Crime File


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.

By now it was widely known that a serial killer was on the move killing prostitutes across Washington. So, as soon as the investigators in Pierce County realized that the body they had discovered looked like the work of the serial killer from Spokane, they got in touch with the investigators in Spokane. The official body count attributable to the Spokane serial killer rose to 17, and there was also a clear possibility of there being many other victims whose bodies were yet to be discovered.

The forensic laboratories were working to connect pieces of evidence to assist in catching the killer and having him convicted on the basis of the rock-solid evidence. Firearm analysis connected Nickie Lowe and Kathy Brisbois. In the opinion of the forensic experts, the two had been killed by the same .22-caliber firearm – a handgun perhaps. Sherry Palmer’s death was caused by a gunshot wound by a .32-caliber gun, which was most probably a semi-automatic pistol.

The .22-caliber bullets found in the body of Patricia Barnes were too badly damaged to be fit for a forensic comparison. So, it could not be established whether or not the bullets were fired from the gun used in other murders. The same was true for the bullets taken out of the bodies of Lowe, Joseph, and Brisbois. The bullets were not in sufficiently good shape for a forensic determination indicating the gun used.

However, in case of Wason, Maybin, Johnson, McClenahan and Oster, the forensic analysis revealed that the victims had been killed by the bullets fired from the same .25-caliber gun, which was most likely a semi-automatic pistol. The bullets found in the bodies of Hernandez and Ellis were also quite similar to the .25-caliber bullets found in the body of some of the other victims, but it could not be conclusively determined that they were fired from the same weapon although it seemed very likely. The ammunition used in the Hernandez case was of the same brand (Magtech) as the ammunition used to kill Zielinski, but Ellis was killed by the ammunition of a different brand. Mercer was also killed by the Magtech ammunition and the gun used was also the one used to kill several other victims.

It was found that Derning had fallen victim to a .25-caliber CCI brand bullet, which was similar though not identical to the ammunition used to slay Mercer. So, the detectives had reason to believe that the two women were killed with the same weapon, but the forensic analysis could not conclusively establish that.

The hair and fibre evidence picked from the bodies of the victims came from several different sources – cat, deer, elk and human. On Lowe’s body human hair that did not belong to her were found. Cat hair and brown human hair were found on Brisbois’ body. During the autopsy, specimens were picked from the orifices of several victims, like Johnson, Scott, McClenahan, Wason, Derning, Oster and Mercer. Forensic analysis found the presence of human sperm from a common source in all cases. The sperm picked from the condom recovered from Maybin also came from the same person.
In many cases, the bodies were too badly decomposed for the forensic experts to pick usable samples, but DNA analysis still turned out to be useful in conclusively linking several of the murders to a common person, which meant that there was one man behind all these murders. The only thing missing was a suspect against whose DNA, the DNA profile of the murderer could be compared.

It is widely known that prostitutes are extended advance payment for their services, which made it odd that no money was recovered from the dead prostitutes. Besides, their purses and identification papers were also missing. This could only mean that they had also been robbed before or after they were killed.

The Spokane serial killer task force had been keeping watch over the areas frequented by the prostitutes because the serial killer they were after was sure to show up in one of such areas looking for his next victim. Keeping watch in one of such areas, on November 10, 1998, at around 1:25 a.m., Spokane officers saw a man in a silver 1985 Honda Civic with Washington license plate number 918AJH. He stopped the car to pick one Jennifer Robinson, a known prostitute. The officers moved in and questioned the driver of the Honda Civic. He was Robert L. Yates, Jr., and this was the second time the task force was coming across the name during the course of their investigation.

Yates told the officer that Robinson’s father had asked him to drive to the area and bring his daughter home. When Robinson confirmed that she knew Yates, there was nothing the officers could legally do to hold them back. So, the officer wrote a field report and let the two go. The report reached the task force. Robinson did not know then that she survived the night only because her luck sided with her.

Another report that the task force noted was filed on August 1, 1998. A 30-year-old Christine L. Smith had been assaulted and robbed by a customer when she was working as a prostitute on East Sprague. Smith told the police that she was on a “date” near East 124 Short Street in a black van that was painted orange on the exterior of the passenger side. She told that the van had dark brown vinyl seats and also had a wood framed bed complete with a mattress in the back.

Her “date”, she said, was a white man of around fifty, had medium build, weighed 175 pounds, was some 5’10” tall and had sandy blonde hair of average length with a slightly pockmarked, shaven face. He did not seem nervous and she did not smell any alcohol on him. He did not appear drunk. Those were the things she generally noticed in her customers, she told the police.

They negotiated the price, after which she asked her “date” to drive to a clinic on East 400 Fifth Street, behind which there was a parking lot suitable for their purpose. On the way to the parking lot indicated by Smith, he told her that he worked for the National Guard as a helicopter pilot. Smith even asked him whether he was the “psycho killer”. He said he was not, and added that he had five children and such a thing was not something he could do. Once they were in the parking lot, he paid her $40 for oral sex. They went onto the mattress in the rear of the van, where he pulled his pants down and she performed oral sex for some 5 to 7 minutes. He could not have an erection for the entire duration. While she was still at it, he hit her on the head with something hard. She almost blacked out from the blow, but managed to somehow keep herself conscious. She fell backwards and tried to get away from the man, who was asking her to return his money. She reached for the door handle to slide open the door, but there was no handle there. She got to the front of the van and throughout her struggle to reach the front she was also trying to get the man’s money from the pockets of her pants. Blood was dripping from the side of her head. She somehow managed to open the passenger side door of the van and got out.

She ran as fast as she could and made it to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center, where she sought the help of a security guard, who drove her to Sacred Heart Hospital, where the half-an-inch long wound above and behind her left ear was closed with three stitches. She left the hospital after receiving the treatment and contacted the police to give details of the occurrence. However, when the police followed up, she could not help them identify her attacker.

The investigation in the serial murders was moving forward and with every passing day the task force was beginning to believe more and more strongly that Yates was the man they were looking for. He closely matched the description of the attacker of women the task force had thus far been able to piece together. He was not only the right age and had the right appearance, but also had the pockmarked face and drove a white Corvette and a Honda Civic. They also found that Yates was also a helicopter pilot working for the Washington National Guard. This could well be the man who attacked Smith.

On September 14, 1999, a detective member of the task force went to see Yates at his residence in Spokane. He could not meet Yates, but left him a message to contact Detective Marvin Hill at the earliest. They did not have to wait for long. Yates contacted the detective the same day and came to meet Hill and his companion detectives at the Public Safety Building. The detective noted that Yates had light brown hair, and was sweating rather profusely perhaps from nervousness although that by itself did not prove that he was the killer they were looking for.

They took him into the interrogation room and informed him that his name had come up during the investigation into the serial killings in Spokane and other places. However, the detective assured Yates that he was not a suspect at that point and was not under arrest. So, he could refuse to answer any question he did not wish to answer and could also leave anytime he thought fit, for he was not in custody. His cooperation had to be voluntary and he could choose to not cooperate. Yates indicated his understanding of the situation before the detective proceeded to put any further questions to him.

The first thing the detectives questioned Yates about was the night he met Jennifer Robinson, and was stopped by an officer for questioning. He repeated the same story. He was told that it was exactly what all men said when they were caught with a prostitute by the police. He did not budge and stuck to his story. So, the detectives asked him the name of the girl. After all, he knew her so well. He found it difficult to recall the name and said rather unsurely that her name was Jennifer. Since he knew the father well, too, the next logical thing to ask was the name of the father, which Yates said he could not recall. He was asked how he knew her father. His response was that they had worked together briefly. He further added that he drove the woman in question to her home near Mission Avenue.

The detectives told Yates that they could go ahead and crosscheck his story, and it could be bad for him because the story was not true. However, they told him that offences like prostitution and drugs were not their concern. So, admitting to any of those things was not going to matter, but if he continued to keep telling lies, it could only strengthen their suspicion of him in connection with the murders, and that was certainly no good news. He still maintained that he had told the truth to the detectives.

He was also questioned about the traffic violation on September 24, 1997 when he was in a white Corvette. He said he had made an abrupt lane change to prevent a collision with a bus. He admitted to owning the white Corvette back then. The detectives inquired about the other vehicles he owned, drove or had access to. Yates said he had a dark blue Honda Accord and a silver Honda Civic, and he also admitted to having access to other vehicles at work, but added that he rarely drove them around and never took any of them home.
He was further asked about his association with prostitutes. He cited an occasion in 1998 when he ha
d obliged a hitchhiker, who propositioned sex for money once she was in his vehicle. Yates claimed that he turned down the offer and dropped her a mile from where he had picked her up. He asserted that he had never been involved with prostitutes in Spokane though while he was in the military, he had hired prostitutes during his time in Germany.

Finally, Yates was asked if he was willing to provide his blood sample to eliminate him as a suspect. He said he would discuss the issue with his wife and get back. He left after that and later declined to provide the blood sample.

Robert Lee Yates
Robert Lee Yates, born on May 27, 1952, spent his early years in Oak Harbor, Washington and graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1970. He joined Walla Walla College but did not finish college and dropped out after two years. In 1975, he became a correction officer at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, and in October 1977, he joined the United States Army as an airplane and helicopter pilot. He flew an OH-58D Kiowa, a type of helicopter used by the army for reconnaissance missions. During his time in the US Army, Yates served in various countries, including Germany, Somalia and Haiti as part of the United Nations peacekeeping missions during the 1990s. He was honoured with several military awards and medals in the total span of eighteen years and a half in military. He received three Army Achievement Medals, three Army Commendation Medals, two Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals, and three Meritorious Service Medals. Yates left the Army a decorated member of the force in April 1996. He was short by a year and half for full retirement benefits, but since the military was cutting its numbers down, he received full retirement benefits.

…to be continued

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