Crime File

Robert Lee Yates – II: No Clue, More 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. 

Zielinski had been last spotted consuming alcoholic drinks with a group of men on May 27, 1996, at around 1:00 p.m., near Sprague and Helena streets in Spokane. The men she was with then were questioned but not arrested. A witness told the police that Zielinski had been seen leaving a nearby residence the same evening in the attire that was found with her body later. The witness also said that she had left to work as a prostitute. However, the detectives still could not find anything that could lead them to the killer.

A year passed. And then on August 26, 1997, the Spokane detectives found two more bodies. One of them was a 20-year-old Heather L. Hernandez, who was a known prostitute, and the other one was a 16-year-old Jennifer Joseph.

The remains of Heather Hernandez were discovered in a field behind 1817 E. Springfield in Spokane in advanced stages of decomposition. There was only a shirt and a bra on the body. No other clothing or any other thing to identify the victim was found on or around the body. It appeared that the body had been dragged to the place where it was found because there was a trail of blood leading from the north-east portion of a parking lot to the place where the body had been found. Like the other victims, she had been shot, too.

The body of a 16-year-old, Asian girl Jennifer Joseph was found near the north 9800 block of Forker Road. She was identified by a fingerprint match. Detective Rick Grabenstein, who was another member of the serial killer task force of Spokane, handled the investigation. The victim had been shot multiple times. The investigators picked a blouse with a missing button, a light blue towel, a pair of black pants, a pair of shoes, panties, part of a radio antenna and a used condom. Going by the amount of blood and the overall condition of the body, the investigators concluded that she had been shot at a different location and dumped there.

The doctors performing the autopsy noted that the fingernails and toenails of the victim were painted with a nail paint that carried glitter and some of the glitter was also found on her body. She was wearing three earrings in her left ear but only two in her right. One of the earrings in her right ear seemed to have fallen off during the fight with her attacker. She was also missing a false eyelash, which also suggested that she had put up a good fight before her death.

The investigators found that Joseph worked as a prostitute and questioned other prostitutes regarding the circumstances surrounding her disappearance and death. One of the prostitutes told Detective Grabenstein that she had seen Joseph at around 11:35 p.m. on August 16, 1997 traveling on Thor with a white man of around 30 to 40 years old. The car she was in the man with was described as a white Corvette, which was the first viable lead in the case so far.

The investigators were working very hard to get hold of the killer but were not getting anywhere despite pursuing the white Corvette lead and despite the detectives and the undercover police officers keeping an eye on the areas frequented by the prostitutes and pimps. On September 24, 1997 at around 12:45 p.m., a police officer stopped a white car with one Robert L. Yates, Jr. (45) in it for a minor traffic violation near Sprague and Ralph. After routine questioning, Yates was issued a ticked and was allowed to proceed. The officer noted the registration number of the car and recorded the colour, make and model of the car as white Chevrolet Camaro. It was much later that the detectives investigating the serial killings checked the registration number of the Camaro and found that it was in fact a Corvette. But in the meanwhile, the killings continued.

On November 5, 1997, a local resident reported a decomposing body that he had come across near South 12600 Hangman Valley Road in a shallow grave. The body had nothing except a blouse on. The victim had been shot with a small caliber bullet. The investigators also found a plastic bag with something written on it by hand. Another plastic bag was recovered from near the body and was described as a ‘grocery type’ bag in the police report in addition to a ‘packing peanut’ made of Styrofoam. The body was later identified as that of a 29-year-old Darla Sue Scott, who was into both prostitution and drug abuse and had a record of arrests on both counts.

A little over a month later, on December 7, 1997, another body turned up in the 5000 block of South Adams Street at 1:30 p.m. The body was bereft of all clothing and was partly concealed by the bushes by the roadside. Clothes, which seemed like the woman’s, were lying on her body. A shell casing of a .25 caliber bullet was found on the scene. The victim had been shot to death. This was 34-year-old Melinda L. Mercer.

Later, the investigators found that Mercer used to carry a large green purse, which was not found near the body, and the same was true of several rings that Mercer wore. The investigators concluded that the serial killer was retaining a few items belonging to his victims as trophies because in case of each victim something or the other belonging to the victim was found missing.

Mercer had been last seen in the 1800 block of Northeast 45th Street in Seattle late in the evening in the parking space of a QFC grocery store on December 6, 1997, a day before her body was found. She was with a man in a burgundy minivan. Like other victims, Mercer too had a history of prostitution and drugs. Toxicology tests confirmed that Mercer had cocaine and opiate in her system at the time of her death, and the cause of death was a gunshot wound, which was clear to the crime scene investigators also.

On December 17, 1997, another body was discovered in the 11400 block of Hangman Valley Road. But this time the body of the dead woman was clothed but had plastic bags over its head. The body appeared to have been thrown on the embankment, wherefrom it seemed to have rolled down to where it was later found, which was some 25 feet from the road. She, too, has been shot to death. The investigators picked samples of hairs and fibres off the body and sent for forensic processing. The victim was a 36-year-old Shawn L. Johnson, who had been missing for the last two months and had been last seen on the evening of October 17, 1997 when she was leaving to work as a prostitute in the East Sprague area. She was to call her roommate later in the evening but did not. And nobody saw or heard from her until her body was discovered.

Johnson’s vehicle had been reported abandoned by a store employee on October 19, 1997 and was found parked in a K-Mart parking lot on East Sprague. However, it was only on December 23, 1997 that the detectives took the car into evidence and had it processed for forensic evidence. Hairs and fibres were picked from the car and sent to the laboratory.

On December 26, 1997, two more bodies of white females were found in the 4800 block of East 14th Avenue in Spokane. And once again the bodies were fully clothed. Both the victims had three plastic bags each put on their heads, and had been shot to death, which was later confirmed by the autopsy as well. It was also clear that both of them had been killed somewhere else. Although the bodies had clothes on, neither of the bodies had shoes on it, and had a variety of such vegetation covering them that was foreign to the area in which the bodies were found. Many other things such as wood pieces, white paint chips, peanut shells and cherry pits were also found in addition to a plastic plant identification tag with “Sweet William” written on it. It was a tag such as one could find at plant nurseries. The victims were identified as a 31-year-old Laurel A. Wason and a 39-year-old Shawn A. McClenahan.

Subsequent investigation revealed that when Laurel Wason disappeared, she was wearing a black trench coat and Shawn McClenahan was in a blue nylon coat, but neither of the two were found on the bodies suggesting that the two items were retained by the killer possibly as souvenirs. It appeared that the plant material and the debris had been brought by the killer to conceal the bodies, which could mean that it came from where the killer had killed the deceased women, which also meant that the material left behind could lead to the killer if something to identify the killer could be isolated from the vegetation and other items found on and around the bodies. But while the vegetation was foreign to the area, it could not point the detectives in the direction of the killer. Not soon enough.

On February 28, 1998, another body turned up. This was the body of a white female found in a ditch on Graham Road in a rural area in Spokane. The body, later identified as that of a 41-year-old Sunny G. Oster, was fully clothed and had three plastic bags on her head. Detectives also found a pair of shoes by the body. It was clear that she had died of a gunshot wound and had not been killed where the body was found, much like the other victims of the same killer.

Oster was a prostitute and had been last seen alive on November 1, 1997 on East Sprague looking for someone in need of her services. The beige purse that she was carrying was not found with the body. Perhaps the killer chose to keep it for a trophy.
On April 1, 1998, a 34-year-old Linda M. Maybin was found dead. Her fully clothed but badly decomposed body was found in the 4800 block of East 14th Avenue near the place where the bodies of Laurel Wason and Shawn McClenahan had been found in December 1997. With three bodies found in the same area, it seemed like a preferred body dump for the killer. Much like the bodies of Wason and McClenahan, the body of the recently discovered victim was also covered with vegetation foreign to the area in a possible attempt to conceal the body. The investigators found parts of plastic bags on her head perhaps because the animals seemed to have interfered with the body, for the body had been lying there for long.

Maybin was last seen on November 21, 1997, but she might not have disappeared that day because a police officer on East Sprague had contacted her, and none of her friends could confirm that they had seen her after November 21, 1997, but she was reported missing only on November 29, 1997 by a Health District Employee of Spokane because Maybin was a known prostitute and had gone untraceable suddenly and there was no indication that she had willingly moved from the area.

Having found three bodies in the same area, the investigators thought the killer might have dumped multiple bodies together in the same area, which led to a careful and exhaustive search of the place, but no more bodies were found.

The investigators found that Maybin was into crack cocaine, and usually carried in her pants a pipe for smoking cocaine. No such pipe was found on the body. She was also said to carry around a velvet, drawstring bag, which too wasn’t found on or around the body. The investigation did not turn up any clue to the identity of the perpetrator, and bodies kept turning up.

On July 7, 1998, the body of a 47-year-old Michelyn J. Derning was discovered in a vacant lot near 218 N. Crestline in Spokane. The body was nude and had grass on it, which was perhaps placed on the body by the killer to conceal the body. She had been shot dead, like the other victims, and the autopsy revealed that she had methamphetamine in her system. Two hot tub covers along with a piece of Styrofoam were also found around the body. Derning has not been seen alive by anyone since July 4, 1998. There was little doubt that Derning had been killed by the same person, but, again, there was nothing that could lead the detectives to the killer.

On October 13, 1998, a badly decomposed female body with three plastic bags on its head was found near 1700 block of 108th Street South, in Tacoma, Pierce County, Washington. This was the body of a 35-year-old Connie L. Ellis, also known as Connie L. LaFontaine. She had been shot in the head, and a 9mm bullet was found near the body. However, in this case the gun might not have necessarily belonged to the killer because the investigators found that Ellis carried a 9mm pistol. So, the bullet could have come from victim’s own gun. However, no gun was found on or around the body. Ellis, like most of the other victims, was a prostitute and used drugs, which made her a very probable victim of the same killer.

…to be continued

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