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.
Yates had four daughters and a son, and led an ordinary life. The only thing remarkable about Yates’ life was his distinguished military service. However, as a child he might have suffered serious psychological trauma because as a 6-year-old he was sexually abused by a neighbour repeatedly.
In 1976, he married Linda before joining the army. And after getting an honourable discharge from the US Army, Yates went on to work for aluminum smelter, and joined the Washington National Guard, where he became the Chief Warrant Officer 4. He also had the distinction of being the only commander for the Washington National Guard east of the Cascade Mountains for the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter, which made him quite valuable for the Guard. He was generally described as a true professional and extremely competent at what he did in addition to being brave.
When the Spokane serial killer task force looked into Yates’ background, the detectives found that between the spring of 1997 and the spring of 1998, Yates had been grounded for medical evaluations, and during this one-year period he was not allowed to fly. This was also the period when several prostitutes were killed. It gave rise to the speculation that perhaps being grounded triggered Yates’ murderous impulses. However, the connection between the two things could not be made positively and it remained, more or less, a guess.
When the investigators spoke to Yates’ wife, Linda, she recalled once when, having left at 11:00 p.m., Yates returned at around 6:30 a.m. the next day, he came straight in and picked the cleaning supplies to clean the backside of the vehicle, which had a foldable bed. He explained to her that he had hit a dog with the car and had taken the dog to a veterinarian. The injured dog, he told, had bled all over the mattress. He removed the mattress, destroyed it and replaced it with another one later.
After interviewing Yates, the detectives got in touch with Jennifer Robinson to crosscheck Yates’ story as they had promised – rather, warned – Yates. She told the police that she did remember the incident clearly and that she and Yates had agreed at $20 for oral sex, and when they were stopped by the police, it was she who had asked Yates to tell the police the story about her father asking Yates to find her and bring her home. The story was, of course, just a story, and Yates did not know her father, nor had he and her father ever worked together as he had claimed during the questioning. In fact, Robinson told, her father did not even live in Spokane. Clearly, Yates’ story was nothing but a bundle of lies, which strengthened the suspicion of the detectives regarding Yates’ involvement in the murders of the prostitutes. Next on the list of the detectives was the friend Yates claimed to have sold his white Corvette to.
The then owner of the car, to whom Yates had sold the car, told the investigators that while selling the car Yates had told her that he had changed the carpeting of the car a year ago. The ownership documents pertaining to the car showed that it was in Yates’ ownership from September 8, 1994 to May 7, 1998. With the permission of the owner, the investigators searched the vehicle and collected fiber samples from several places in the car. The samples were sent for forensic testing. It was found by the investigators that the carpet of the car was changed twice in a period of two years by Yates, which was a little unusual because the car carpets do not require such frequent changing in normal course. Apparently, the carpets had been changed because they were either badly damaged or stained beyond cleaning, which hardened the suspicion further.
The detectives talked to Yates’ former employer at Pantrol on January 14, 2000. He told that during his employment with Pantrol, Yates had an array of vehicles at his disposal, including a Ford pickup truck and a van. He did not remember the van well enough to provide a description, but he was positive that Yates had got the van shortly before he left Pantrol in the June of 1998. If that was true, Yates had got the van only a few months before Christine Smith was attacked on August 1, 1998. It could well be the same van that Christine had said her attacker was driving. It was, thus, not impossible that Yates was the one who attacked Smith. None of these vehicles had been mentioned by Yates during his interview with the task force.
On April 5, 2000, the forensic report regarding the fiber evidence collected from the Corvette came in. The fibers matched the ones recovered from the crime scene where Jennifer Joseph was found. The detectives now had every reason to look more closely at the Corvette. They obtained a search warrant and got the car in for additional testing. On closer scrutiny of the car, they found a white button on the passenger side floorboard, and it was also noted that the seat belt buckle on the passenger side of the car was stained with something that looked like blood. On testing, the suspicion was confirmed. It indeed was blood.
In addition, on the passenger side floorboards, there were spots that looked like blood stains. Once again, the stains proved to be blood and the DNA was extracted from them, and subsequent DNA testing found that the blood had come from the same person. The blood samples from the parents of Jennifer Joseph had been taken. When the DNA from the blood stains in the Corvette and from the blood samples obtained from Joseph’s parents were compared, it was found that the bloodstains in the Corvette came from an offspring of the Josephs. Furthermore, the white button they had found in the Corvette was almost identical to the ones on the blouse recovered from Joseph’s body. There was little doubt that Jennifer Joseph had been killed in the Corvette.
There was reasonable cause for the arrest of Yates for the murder of Jennifer Joseph. Therefore, on April 18, 2000, Robert L. Yates, Jr. was placed under arrest for the murder of Jennifer Joseph. The detectives had also obtained a warrant to take DNA samples from Yates at the time of his arrest. A DNA analysis tied Yates’ DNA with the DNA obtained from the sperm samples picked off the bodies of Wason, Scott, Mercer, Johnson, McClenahan, Maybin, Derning and Oster.
Detectives also found at Yates’ house the species of plants that were much the same as the vegetation recovered off and around the bodies of McClenahan, Maybin and Wason. Pieces of wood, white paint, rocks, peanut shells and broken concrete were also found at Yates’ place. A lot of “packing peanuts” were also found at Yates’ place. Those things had been used to conceal the bodies of the victims. In addition to a lot of unimpeachable scientific evidence, the investigators also had a mountain of circumstantial evidence against Yates.
Then, on April 25, 2000, a fingerprint lifted from a plastic bag that had been found placed on Shawn McClenahan’s head was compared with Yates’ fingerprints. It was a match. After seeing Yates’ picture in a newspaper, Christine Smith got in touch with the task force to tell them that Yates could well be the man who had attacked her.
She was interviewed on May 12, 2000 by the detectives. She told them that during her treatment at the University of Washington Medical Center for the injuries she had sustained in an unconnected automobile accident, she was told that the X-Ray of her head showed metal fragments. The conclusion thus drawn by the doctors was that when she thought she had been hit by a heavy object on the head, she had, in fact, been shot in the left mastoid area, and the bullet grazed instead of penetrating, which is why the wound did not turn out to be lethal and could be mistaken for an injury from having been hit with an object. She told the detectives that she could have been mistaken about the nature of the attack and the injury sustained by her. However, she could not positively identify Yates when she was presented with a lineup of pictures, but she said that he certainly resembled the man who had attacked her.
Yates had owned several vehicles in the past. So, the detectives seized as many vehicles previously owned by Yates as they could find, and one of them was a 1979 Ford van, which was black and had an orange and yellow stripe on the outside on the passenger side of the vehicle, which had been concealed by a black paint. The van had a platform like a carpeted platform in the back, which looked more like a bed and could well be used like one. On close scrutiny, the detectives found a number of stains inside the van, all of which proved to be blood stains on chemical testing. In addition, a spent Magtech .25 bullet casing was also found. It was the caliber and brand that had been used to kill Wason, McClenahan, Maybin, Johnson, Ellis, Oster and Mercer. The detectives also found a bullet stuck in the roof above the windshield.
Detectives had more than enough evidence against Yates to charge him. He was charged with 8 counts of murder in the first degree. However, he was suspected of murdering no fewer than 18 women. Separate charges of first-degree attempted murder and first-degree burglary were also slapped on Yates in connection with the attack on Christine Smith. He entered a plea of ‘not guilty’. Later, Yates was also charged with the murders of Connie LaFontaine Ellis and Melinda Mercer. He pleaded ‘not guilty’ to those as well. Prosecutors made it clear right from the start that they were going to seek death penalty for Yates.
A 43-year-old Melody Murfin had been reported missing since May 20, 1998. She was a known abuser of drugs and was also involved in prostitution, and had disappeared under the circumstances that made Yates the prime suspect for her abduction and murder. However, her body had not been found. So, there was nothing concrete to connect Yates with her disappearance.
On October 16, 2000, Yates found himself cornered with a truckload of evidence against him, which could potentially get him a death penalty. He decided to strike a deal with the prosecution. He said he was willing to plead guilty to 13 counts of murder in the first degree in addition to one count of attempted first-degree murder, if death penalty was taken off the table. However, he said that he would not plead guilty to any crimes in Pierce County. He was also willing to lead the investigators to the body of Melody Murfin.
Prosecutors agreed to Yates’ conditions, after which he drew them a map of his house and the yard showing the place where he had buried Melody Murfin. It took over two hours of digging for the investigators to find Murfin’s remains some eight inches under the surface in flowerbed covered with bark near Yates’ bedroom window about a foot from the foundation of the house. Murfin had lain buried all this while in the house Yates lived in with his family and in the yard only a few feet away from where Yates slept every night.
As agreed, Yates pleaded guilty to thirteen murders investigated by the Spokane task force, and was sentenced to 408 years in prison. However, that did not close the Pierce County chapter for Yates.
In 2001, Yates was charged with two counts of murder in the first degree for killing Melinda L. Mercer in 1997 and Connie Ellis in 1998. On September 19, 2002, he was found guilty and was sentenced to death by lethal injection on October 3, 2002.
Yates challenged the additional sentence in 2002 on the grounds that he believed his deal with the prosecution in 2000 was comprehensive – “all-encompassing”, that is – and a death sentence for two murders compared to a life sentence for thirteen was “disproportionate, freakish, wanton and random”. The Washington Supreme Court found no merit in the argument and dismissed the appeal in 2007. However, the execution date (September 19, 2008) was stayed by the court in view of additional appeals in the case.
In 2013, Yates filed a ‘personal restraint petition’ before the Washington Supreme Court listing 25 different errors in the verdict convicting him, including ineffective counsel, procedural errors and jury bias. However, on March 14, 2013, the Court dismissed the petition holding that Yates was not entitled to a new hearing. “Yates has failed to establish any meritorious claims,” wrote Justice Susan Owens in a majority decision dismissing the petition.
In 2015, another personal restraint petition filed by Yates in 2014 was rejected by the Washington Supreme Court on the ground that the petition was not filed within the prescribed time period of one year from the date of the judgment, and Yates had presented no compelling reasons for the Court to relax the rule. “There is no newly discovered evidence involved in Yates’ claim,” the Court said adding, “The only thing ‘new’ here is that Yates’ new attorney has a new idea for a claim.” Yates is currently serving his sentence in Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.