Serial Killer Robert L. Yates, Jr.
A middle-aged father of 5, Robert L. Yates Jr., a decorated military helicopter pilot, and National Guardsman was convicted of 15 murders but suspected of as many as 18. The most prolific serial killer ever sentenced in Washington state, he now sits on death row.
He came from a solid, loving home with encouraging Support , a moral upbringing and Christian teaching from the time he could walk. He was an obedient child, a dedicated student, and a team player on the Oak Harbor High School football team.
Yates was a car buff frequently seen washing the Corvette and his other vehicles.
He liked to cruise through the red-light district in a white Corvette, where the Army veteran murdered women 8 of at least 13 of his victims.
Washington state prosecutors suspect Yates is responsible for the slayings of as many as 18 women, many with a history of drug abuse and prostitution. Victims were shot in the head. The first body was found Feb. 22, 1990, and the killings continued for a decade.
Signed "the Robert L. Yates family members."
In 2000, Yates, 50, pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of one woman and the killing 10 other women in Spokane County from 1996 to 1998. He's also admitted to two slayings in Walla Walla in 1975 and the killing of a woman whose body was found in 1988, in Skagit County. A judge sentenced him to 408 years in prison.
Pierce County prosecutors then brought Yates to Tacoma to be tried on the aggravated murders of Connie LaFontaine Ellis and Melinda Mercer.
During the 5 1/2-week trial, prosecutors told jurors this was Yates "his evil hobby." He killed for thrill of it and because he enjoyed sex with his dead victims. The death penalty was sought in this trial.
Robert Lee Yates Sr. talked about his and his wife's joy at their son's birth, and his pride as Yates became a boy who never "sassed" him and always obeyed. Yates played baseball and football, and fished and hiked with his father.
Attorneys showed photos of Yates as a baby, in a tiny suit, with his little sister, and through the years in a military uniform and later with his children.
The elder Yates acknowledged that his son didn't confide in him and that he married his second wife before divorcing his first.
Recently, Yates Sr. said, his son has returned to his Seventh-day Adventist faith.
"He fell away from God," the father said. "He went to the depths. But he's come back, and I really feel it's sincere." Crying, he continued, "I love him so much, and I've told him a good many times. I abhor what he's done, but I love him just the same."
Yates cried during his father's testimony and when his victims' parents described their pain.
Connie LaFontaine Ellis and Melinda Mercer
Melinda Mercer's mother, Karyl Bushell, recalled her oldest daughter as a child who loved anything extravagant and funny. "She loved to dance," Bushell said, in tears. "She loved children. She loved people." She avidly hiked, skied and skated.
A troubled youth, Mercer spent her teen years in foster care but was at her mother's house for her birthday and holidays. She earned a GED, learned to hang drywall and had worked as a waitress in Seattle.
In 1997, when she became aware of her daughters heroin addiction, Bushell found a hospital where she could receive drug treatment, but she didn't showed up.
Two months before her murder, she asked if she could move back home with her family in Centralia. Bushell declined out of fear her drug use would affect the other children in the home.
"She wanted to come home, and I told her she couldn't," Bushell said, crying hard. "I told her she had to start helping herself before I could help her anymore. She said, 'Mom, you're supposed to love me,'" said Bushell. "I said, 'I do love you, but you have to help yourself.'"
Emil LaFontaine of North Dakota called his daughter, Connie LaFontaine Ellis, a strong, independent girl who inspired his pride. She had 5 siblings and step-siblings, moved from the Chippewa reservation where her father lived to Spokane to be with her mother.
At 17, she had her first child, Angel, later, she gave birth to 2 sons. The first son died in infancy. She married and moved to Tacoma. In 1996, her youngest son, Randy, couldn't get a transplant in time and died of heart problems.
"That was one of the main factors in the way she continued her life," LaFontaine said. "Connie was devastated by his death."
She tried numerous times to beat a heroin addiction. She was working on the streets when Yates killed her, in September 1998. Her death hurt her daughter the hardest, LaFontaine said.
LaFontaine cried reading from a statement he wrote about his daughter/
"Connie gave me strength and opened my life," he read. "I could not have asked for more. No wonder an eagle came down above her as she was buried, and came to hover over my own."
Prior to reading the death sentence, Yates' attorneys moved for a retrial, saying prosecutors erred in the penalty phase closing arguments by making "passionate and prejudicial" statements to the jury. Defense attorneys also felt jurors committed misconduct by considering more evidence than allowed in sentencing, such as contemplating if Yates had undiscovered victims, as they reported to the media afterwards. Pierce County Judge John McCarthy rejected the arguments.
The jury sentenced Yates to death after it convicted him of the aggravated murders of Connie LaFontaine Ellis and Melinda Mercer. Both bodies were found near Fort Lewis, where Yates served as a helicopter pilot in the Washington National Guard.
"I'd like to thank the court for the courtesy accorded me and the professionalism shown me," Yates said quietly while looking down.
Full text of Robert Yates' statement to jury
I prepared this statement so that I might leave nothing in my heart that needs to be said.
To all my victims' families, to my family and to the people in the community, to the families of Melinda Mercer and Connie LaFontanie Ellis, I know you are suffering great anguish. I find no words to comfort you, to explain, justify or soften all the evil, pain, separation and death that I've caused.
Some things are inexpressible and inexplicable in terms of human language. The world is a frightening place, and I've made it more so for many. I've caused so much pain and devastation.
Hundreds of people are hurting and grieving because of my acts. I let sin enter my life. I let it grow and mature until it wrought its direct consequence: death. The wages of sin bring death. Sin and wrongdoing may start small but if left unchecked, they grow into something ugly. I believe that (unintelligible), in and of itself, sin blinds us. It blinded me.
Within myself I've had no power to defeat this full-blown sinful nature. There were times – long periods – when in between my horrific crimes, there were periods of relative calm. Nothing evil happened. But that sinful nature, which wrought so much recent violence, never really left.
Scripture says the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure; who can understand? Our hearts can be deceitful beyond our own understanding, and surely mine was. I couldn't rid myself of this sinful nature. Somewhere, through all this devastation, God was knocking on the door of my heart, but I wouldn't let him in. I thought to myself, how could a God love or hear anything that was not clean. I thought I wasn't good enough to even speak to God, and if He wouldn't listen to me, then who would?
Few men have ever felt the guilt I have from all the horror I've brought into your lives. I tried to cleanse myself from that guilt through denial. That only resulted in making things worse.
Even after my arrest in Spokane in April of 2000, for a couple of weeks I persisted. I remained in denial. In May of 2000, as I started to read the word of God for the first time in over 25 years, I began to understand that someone had seen all the hideous crimes I've committed. Someone else had been there the whole time, watching each of my victims die.
God had seen it all.
That realization was like slamming into a brick wall at 100 miles an hour. It was like standing naked and ugly before the whole world. It was looking at all the ugliness inside me and exposing it for what it really was.
So the best thing that could ever have happened that April was for me to be arrested and brought to account for my actions. God had seen it all. The public and the families had seen and felt the loss and the death and the hurt caused by my actions. Now it was time for Robert Yates to open his eyes and see all that, too.
It was impossible to be in denial any longer. It was time to face the truth. When sin has deadened moral perception, the wrongdoer does not discern the defects of his character or realize the enormity of the evil he has committed. For once I listened when God spoke.
Until God's spirit working through the human agencies of law enforcement and our justice system woke me out of my spiritual blindness, I couldn't see the enormous devastation I had created, the tremendous pain and suffering I had caused. Until I came back to the love of God in Jesus Christ, I could not turn aside from my sinful nature, for the mind of the sinful man – and that was me – brings death. The mind of the man controlled by the Spirit brings life and peace. Someone needed to open my eyes.
So I turned to God. Until I turned to faith, though before in death, I saw I couldn't face the truth that finally God was bringing me to account. It was me.
I hadn't felt some of that out in Riverside. God already did it. I had to confess to him so I could admit to myself the enormity of my evil, that I needed to tell someone else who would listen and not condemn. After that I stopped the denial, stopped trying to hide the truth from my attorneys in Spokane. I told them all about my crimes stretching back all the way to 1975. That was the right way – the only way back to God.
It's been a long road back. One doesn't fall into such a deep morass of evil and climb back out in one day. Hearing the heartbreaking testimonies of all the mothers, wives, sisters, brothers and children of the lost family members I've taken from them burdens me with the incalculable loss of the unending grief and the harm that I've brought to hundreds of people. I'm so very, very sorry.
If God is the creator of this universe, then there are no unimportant people, and I took the lives of these loving, wonderful, important people from you. I feel your hurt every day and it won't go away. It never will. I've devastated your hopes and dreams. I've left you with only photographs and memories instead of warm family gatherings, cherished hugs and future happiness. The opportunity to say farewell or clear up misunderstandings was not afforded you.
Please don't squeeze back tears. Tears are part of the adjustments. Tears are jewels of remembrance, painful but glistening with the beauty of your children – children God loved so much. Children that are, as the Bible says, asleep, waiting the day when they will be called forth to be reunited with you. Please trust in that blessed hope. God is not so far from you that he is not touched by your tears. All of heaven shares your sorrow.
I believe with all my heart that there is a huge battle being waged between good and evil in this world, a spiritual battle that has allowed tragedy in this case, unexplainable evil to step forward. Why has all this evil been allowed to exist in the world? Some day God will show us. So that's why we have to trust that some day our God, who's absolutely pure, will end this struggle. When He does, the Bible promises that the old order of things will have passed away. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, only the happiness and joy you long for so much this day. That's a promise from God.
Nothing I have said here today will justify or excuse my wrongs or even make sense of them. My compassion goes out to all I've hurt. There's absolutely no excuse that anyone could ever offer for the depths of pain in this room and in the lives of every person I've touched and all the tragedy I've wrought. There are so many innocent victims in all of this – families, friends and communities, my family, who had nothing to do with any of this. I'm so very, very sorry for what has happened. I and they can offer no justification for any of it. We do offer you all our sympathies and our prayers.
There are inadequate words for me to express my guilt, my shame and my sorrow for having devastated you in taking away the wonderful people, the wonderful, loving people, the warm human beings you cared for so much. It's my prayer that you will look to God to help fill the hollow I've left in your hearts.
My future is in His hands. I share your grief and always will. I'm sorry beyond what words can say. I apologize to all of you, and I thank the court for allowing me to speak.
The judge then told him that this case affected the families of the victims, Yates' own family, the attorneys, police, jurors and courtroom staff.
"This is a very heavy burden you put them through," he said.
"I do believe you have remorse and a sense of sorrow and loss," McCarthy quietly told Yates. "I hope your conversion to religion is indeed sincere. Only you and God can confirm the validity of that."
Yates' family says he is at peace with the decision, his attorney, Roger Hunko, said Yates will fight execution. Not doing so would be akin to suicide, which under Yates' Christian faith would be an unforgivable sin, Hunko said.
The Appeals Process Yates Has Available
The 1st appeal is a mandatory "direct review" by the Washington State Supreme Court. To review issues the defendant raises about the trial, evidence, judge's rulings or jury instructions. - Then a "proportionality review" to make sure the case is in line with other death penalty cases. If the court affirms the sentence, the defendant would next appeal to the US Supreme Court, which may refuse to hear the case.
The 2nd appeal is a "personal restraint petition" filed with the state Supreme Court. The defendant argues issues such as ineffective defense attorneys, jury selection or jury misconduct. This decision can be appealed to the US Supreme Court.
The 3rd appeal is a "habeas corpus" petition, filed in federal district court and assigned to a randomly selected judge. Unlike state appeals courts, district court holds its own hearings to resolve issues.
Then the defendant can appeal to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, before a 3 judge panel. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals covers 9 Western states, including Washington, have overturned 10 death sentences since 1982 and 6 convictions underlying death sentences since 1994. Some cases are still on appeal.
If the panel affirms the death sentence, the defendant can either try to get an 11-judge panel to consider the appeal or appeal directly to the US Supreme Court. Neither the 11-judge panel or the US Supreme Court have to accept the case.
The defendant usually cannot argue anything in federal courts that was not argued in state courts.
Yates joins 9 men on Washington's death row at the Walla Walla penitentiary.
The Hunt for a Serial Killer -- In August of 1997, in Spokane, Washington, the bodies of 2 young women were found on the same day. As police looked at similar unsolved murders, they discovered
these women were prostitutes who worked in the Skid Row of Spokane. All of the bodies had a plastic bag tied around the head.
In Depth: Robert Yates Maps, victim photos, timeline of the killings, video interview with a prostitute who knew him for 2 years and related
Profile of Yates --The 47 year-old Spokane, WA resident, employed as a replacement worker at Kaiser Mead, as a strikebreaker after workers walked off the job.
Robert L. Yates Jr. -- Plead guilty to 13 murders. The Army veteran and helicopter pilot also pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder to escape the death penalty.
Police Connect Nine Victims -- Spokane County Sheriff's office confirmed a list of at least nine women they believe to be Yates' victims - 8 from the Spokane area and 1 from the Tacoma area.
Robert Lee Yates, Jr. sentenced to more than 400 years in prison -- Detectives in Spokane accomplished what Green River investigators could never do: arrest a suspect and get convictions.
Cars Key Evidence -- Yates was a car buff frequently seen washing the Corvette and his other vehicles. A middle-aged father of 5, liked to cruise through the red-light district in a white Corvette.
Complete Tacoma Trial Coverage
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