Robert Lee Yates Jr. (born May 27, 1952) is an American serial killer from Spokane, Washington. From 1996 to 1998, Yates is known to have murdered at least 13 women, all of whom were sex workers working on Spokane’s “Skid Row” on E. Sprague Avenue. Yates also confessed to two murders committed in Walla Walla in 1975 and a 1988 murder committed in Skagit County. In 2002, Yates was convicted of killing two women in Pierce County. He currently is on death row at the Washington State Penitentiary.
Yates grew up in Oak Harbor, Washington, in a middle-class family that attended a local Seventh-day Adventist church. He graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1970, and in 1975, he was hired by the Washington State Department of Corrections to work as a prison guard at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. In October 1977 Yates enlisted in the United States Army, in which he became certified to fly civilian transport airplanes and helicopters. Yates was stationed in various countries outside the continental United States, including Germany and later Somalia and Haiti during the United Nations peacekeeping missions of the 1990s. He earned several military awards and medals during his eighteen and a half year military career, including three Army Achievement Medals, three Army Commendation Medals, two Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals, and three Meritorious Service Medals. Yates left the Army in April 1996, apparently a year and a half short of being eligible for his full retirement benefits and pension. It is not known why he left early or how much in retirement he gave up in leaving early.
The murders Yates committed between 1996 and 1998 in Spokane all involved sex workers in Spokane’s “Skid Row” area on E. Sprague Avenue. The victims were initially solicited for prostitution by Yates, who would have sex with them (often in his 1979 Ford van), sometimes do drugs with them, then kill them and dump their bodies in rural locations. All of his victims died of gunshot wounds to the head; eight of the murders were committed with a Raven .25-caliber handgun, and one attempted murder was linked to the same model of handgun. Autopsies of two of the victims indicated that the killer was a marksman aiming for the heart. One particularly bizarre detail of Yates’ murders involved the case of Melody Murfin, whose body was buried just outside the bedroom window of Yates’ family home.
On August 1, 1998, Yates picked up sex worker Christine Smith, who managed to escape after being shot, assaulted and robbed. On September 19, 1998, Yates was asked to give a DNA sample to Spokane police after being stopped; he refused, stating that it was too extreme of a request for a “family man”.
Convictions and appeals
Yates was arrested on April 18, 2000, for the murder of Jennifer Joseph. After his arrest a search warrant was executed on a 1977 white Corvette that he had previously owned. A white Corvette had been identified as the vehicle that one of the victims had last been seen in. Coincidentally, Yates had been pulled over in this vehicle while the Task Force was searching for it, but the field interview report was misread as saying “Camaro” not “Corvette”, thus the incident was not realized until after Yates had been arrested. After searching the Corvette police discovered blood that they linked to Jennifer Joseph and DNA from Yates that they then tied to 12 other victims. In 2000 he was charged with 13 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder in Spokane County Superior Court. As part of a plea bargain in which Yates confessed to the murders to avoid the death penalty, he was sentenced to 408 years in prison.
In 2001 Yates was charged in Pierce County with the murders of two additional women. The prosecution sought the death penalty for the deaths of Melinda L. Mercer in 1997 and Connie Ellis in 1998, which were thought to be linked to the killings in Spokane County. On September 19, 2002, Yates was convicted of those murders and subsequently sentenced to death by lethal injection on October 3, 2002. The death penalty that Yates received can only be carried out once the sentence of 408 years is completed.
The 2002 death sentence was appealed on grounds that Yates believed his 2000 plea bargain to be “all-encompassing”, and that a life sentence for 13 murders and a death sentence for two constituted “disproportionate, freakish, wanton and random” application of the death penalty. The arguments were rejected in 2007 by the Washington Supreme Court. A September 19, 2008 execution date was stayed by Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander pending additional appeals.
In 2013 Yates’s attorneys filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court, stating that Yates is mentally ill and, “through no fault of his own … suffers from a severe paraphilic disorder” that predisposed him to commit murder. The still-pending motion is regarded as a “long shot” by most observers. “I don’t think Mr. Yates helps his cause by relying on the fact that he’s a necrophiliac,” said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
Yates remains on death row at the Washington State Penitentiary. His case has been further complicated by Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s 2013 declaration that he would not sign death warrants for anyone on death row while he is in office. Inslee cited the high cost of the appeals process, the randomness with which death sentences are sought, and a lack of evidence that the penalty serves as a deterrent to other criminals.
In July 2015, the Washington Supreme Court once again rejected an effort by Yates to overturn his conviction and death sentence.
|Name||Date of discovery|
|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|
|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|