Who was Robert Lee Yates Jr?
Born on May 27, 1952, he was and Army veteran, serving almost two decades as a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army. Yates grew up in Oak Harbor, Washington, graduating from Oak Harbor High School in 1970. He dropped out of college soon after and got married. In 1975, Yates was hired as a prison guard by the Washington State of Corrections at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Working as a prison guard did not last too long, as in 1977 he enlisted in the Army, attending flight school at Fort Rucker. He graduated being authorized to fly civilian transport airplanes and helicopters. Yates’ career in the military lasted 19 years, earning him multiple medals and awards. Looked like a fulfilling career and well awarded.
Yates ended his career as a chief warrant officer-4, the highest rank a warrant officer could attain in the Army. He retired in March 1996, settling with his family into a two-story rancher on Spokane’s South Hill. But retiring wasn’t maybe as expected so he tried to get back in the field, just months after retiring. However, he was not able to fly anymore in part because of delays in processing his medical examination. During his evaluation, he was grounded.
When did the crimes start?
Between 1996 and 1998, multiple prostitutes were found dead, all at the hand of Robert Lee Yates. Initially they were solicited for prostitution. Yates used to have sex with them, after which he killed them. All of his victims died of gunshot wounds to the head.
But that was not when he started killing. His first victims were back in 1975, almost two decades earlier. Susan Savage, 22 years old and Patrick Oliver, 21 years old, were a couple enjoying a picnic on Mill Creek, when fate put them in the path of Yates. Yates was practicing his target shooting in the same area. For Yates, the couple were nothing more than targets. He viciously executed them, shooting Patrick three times in the head, then shooting Susan two times. He buried the bodies under a pile of brush. Their remains were found just days later. 25 years later, Robert Lee Yates admitted killing them.
After his arrest, facing death penalty, he made a deal in which he confessed killing another victim on July 7, 1988, as well as pinpointing her location and injuries. She was Stacy Elizabeth Hawn, a 23 years old prostitute, whose remains were discovered months later in Skagit County. She was shot in the head.
1996-1998 Killing Spree
There was a break in his murders, then, in 1996 he started killing again.
On August 26, 1997, the remains of Jennifer Joseph, 16 years old, were found in an advanced state of decomposition. The victim’s body was discovered in a small secluded area on the Peone Prairie, at the corner of Forker and Judkins Roads. Law enforcement retrieved DNA samples from semen swabs, which were matched to Yates.
On November 5, 1997, the decomposed body of Darla Sue Scott, 29 years old, was found on Hangman Valley Road. She was buried in a shallow grave, with tho plastic bags covering her head. The cause of dead was two gunshots to the head. DNA samples were retrieved from her body and matched again to Yates.
On December 7, 1997, another victim was discovered. She was Melinda L. Mercer, 24 years old. Her remains were found in Tacoma, having plastic bags v=covering her head. She too died of gunshots.
Less than two weeks later, on December 18, 1997, the decomposing remains of 36 years old Shawn L. Johnson was found off Hangman Valley Road. Cause of death was two gunshots to the head. Plastic bags were used to cover it. Again, DNA samples were taken from her body and matched later to Yates.
Eight days later, on December 26, 1997, the body of 31 years old Laurel Wason was found in a gravel pit near Hangman Valley Road. She too died of gunshot to the head, the killer covering her head with plastic bags. DNA samples were recovered from her body and a finger print on one of the plastic bags. Next to her body, another set of remains were discovered. It was Shawn A. McClenahan, 39 years old. Same cause of death and plastic bags covering the victim’s head. This victim too had traces of DNA on her body, as well as foreign matter which later was traced back to Yates’ backyard.
The next victim was discovered on February 8, 1998. She was 41 years old Sunny G. Oster. Her remains were discovered in a wooded area in Western Spokane County. Same modus operandi. Gunshot to the head, plastic bags used to cover the head and DNA samples from semen on her body was retrieved.
ON April 1, 1998, the decomposed body of 34 years old Linda Maybin is discovered just 50 yards away from Wason and McClenehan’s gravesite. Same cause of death, plastic bags on the head and DNA on her body. The killer had the exact same modus operandi with absolutely no exceptions.
Michelyn Derning, 47 years old became the next victim discovered on July 7, 1998. Her remains were discovered in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. However, this victim was not raped and witnesses placed her alive with just one week before, unlike other victims which were found months, weeks later.
On October 13, 1998, the decomposed body of Connie LaFontaine Ellis, aged 35, was found in Tacoma. Cause of death: one gunshot to the head. Plastic bag were covering the victim’s head.
The last known victim was Melody Ann Murfin. She was 43 years old and disappeared in 1998. She was buried under the bedroom window of Yates’ home. Although his house and yard were searched, her remains were not discovered until Yates pinpointed the exact grave point in October 18, 2000. I am personally surprised that police managed to find the previous remains, considering that police thoroughly searched his yard and didn’t find the remains of Murfin. Talking about “right under their nose” expression.
|Name||December 31, 1899||Year|
|Patrick Oliver||July 13||1975|
|Susan Savage||July 13||1975|
|Stacy E. Hawn||December 28||1988|
|Shannon Zielinski||June 14||1996|
|Patricia Barnes||August 25||1996|
|Heather Hernandez||August 26||1997|
|Jennifer Joseph||August 26||1997|
|Darla Scott||November 5||1997|
|Melinda Mercer||December 7||1997|
|Shawn Johnson||December 18||1997|
|Linda M. Maybin||December 26||1997|
|Shawn A. McClenahan||December 26||1997|
|Laurie Wason||December 26||1997|
|Sunny Oster||February 8||1998|
|Linda Daveys||April 1||1998|
|Melody Murfin||May 12||1998|
|Michelyn Derning||July 7||1998|
|Connie LaFontaine Ellis||October 13||1998|
The one that got away
On August 1, 1998, Christine L. Smith was taking another client. She agreed to perform oral sex to a man, in exchange for $40. They were in the man’s van in a secluded parking spot in Spokane. According to her, she asked the man if he is the serial killer preying on prostitutes. The man denied, saying he had 5 children and he would never do such a thing. Smith was doing “her job” when after minutes into it, the man pulled out a gun and shot her in the head. It must have been her lucky day, as the bullet only scrapped the side of her face. She struggled to stay awake while she fell backwards. At that time, Smith only thought that she was hit very hard. She managed to escape and discovered she was actually shot only after x-rays showed fragments in her face and skull.
She survived the serial killer.
On April 18, the next year, Smith recognized Yates as her attacker from a mugshot published in The Spokesman Review.
It didn’t take long for the investigators to realize they are dealing with a serial killer. All victims were coming from the same background, all had the same cause of death and all had the same distinctive plastic bags covering their head. Bullet fragments extracted from several victims showed that all were shot with a small-caliber handgun. It was a .25-caliber weapon, most likely a semiautomatic pistol.
Forensics 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.
On November 10, 1998, Yates was pulled over by police while driving his old model Honda Civic. On the passenger seat was a prostitute. Yates promised that he only picked up the woman because he was asked by her father to do this and nothing else. Police let him go, but not without recording this incident.
Investigators learn that the first victim, was last seen in a white Corvette. It wasn’t much, but they had something to go on. Police started compiling a list with all owners of a white Corvette. Then, they crosschecked that list with all names of people who have been stopped by police in areas where prostitutes were found of were frequenting.
One name popped up as a potential suspect. It was Robert Lee Yates Jr. Apparently, the November 1998 encounter with the police wasn’t the first one. In September 1997, Yates was seen again in areas frequented by prostitutes in a white Corvette.
On Sept. 15, 1999, Yates met up with investigators who told him that his name showed up during an investigation, but he is free to leave and not answering questions as he is not a suspect. Yates agreed to go on with the interview. He was questioned about the November 1998 incident when police pulled him over and finding him with a prostitute. Yates said again the same story, a a coworker, the father of the woman, asked him to pick her up. But when asked about their names, Yates wasn’t able to provide any. Investigators warned him that they do not believe him, but Yates maintained his story. When asked about the white Corvette, he admitted he owned one, but that he sold it and is no longer in its possession.
Investigators asked him if he could provide a DNA sample, but Yates said he will have to think about it.
Not convinced with his story, investigators interviews the prostitute that was with Yates when police pulled him over on November 1998. The woman said she was picked up to perform orals sex in exchange of $20 and the story about her father was invented by Yates.
The white Corvette
Investigators tracked down the new owner of the white Corvette in January 2000 and asked if they can collect fibers from the car. Well at least selling the car was one correct information that Yates provided. The fibers from the car matched the ones retrieved from the first victim Jennifer Joseph. The Corvette was searched and dried blood was found on the passenger side.
Though investigators didn’t have DNA from Joseph, they used the closest thing to match the blood found in the car. Her parents’ DNA. The DNA matched. Under the passenger seat, a white button was also retrieved. It matched those of Joseph’s blouse. Investigators had enough for an arrest.
On the morning of April 18, 2000, at 6:30 AM, police officers pulled over a car heading north on Market Street in Spokane. Yates was arrested. His home was searched while police tried to preserve all possible evidence found. They had enough to connect him to Joseph’s murder, but police refused to say right away if Yates’ name is in connection with the serial killer targeting prostitutes.
“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.”
By the next day, Yates was charged with the murder of Jennifer Joseph and some days later, Sheriff Mark Sterk said the he is also the prime suspect in at least eight other murders: Darla Scott, Shawn Johnson, Laurel Wason, Shawn McClenahan, Melinda Mercer, Sunny Oster, Linda Maybin and Michelyn Derning.
Convictions and Appeals
Prosecutors in Spokane agreed not to seek death penalty, however, prosecutors in Tacoma did no such thing and were looking to get the death penalty for the murder of Melinda L. Mercer (1997) and Connie Ellis (1998).
On September 19, 2002 Robert Lee Yates was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection on October 3, 2002. But this sentence was appealed. His lawyers said that the plea he made with prosecutors in Spokane was believed to be “all-encompassing”, which means that the plea was covering all murders he might have committed and the life sentence for 13 murders and death sentence for 2 murders is disproportionate. The Washington Supreme Court Rejected these arguments in 2007. Additional appeals were made.
In 2013, Yates’ attorneys filed a “habeas corpus” petition in federal court district, saying that Yates is mentally ill and he can not be responsible for the crimes he committed. The same year, his execution was even more complicated by Jay Inslee, Washinton Governor, which said that no death warrants will ever be signed while he is in office.
In 2015, the Washington Supreme Court rejected another effort made by Yates to overturn his death sentence.