Robert Yates, Jr.
The U.S. Pacific Northwest has produced many serial killers, but none in modern times has proved as effective at dodging police as Robert Yates Jr. His 23-year killing spree is presently unrivaled in American history. Today, with Yates awaiting execution in Washington State, authorities still puzzle over what it was that drove him to the brink of madness and beyond.
In October 1945, nine years before Yates was born, his paternal grandmother killed her sleeping husband with an ax. She was indicted for murder but never stood trial, and relatives dismiss any suggestion that the crime may have influenced her grandson. Yates entered the world on May 27, 1952, as a breech baby (born feet first). He was sexually molested by an older boy at age six. His family brands those events as irrelevant. Raised in Oak Harbor, Washington, Yates graduated from high school in 1970 and moved on to Walla Walla Community College, where he met his future wife. Claims that he earned a degree in biology remain unverified, but today we know that Yates claimed his first two victims a year before his marriage, in July 1975.
Twenty-one-year-old Patrick Oliver and 22-year-old Susan Savage were picnicking beside Mill Creek, 10 miles east of Walla Walla, when Yates arrived and shot them both. A quarter-century later, Yates explained that he often went target shooting in the area on days off from his job as a guard at Walla Walla’s state prison. He shot the two strangers on a whim, covered their bodies with brush, and left a mystery that remained unsolved until he confessed the crime in October 2000. Yates married in July 1976 and joined the army two years later, serving 18 years in uniform as a helicopter pilot. His tour of duty included stints in Somalia (where Yates was reprimanded for shooting wild pigs from the air) and Haiti, but he spent most of his military career in the United States. Upon discharge from the army, in April 1996, Yates moved his wife and five children to Spokane, where he worked at a Kaiser Aluminum plant and spent weekends flying with the Air National Guard.
None of it kept him from killing. On July 7, 1988, he picked up Stacy Hawn, a 23-year-old drug-addicted prostitute, in Shoreline, Washington. Yates drove her to a site near Mount Vernon and shot her once in the head. Her skeletal remains were found on December 28, but Hawn’s boyfriend did not report her missing until February 1989. She was identified the following month. In the first half of 1990, three women were shot and discarded along the Spokane River. Yolanda Sapp, age 26, was found on February 22, followed by 34- year-old Nickie Lowe (March 25) and 38-year-old Kathy Brisbois (May 15). Lowe and Brisbois were killed with the same .22-caliber weapon. Sherry Palmer, age unknown, was found shot to death outside Tacoma on May 13, 1992. Another shooting victim, 60-year-old Patricia Barnes from Port Orchard, was discovered in rural Kitsap County on August 25, 1995.
Although Yates maintained a busy schedule after April 1996, juggling family, work, and the National Guard, he still found time to hunt. At the same time, he developed a ritualized “signature,” leaving victims with plastic trash bags pulled over their heads, several dumped in the same area. Thirty-eight-year-old Shannon Zielinski was discarded near Tacoma on June 14, 1996. On August 16, 1997, 16-year-old runaway Jennifer Joseph was last seen alive as she entered a white Chevrolet Corvette driven by a white man in his forties. She was found 10 days later, hooded with trash bags and shot through the head with a .22-caliber pistol. The same day brought discovery of another woman’s decomposing body, in a different Spokane neighborhood. The second victim was identified as Heather Hernandez, a 20-year-old drifter. Investigators found semen on Joseph’s body, along with a brown hair from a Caucasian male. The bullet that killed Joseph bore “insufficient characteristics” for comparison with the .22 slugs extracted from victims Brisbois and Lowe.
On September 24, 1997, a Spokane patrolman stopped Robert Yates, at the wheel of a white 1977 Chevrolet Corvette, for a minor traffic violation. Yates received a citation, which correctly recorded his license plate number but misidentified his vehicle as a Camaro. It was a small but critical mistake, corrected long after the fact when detectives double-checked the car’s registration. In the meantime, detectives seeking a Corvette from the Joseph murder knew nothing of Yates.
Six weeks later, on November 5, a man walking his dog spotted a shallow grave near Spokane’s Hangman Valley Road. Police found 29-year-old Darla Scott, another prostitute, buried with two trash bags over her head, shot twice in the brain with a .25-caliber weapon. Again, semen was found that later matched the DNA of Robert Yates Jr. On December 7, 1997, pedestrians in Tacoma found the nude body of 24-year-old Melinda Mercer discarded in a vacant lot. Four trash bags covered her head, ventilated with three .25-caliber bullets. Less than two weeks elapsed before the next murder in Spokane. On December 18 a workman found 36-yearold Shawn Johnson’s body on Hangman Valley Road, masked with two trash bags, shot twice in the head, her body stained with semen. The year ended badly, with discovery of two more victims on December 26. Both lay in a gravel pit near Hangman Valley Road, each shot twice, both hooded with three plastic bags. Thirtyone- year-old Laurel Wason was partially covered with foreign debris later traced to Yates’s backyard, and semen on her body matched his DNA. Shawn McClenahan, age 39, also bore semen traces, and a fingerprint from Yates marked one of the trash bags covering her head.
Police failed to identify their man from evidence collected during 1997, since Yates had no criminal record and his DNA was not on file. Investigators could have found his fingerprints in military dossiers, but their search was limited to known felons. Yates suffered his first brush with the law in 1998, on a count of domestic violence against his wife, but the charge was dismissed without trial and detectives assigned to the ongoing murders made no connection between the dissimilar cases.
On February 8, 1998, the semen-stained body of 41- year-old Sunny Oster was found in a wooded area of western Spokane County. Three trash bags covered her head, drilled with two gunshot wounds, but only one slug was recovered. Spokane residents held a candlelight vigil for the murdered women four days later, while police announced ongoing investigation of 17 unsolved murders reported in the area since 1984. Theoretical links were drawn to the “Green River Killer” (later identified as Gary Ridgway), although that stalker never used firearms. Another victim was found on April 1, 1998, dumped within 50 yards of the pit where McClenahan and Wason were discovered. Linda Maybin, a 34-year-old prostitute and drug addict, had been shot once in the head, shrouded with two plastic bags. Semen from her body matched Yates’s DNA, while plant clippings strewn across her body were traced to the killer’s backyard.
Those discoveries took time, however, and police had few viable leads as they added the latest murder to their growing list. By April 14, detectives knew that victims Maybin, McClenahan, and Scott had all worked for the same escort service, but that clue failed to identify their killer. Melody Murfin’s name made the serial murder list when she dropped from sight in May 1998, but her corpse was not recovered until Yates led searchers to her grave—beneath his bedroom window— in October 2000. More remains were found in the killer’s favored hunting ground on June 10, 1998, but missing pieces and advanced decomposition left even the victim’s gender in doubt. Police had better luck on July 7, when a transient found 47-year-old Michelyn Derning in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. Concealed beneath a discarded hot-tub cover, Derning had been stripped and shot once in the head. No bullet was found, but officers recovered a .25-caliber cartridge at the scene. Unlike most of the victims, missing long before their bodies were uncovered, Derning had been seen alive one short week earlier.
Yates logged his first failure on August 1, 1998, with 32-year-old Christine Smith. He paid Smith $40 for oral sex, performed in the back of his van, then shot her in the head when she proved unable to arouse him. Dazed from the bullet’s impact, believing that she had been punched by her “john,” Smith survived to file a police report on the incident. Complaining of assault and robbery, she described her assailant as a 50-year-old white man (Yates was 46), five feet, 10 inches tall, with sandy blond hair. His van was black, a 1970s model with an orange exterior stripe, bucket seats, wood paneling inside, and raised bed in back. Ironically, Smith had asked the man if he was Spokane’s “psycho killer,” whereupon he replied that “he had five kids and would not do that.” Smith remained unaware of her gunshot wound until recurring headaches sent her to the emergency room, where X-rays revealed bullet fragments in her face and skull.
Despite Smith’s clear description, detectives were no closer to their man. On September 3, 1998, they added 43-year-old Melody Murfin to the presumed victims’ list. Missing since May 13, Murfin was another drugaddicted prostitute, whose disappearance caused alarm. Her body was not found until October 2000, when Robert Yates directed searchers to a flowerbed outside his home. Meanwhile, in October 1998, police in Lewiston announced a new investigation into the murders of three more victims. The trio—18-year-old Jacqueline Miller, 21-year-old Kristina Nelson, and 35- year-old Steven Pearsall—vanished together from the Lewiston Civic Theater in September 1982. Pearsall was still missing, but the women’s bodies had been found together on a hillside near Kendrick, in 1984. Authorities suspected one killer at work in those murders, in the 1979 disappearance of 12-year-old Christina White from the Asotin County Fair, and in the mutilation-slaying of 22-year-old Kristen David. David had vanished on a bike ride from Moscow to Lewiston in 1981; her headless torso, with one leg attached, was found eight days later, on the north shore of the Snake River near Clarkston; her head, arms and
part of one leg were found farther downstream the next day. (None of the latter crimes were ultimately linked to Robert Yates.)
Police questioned various subjects, including an unnamed “prime suspect” in the Lewiston murders, without result as the manhunt continued. The next bona fide victim, 35-year-old Connie Ellis, was found in Tacoma on October 13, 1998. One bullet was extracted from her head, which was swaddled in three trash bags. Eight days later, Pierce County detectives voiced fears that a corpse in Parkland “could have been dumped there by the Spokane killer,” but no further details were released.
Robert Yates survived another near miss with the law on November 10, 1998. He was driving a 1985 Honda Civic when police stopped him at 1:25 A.M. in a neighborhood notorious for streetwalkers. More to the point, a known prostitute—one Jennifer Robinson— was riding with Yates in the car. Yates claimed that Robinson’s father had asked him to find her and bring her home, an improbable story that Robinson confirmed to avoid spending more time in jail. Stymied, the officer released them and filed a report on the incident which vanished into police files.
Spring 1999 brought a flurry of news in the case. On March 9, a dog retrieved a human hand from woodland south of Snoqualmie, then led searchers to the skeleton of Jennifer Justus. Although she matched the Spokane victim profile, police quickly dismissed Justus as a possible victim of the region’s elusive killer. On April 15, sheriff’s deputies visited a physician at home in Spokane’s affluent South Hill district, deemed a “person of interest” in the February rape of a downtown prostitute, but they found no link to the serial murders. Two days later, Spokane police investigating another “highrisk” victim’s disappearance found charred human bones in the furnace of a downtown apartment building. Scandal erupted on May 6, after police chief Alan Chertok said informers had named his predecessor, Chief Terry Mangan, as a suspect in the slayings. Cornered by reporters, Chertok said that Mangan—subsequently hired by the FBI—was not suspected of the crimes “and never would be.” His previous comment, Chertok claimed, “wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.” The denial was too little and too late. Chertok resigned from the police department on May 27, 1999.
Two years after the fact, task force investigators discovered the error on Robert Yates’s traffic citation from September 1997, drawing the obvious link between his white Corvette and the murder of Jennifer Joseph. Detectives interviewed Yates for the first time on September 14, 1999, recording a list of his vehicles and pursuing further details of his encounter with Jennifer Robinson. Yates repeated his lie from November 1998 and declined to provide blood samples for DNA comparison. Robinson, in a separate interview, admitted that Yates had paid $20 for oral sex, and further confirmed that her father lived outside Spokane and had never met Yates.
Deception focused suspicion more sharply on Yates. Detectives learned that he had been grounded as a military helicopter pilot pending medical evaluations during 1997 and 1998, when many of the victims were killed. Interrogation of his wife revealed that Yates once came home from a late-night drive with bloodstains in the rear of his van. (Yates claimed he had struck a dog, then drove it to a veterinary clinic.) Yates had destroyed the bloody fabric from the van, but police traced his vintage Corvette to its new owner in April 2000 and matched its carpet fibers to those found on Jennifer Joseph’s body. Bloodstains from the car’s floorboard matched Joseph’s DNA, and a button found in the car proved identical to those on Joseph’s blouse.
Police arrested Yates on April 18, 2000, and subsequently matched his DNA to that found in semen recovered from six murder victims around Spokane. Publication of his mug shot in a local newspaper brought confirmation from Christine Smith that Yates was the man who shot her in August 1998. Yates was formally charged with Joseph’s murder on April 19, held in lieu of $1.5 million bail. One day later, debris from his yard was matched to the grave sites of victims Maybin, McClenahan, and Wason. That afternoon, Sheriff Sterk told reporters, “We have Mr. Yates tied to at least 12 of the homicides, possibly 18.” Announcement of Yates’s arrest renewed scrutiny of unsolved murders in Germany, New York, and Alabama, where he had served at various times with the U.S. Army, but thus far no charges have been filed outside of Washington. New indictments in Spokane, filed on May 18, 2000, charged Yates with the murders of victims Derning, Johnson, Maybin, McClenahan, Oster, and Wason, plus attempted murder in the case of Christine Smith. Exactly two months later, Pierce County prosecutors charged Yates with the murders of Connie Ellis and Linda Mercer.
Yates initially pled not guilty on all counts, then changed his mind in October 2000 and directed police to the remains of two victims buried at his home, overlooked in previous searches. Newspapers announced a plea bargain on October 16, whereby Yates escaped the death penalty while confessing 13 homicides in Skagit, Spokane, and Walla Walla Counties. The deal was formalized in court on October 26, and Yates received a sentence of 408 years in prison. Dissatisfied with that bargain, Pierce County authorities pressed for capital punishment in the Ellis and Mercer slayings; Yates responded on November 1 with twin not guilty pleas. Jurors convicted him of those crimes on September 19, 2002, then recommended execution on October 3. Judge John McCarthy formally sentenced Yates to death on October 9, 2002.