serving in Somalia.
Yates’ background, the task force detectives discovered that there
was a period of one year, from the spring of 1997 to the spring of
1998, that Yates was grounded and not allowed to fly pending the
processing of medical evaluations. The period in which he was
grounded was when many of the prostitutes were murdered, prompting
detectives to speculate on whether his being grounded might have
served as a trigger to re-ignite his murderous impulses. Such a
correlation, however, was never proven.
As the investigation
unfolded Yates’ wife, Linda, came forward with information that
Yates came home after being out most of the night. There was
considerable blood in the rear of the van, she said. According to
what Linda told the detectives, Yates had taken his daughter to work
around 11 p.m., but did not return home until 6:30 the next morning.
When she opened the door of the house for him, he came inside and
retrieved cleaning supplies to clean up the back of the vehicle. The
rear of the van, she said, contained a fold down bed.
Linda told the
detectives that Yates had told her that he had hit a dog that had
jumped in front of him while driving toward home, and he had stopped
and placed it in the back of the van and had taken it to a
veterinarian. On the way, she said he had told her, the dog bled all
over the cushion. He removed the cushion that morning when he got
home, she said, destroyed it, and later replaced it with another one.
Caught in a Lie
The day after Yates’
interview with task force detectives, the same detectives contacted
Jennifer Robinson. She told the investigators that she remembered
the incident involving Yates and the police, and stated that she and
Yates had reached an agreement for her to perform oral sex on him
for $20. She said that when the police stopped them, she instructed
Yates to tell the officer the story about her father, which, she
said, was not true. She said that her father did not live in Spokane,
and that he had never worked with Yates.
Now that they had
determined that Yates had indeed lied to them, the task force
detectives considered him an even stronger suspect in the prostitute
murders. As such it was decided that they would contact the friend
to whom Yates had sold the white Corvette.
The current Corvette
owner told the investigators that she had purchased the car from
Yates in May 1998. A title records check showed that Yates had owned
the Corvette from September 8, 1994 through May 7, 1998. During
questioning, the new owner said that she recalled that Yates had
indicated to her that he had changed the car’s carpeting a year
earlier. The owner consented to a search of the vehicle, during
which several fiber samples were obtained from various locations
throughout the car. The samples were submitted to the Washington
State Crime Laboratory for analysis.
In the meantime
evidence was uncovered that indicated the Corvette’s carpet had been
changed twice over a two year period while owned by Yates. The
detectives considered this unusual unless the carpet was somehow
damaged or stained.
On January 14, 2000,
task force detectives interviewed Yates’ former employer at Pantrol
who told them that Yates had a number of vehicles while in Pantrol’s
employ, including a mid-80s model ford pickup, possibly a 4-wheel
drive, and a van. Although the employer could not recall the van
well enough to describe it, he said that Yates got the van shortly
before leaving Pantrol in June of 1998.
The date that Yates
had obtained the van was two to three months before his encounter
with Christine Smith, the one that got away, in August 1998. They
could only speculate whether the van was the same one that Christine
had described her attacker as driving.
Why hadn’t Yates
mentioned either of these vehicles during his interview with the
task force detectives? They wondered.
On April 5, 2000,
forensic scientist Kevin Jenkins told the task force detectives that
the fibers recovered from the Corvette closely matched fibers
recovered during the Jennifer Joseph murder investigation. One group
of fibers, nylon, Jenkins said, was identical both visually and
microscopically with regard to color, texture and shape. Another
group of fibers, although lighter and of a slightly different color,
were also similar to a fiber recovered during the Joseph
additional evidence related to the Joseph murder might be found
inside the Corvette, the task force obtained a search warrant for
the car and impounded it from its current owner for additional
testing. Among their findings was a white button in the area of the
passenger side floorboard, and they noted that the passenger side
seat belt buckle and attaching device were stained with what
appeared to be blood. Looking further, several areas of both the
driver’s seat and the passenger seat were swabbed and tested
chemically for blood, the tests of which reacted positively.
also found several areas on the passenger side floorboard that
appeared to be stained with blood, and they found what appeared to
be dried bloodstains and flakes of dried blood on the bottom of the
passenger seat. The stains in question reacted positively to a
chemical test for blood, and DNA was extracted from three of the
stains. The subsequent DNA profiles matched, indicating that the
blood was from a common source, that is, the same person.
Blood samples had
previously been obtained from Jennifer Joseph’s parents, and DNA had
been extracted from those samples. Results of the DNA comparisons
between the blood from Joseph’s parents and the bloodstains found
inside the Corvette closely matched, resulting in an extremely high
likelihood that the bloodstains inside the Corvette were from a
child of the Josephs’. Also, the detectives determined that the
white button found inside the Corvette, made of white mother-of-pearl,
was indistinguishable from a button on the blouse recovered from
Jennifer Joseph’s body.
The detectives also
learned that Yates has five children, just like what Christine Smith
had told them.
Yates was their man.
There was no longer any doubt about that.
On Tuesday, April
18, 2000, Robert L. Yates, Jr. was arrested for the murder of
Jennifer Joseph. A search warrant executed at the time of his arrest
enabled authorities to obtain blood samples from Yates, and a
subsequent DNA analysis was found to match the DNA profiles of sperm
samples taken from victims Scott, Johnson, Wason, McClenahan, Mercer,
Oster, Maybin, and Derning.
Detectives also went
to Yates’ home where they noted species of plants that were
identical to the vegetation that had covered the bodies of victims
Wason, McClenahan, and Maybin. They also found in plain view at his
home pieces of broken concrete, wood with white paint peeling from
it, peanut shells and rocks, all of which were present in samples
taken from the sites where the aforementioned victims were found and
which was used to try and conceal their bodies. They also found
several “packing peanuts” strewn about the yard.
On April 25, 2000, a
latent fingerprint that had been developed from a plastic bag found
on Shawn McClenahan’s head was matched to Robert L. Yates, Jr.
arrest and after seeing Yates’ photo in the Spokesman-Review
newspaper, task force detectives were contacted again by Christine
Smith who told them that Yates might be the man who attacked her.
During the May 12,
2000 interview, Smith told detectives Bentley and Hill that she had
been recently treated at the University of Washington Medical Center
for injuries sustained in an automobile accident. It was while being
treated for those injuries, she said, that x-rays of her head
determined that she was carrying metal fragments within her head.
The doctors’ reports
concluded that she had probably sustained an old gunshot wound to
the left mastoid area, the same area where she thought that her
attacker had struck her with an undetermined object. During the
interview Smith told the detectives that she may have been shot
instead of struck because she was always wondering about the
suddenness and severity of the attack on her. She said that it was
possible, even likely, that she had been mistaken about being struck.
Although she was unable to positively identify Yates from a photo
line up as the man who had attacked her, she said that he looked
like the man who had assaulted her.
At another point
following Yates’ arrest, the detectives located and seized a number
of vehicles that Yates had previously owned, including a 1979 Ford
van. The van in question was black in color with an orange/yellow
stripe on the passenger side exterior, which had been painted over
with black paint. The van had bucket seats, and a raised, bed-like
platform in the rear covered in carpet. Numerous stains were found
inside the van that reacted positively to chemicals used to identify
blood. Detectives also found a spent Magtech .25 bullet casing, the
same brand and caliber of ammunition used in the murders of Johnson,
Wason, McClenahan, Oster, Maybin, Ellis, and Mercer. They also found
a spent bullet in the roof track above the windshield.
Yates, now 48, was
charged with 8 counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths
of Spokane area prostitutes and was suspected in the deaths of as
many as 18 women, possibly even more. He was also charged with first-degree
attempted murder and first-degree burglary in connection with the
assault on Christine Smith. He was held without bond, and initially
pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
subsequently charged with two counts of first-degree murder in
Pierce County for the slayings of Connie LaFontaine Ellis and
Melinda Mercer. He pleaded not guilty in those murders as well.
Prosecutors in both
jurisdictions indicated that they would seek the death penalty
There was yet
another murder that Yates was suspected of committing, that of 43-year-old
Melody Murfin. Murfin, a known drug addict, was last seen on May 20,
1998. Because of her profile, Yates was a prime suspect in her
disappearance and murder, but there was no body and no evidence that
linked Yates to Murfin. However, that soon changed.
On Monday, October
16, 2000, faced with the insurmountable evidence against him and the
almost certainty of receiving the death penalty if convicted of the
charges against him, Yates, through his attorneys, announced that he
was ready to strike a deal. In exchange for receiving life in prison,
Yates said that he was willing to plead guilty to 13 counts of first-degree
murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder, but would not
plead guilty to the charges facing him in Pierce County. He also
said that he would lead the cops to Melody Murfin’s body.
agreed to the terms of his offer, Yates sketched out a map of the
yard of his home on a yellow legal pad. Detectives spent about two
hours digging up portions of the yard of Yates’ former home before
they found what they were looking for. They found Melody Murfin’s
remains buried about eight inches below the surface in a bark-covered
flowerbed near what used to be Yates’ bedroom window, approximately
one foot away from the house’s foundation.
Two weeks later
Yates kept his word and pleaded guilty to 13 of the murders that the
task force had been investigating.
At his sentencing
Melody Murfin’s daughter, Anne, made the following courtroom
statement to Yates:
“My name is Anne,
and I’m also the daughter of Melody Murfin. And I would just like to
say that everybody says this is a closure and this is what’s going
to make us feel better in the end. However, my mother made bad
choices but that never made her a bad person. Yates makes bad
choices and that makes him a terrible person. And the plea-bargain—I’m
grateful that I now know that my mother is never coming back to me.
As soon as she doesn’t get to be a part of me, I don’t think you
should be able to get to be a part of, any part of your family. How
could you do that to us? How could you take my mother and bury her
in your yard? And your family walks around my mother for two and a
half years. You stole her soul. I don’t think you ever deserve to
ever see daylight. Ever see your family. You must be tormented in
prison for the rest of your life. Tortured. You’re a sick monster.
And you will be judged. That’s all I have to say.”
Before his sentence
was meted out, Yates claimed that he felt remorse for the crimes he
had committed. He said the following amid hissing and jeers in the
“I’ve taken away the
love, the compassion and the tenderness of your loved ones, and left
in that place grief and bitterness…In my struggle to overcome my
guilt and shame, I have turned to God…I hope that God will replace
your…sorrow with peace.”
Yates was then
sentenced to 408 years in prison for one of the worst murder sprees
in U.S. history. Yates is currently in the Pierce County Jail
awaiting a June 2001 trial for the murders of Connie LaFontaine
Ellis and Melinda Mercer. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.
A judge has ruled that evidence linking Yates to the multiple
slayings in Spokane will be admissible in his Pierce County trial.