Crime File

Robert Lee Yates – I Rising Count of Bodies

When the dead bodies of prostitutes started turning up in Spokane during the 1990s, it did not take long for the investigators to realize that it was the work of a serial killer, but they did not know that the killer had been active for a far longer period than they knew. The killer turned out to be a family man with several kids and a former member of the United States Army with several military awards and medals. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of an unlikely serial killer.

When, on February 22, 1990, at around 8:30 a.m., the Spokane Police Department received a call reporting the nude body of a young black female over the embankment near the Spokane River, and in response to the call the detectives analyzed the crime scene, they did not realize – not with any degree of certainty – that they were looking at the victim of a serial killer.

The woman had been shot several times with a gun of small caliber, and despite careful search of the area, no items of the victim’s clothing or anything else belonging to the victim was found except a black wig. A military style, green blanket and a white towel were also found, but they may or may not have belonged to the victim. No bullets or shell casings were found. So, either the killer has done a fine job of cleaning after the deed, or had killed the woman elsewhere and dumped the body there, or had used a gun that did not drop shell casings, like a revolver. There was no way of identifying the victim.

However, soon after the details of the body discovered were disclosed to public, the victim was identified as 26-year-old Yolanda Sapp, who had an arrest record for prostitution and it was also found that she was a user of drugs. She had been missing for two days prior to the discovery of her body at the 3200 block of East Sprague, which happened to be a place of work for pimps and prostitutes.

The investigators got in touch with those who knew the victim and found that when she went missing she was wearing black slip-on, flat-soled shoes, black jeans and black panties below a black t-shirt under a beige fur coat. None of the clothes were found on or around the body. She had also been wearing as many as nine bracelets and two rings, one of which was a wedding ring, and a silver chain necklace, all of which were missing. The body was processed and hair and fibre samples were lifted and oral, vaginal and anal cavities were swabbed for forensic traces. However, no clue as to the identity of the perpetrator came through.

Barely a month had gone by when another body turned up on March 25, 1990. This time it was the 3200 block of East South Riverton where the body had been found around 6:00 a.m. Like the earlier victim, this was also a female who had been shot, but was not black. The victim was a white female this time. So, if it was a serial killer, he did not seem to have a racial preference. The victim was one Nickie I. Lowe, a 34-year-old with a history of drug abuse and prostitution. The autopsy revealed that she had been shot with .22 caliber bullet and had cocaine in her system. Her body gave off a strong smell of motor oil.

From the surrounding circumstances and the similarity in the victim profiles, the detectives investigating both the murders thought it to be very probable that the two murders were committed by the same person. But there was little they had in terms of lead to go on with. For the next seven weeks or so the investigators remained stuck with no leads to follow. The only good thing was that no new bodies were discovered either. Serial killers sometimes move from one place to another for many reasons, one of which is to avoid being caught. But this was not such a case, they were soon to learn.

On May 15, 1990, at around 7:45 p.m., the discovery of the nude body of a white female was reported in the Trent and Pines area by the Spokane River banks. The victim had been completely stripped off except for the rings on her fingers. Contusions and lacerations on the head were also noted indicating that she had been hit with a heavy, blunt object apart from being shot. Several of her clothes were found on the scene. A pair of shoes, a cigarette butt and a blood stained plastic bag was also recovered from the scene of the crime. Notably, there were tyre tracks on the scene as well with the thread pattern clearly noticeable, which were duly photographed, for they could be a workable lead in the case.

The victim was a 38-year-old Kathleen Brisbois and the autopsy revealed that she had morphine and cocaine in her body. The detectives were near certain that she had been engaged in prostitution when she was picked up by her killer. Once again the gun used was of small caliber. Across the three victims, the pattern seemed to hold. Prostitution, drugs and death by a small caliber bullet. The investigators were almost certain that they were dealing with a serial killer, but they still did not have a viable clue to pursue. It was also just as clear that the killer was not going to stop until he was apprehended, which meant that the longer they took to get to him, the larger the body count was going to be. And that wasn’t a thought an investigator could entertain without feeling an acute sense of urgency and unease. However, days passed. Then months. And then a year. No new bodies were discovered. But the investigation could not move any further either.

When it was just two days to go for it to be two years since the last victim was found, another body turned up with every indication that it was the work of the same killer. However, the detectives had theorized that the serial killer was killing in a different locality and had not stopped killing during the time no new bodies were found in Spokane. Then, on May 13, 1992, another nude body of a woman was found on Bill Gulch Road, near Mt. Spokane Park Drive. Her clothes were found around her arms, and there was a plastic bag over her head. Her shoes and a few other items of clothing were also found littered around the body.

It did not look like the victim had been killed on the spot where the body was found because there were no shell casings found and there was little blood around the body. Had the victim been killed there, there would have been a lot more blood around the body. So, there was every reason to believe that she had been killed elsewhere and dumped there, which was consistent with the other victims. She, too, like the other victims, had died of gunshot injuries. The victim was identified as a white, 19-year-old Sherry Anne Palmer. She was the youngest of all victims. The investigators found that Palmer was last seen on May 1, 1992 exiting Al’s Motel at 1421 N. Division in Spokane. The place is known to be frequented by pimps and prostitutes. She had left Al’s Motel to meet her boyfriend at around 11:00 p.m. in a taxicab, but she never really got to the place they were supposed to meet. The detectives found that while Palmer had dabbled in prostitution in the past, she did not have a history of drug abuse. There were no such leads found that could lead the detectives to the killer. The theory that all women were killed by the same killer was still the only thing the detectives were reasonably certain of.

The investigators reached out to their colleagues at other locales in order to gain some insight into the identity of the killer they were looking for. But the effort was fruitless. However, for the next three years, no bad news surfaced. Of course, the detectives did not see it as an indication of the killer’s having moved or stopped.

On August 25, 1995, another body was found near 15900 block of Peacock Hill Road in Kitsap County, Washington. The nude body was of a 60-year-old, white woman called Patricia L. Barnes. Detective Ron Trogdon of the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department checked the crime scene and noted that the body was partly covered with cut foliage, which did not belong to the area, the body was found in. It seemed to have been brought from elsewhere. The detective also found a number of hair curlers at the scene. Apart from that nothing else was found. Another pile of the same kind of foliage as found on the body was found a mile or so away from the place where the body was found. This pile of foliage contained two plastic bags with the same kind of hair curlers as found around the body. They also found some blood at the location, which was later found to have come from the victim.

The investigators found that Barnes, who was the oldest of the victims, was last seen on August 22, 1995 or around that time in Seattle. She was wearing curlers in her hair when she was seen last. However, unlike other victims, Barnes was neither into prostitution, nor drugs. She did, however, drink alcohol, which was found in her system during the autopsy. There was some deviation here, but not enough for the investigators to think that it was not the work of the same killer.

She had been killed by two gunshots of .22-caliber bullets. She was more of street person though she did not work as a prostitute. She was also found in much the same state as the other victims. The deviations were not significant because they were there because of Barnes’ being different from other victims and not from the change in the methodology of the killer. The quantity of blood at the place her body was found indicated that she had been killed somewhere else and dumped there, much like the other victims.

Detective Trogdon contacted Detective Marvin R. Hill of the Spokane Police Department’s serial killer task force, who was investigating the murders of other victims of the same killer. The two detectives put their heads together and came to the conclusion that it was indeed the same killer at work.

Based on the fact that the last victim was found in western Washington, the investigators now knew that the suspect was moving around at least to dump the bodies. He could still be killing at the same place or on the move. However, they still did not have much to go with.

On June 14, 1996, another body was found near the intersection of Mt. Spokane Park Drive and Holcomb Road in Spokane. But this time it was not an intact body but the decomposing remains of a 39-year-old Shannon R. Zielinski that had been found. There were other dissimilarities, too. While all other victims were found nude, Zielinksi’s body had a short gray dress on it. A towel had also been draped over her torso. Near the body, the investigators also found a pair of white socks, a pair of pantyhose and one high black boot.

There was nothing found to identify the victim by, but later, a fingerprint analysis revealed her identity. She, too, had been shot with a small caliber gun and a shell casing was found on the scene, but the blood on scene was very little indicating that she had not been killed on the spot where her body was found. A probe into Zielinski’s background revealed that it was possible she was involved in prostitution and did use drugs, but due to the advanced decomposition of the body, it was not possible to run toxicology tests to ascertain whether or not she had any drugs in her system at the time of her death.

…to be continued

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