Robert Yates: Son, husband, athlete, father, pilot, teacher, murder suspect
Seattle Times staff reporters
Robert Lee Yates threw fast pitches in high school, but didn't have much of a curve. He dreamed in college of being a doctor, but those dreams fell apart about the same time as his first marriage. He worked his way up to an elite post flying helicopters in the Army, but left two years shy of full retirement.
Yates was different things to different people. A stand-up guy, say his high-school friends. A heck of a teacher, say Army subordinates. A family guy. A single parent. A john. Meticulous. Religious.
Spokane authorities now say Yates is a serial killer. European newspapers call him the "notorious Washington Ripper." Investigators from 30 states and two countries have called about him, wondering if he can be linked to their unsolved killings.
Yates, born in Anacortes, sits now on the other side of the state, in jail on a $1.5 million bond. He is charged with killing Jennifer Joseph, a 16-year-old prostitute. But evidence ties Yates to the deaths of 11 more women killed since 1996 in Spokane and Tacoma, says Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk.
"There's absolutely no doubt," says Sterk, adding that DNA links Yates to eight of the deaths.
Detectives are also investigating whether Yates might have killed five women found dead between 1990 and 1995 and a woman who disappeared in 1998. All 18 women used drugs, worked as prostitutes or lived on the streets. They were shot and dumped like yesterday's yard clippings.
Yates is 47, a father of five, a silver-anniversary husband. Nondescript, he is most often described as "typical."
"I don't believe it. I know him too well," says Al Gatti, who met Yates in sixth grade in Oak Harbor, then a town of fewer than 5,000 people on Whidbey Island anchored in the Navy and farming.
As a kid, Bobby Yates liked peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He didn't eat pork. He sang in the choir, pitched baseballs, hunted deer. He had a dog named Lassie. As an adult, he was a man's man, a soldier. He liked cars, especially muscle cars. He flew helicopters and once shot a pig from one.
Outside the Army, Yates had a tough time holding jobs. But inside the Army, he learned to fly helicopters so well that he taught other pilots how to teach flying. He served in Germany, Haiti and Somalia.
Yates retired from the military after 18 years and rented a home with his family in a maze of Spokane subdivisions. He admitted slapping one of his daughters because she was disrespectful. Police say he drove his 1977 white Corvette down East Sprague Avenue and picked up prostitutes.
His wife, his three youngest daughters and his son moved to a motel after his arrest, and it's not clear where they are now. His wife and her family have declined interviews. So has his father, who says he's acting on the advice of lawyers.
Yates' father and three sisters gave only one public statement: "Bobby is a loving, caring sensitive son; a fun-loving and giving brother; an understanding, generous and dedicated father, who enjoys playing ball, fishing and camping with his kids. Bobby is the type of person you would want to have as your best friend."
Richard Fasy, the Spokane County public defender assigned to Yates' case, says police statements implying Yates' guilt are premature and inappropriate. Given the publicity surrounding the arrest, Fasy is likely to seek a change of venue to move the case out of Spokane County but wonders whether his client will be able to get a fair trial anywhere in Washington state.
He declined to comment on the specifics of the case: "The place where I do battle is in the courtroom."
Whidbey Island is full of Youderians. No trace of criminals on either side, points out Ernest Youderian, Yates' uncle, and no way is his nephew capable of such horrific acts.
Henry Youderian first spotted Whidbey Island in World War I, when he was in the Army cavalry, stationed at Fort Casey. In 1916, he bought land. He and his wife had six children, including Yates' mother, Anna Mae.
Anna Mae and her first husband had two daughters. After that marriage ended, she married Robert Yates, a solid man known more for being religious and polite than anything else at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, where he kept track of inventory.
"I don't believe I ever heard him use a profanity," says Gordon Kidder, his boss of 25 years.
The couple had a son and then a daughter. They raised their four children as Seventh-day Adventists, who believe in the Second Coming, when Christ will separate the saints from the wicked and start his 1,000-year kingdom. They celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday. They avoid meat, drugs and alcohol.
When the Oak Harbor Seventh-day Adventist Church burned to the ground, Robert Yates Sr. took it personally, co-workers say. He and his son helped rebuild it.
Anna Mae Yates did the hair of neighborhood ladies and worked as a housekeeping supervisor at the local hospital. She raised her children to respect their elders, Ernest Youderian says.
Bobby Yates never sassed his parents.
"If I raised kids, I'd like them to come up as good as him," says Ernest Youderian, who always received Christmas cards from his nephew. "He never used any profanity. You'd think you were talking to a professor."
When Yates was a teenager, the only fast-food restaurant in Oak Harbor was Kow Korner, where burgers cost 19 cents. Teenagers cruised the downtown strip in their cars; they called it "dragging the gut."
But Yates didn't have a car, not one anyone could remember. His choir teacher drove him home from practice for "Plenty of Money," the school musical.
He floated through high school without making many solid connections. Many students and teachers there don't remember him. Those who do recall a quiet boy who turned in assignments when they were due, the average Joe, the pitcher.
He wasn't thin. He wasn't fat. Wasn't tall, wasn't short. He had a powerful arm and perfect control with a baseball. Had brown hair he combed from right to left.
Yates only surprised occasionally: Quit football his sophomore year. Joined choir his senior year, baffling Al Gatti. Read a sonnet aloud in English class. The kids thought it was Shakespeare. But no, teacher Trudy Sundberg told the class, Bob wrote the poem.
At times, he pushed himself impulsively. When he decided to row a boat, he rowed five miles, Gatti says. Once, he decided to go for a run and ended up in Coupeville, 10 miles down the road.
Gatti and Yates hunted deer together. They fished, hiked and built rafts. For money, Yates mowed lawns, worked at gas stations. Summers, he worked with Gary Berner harvesting peas, making $1.80 an hour.
"The worst thing I know about Bob is he wouldn't play football his senior year," says Berner, now a dentist.
After high school, Yates bounced from job to job, town to town, never straying too far from Oak Harbor.
He chose to go to Skagit Valley Community College with Gatti, about 28 miles from home. They flirted with being park rangers and game wardens.
Once, Yates told Gatti that what ticked him off about his religion was he couldn't eat the pork spare ribs at a local buffet.
Yates decided he wanted to be a doctor. Gatti's lottery number came up, and he went to war.
Yates was 20 when he married Shirley Nylander. The newlyweds moved to College Place, where they enrolled in Walla Walla College, a Seventh-day Adventist school. He was in pre-med. "I didn't get to know him that much," says Mary Nylander, Shirley's mother.
Former landlords in College Place don't remember him. Science professors don't remember him. Classmates in the pre-med program don't remember him.
In his only yearbook picture, he wore his hair short.
"He was always neat as a pin," says Barbara Youderian, Ernest's wife. "He didn't go along with the trend, when everyone was growing their hair long."
About 18 months after Robert and Shirley married, Shirley Yates moved home to her parents. Two months later, she asked Yates for a divorce. He didn't dispute it - in July 1974, a month before his divorce was final, Yates married Linda Brewer.
Six months later, Linda gave birth to a daughter. Yates was 22.
He worked as a guard at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla - Linda's dad had worked there for 18 years - but Yates lasted only four months. He worked as a janitor at a hospital - his mother was a housekeeping supervisor at the Whidbey Island hospital.
He even worked as an usher in a movie theater, says Gatti, who started logging after he got back from the war.
In 1976, Robert Yates and Linda Brewer had a second wedding ceremony - this time in Oak Harbor, with Brewers' parents as the witnesses - most likely because his divorce hadn't been final the first time.
About two months later, Anna Mae Yates died after a long bout with cancer. Her son was a pallbearer; Gatti was an honorary pallbearer. Her death didn't seem to affect Yates much, Gatti says.
"Boys aren't attached to their mothers like girls are," he says. "It doesn't throw us over the edge."
The next year, Robert Lee Yates signed up with the Army. He was 25, considered old to be enlisting.
Yates shot a pig in Somalia from his helicopter. For that, he was almost court-martialed.
Otherwise, Yates flourished in the Army. In 18 years, he earned 12 medals, two ribbons and a badge. One of his medals was for humanitarian service, another for good conduct. Two were for meritorious service.
"If you've got two of those, you've probably done a heck of a good job somewhere," says Martha Rudd, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon.
Yates was plucked from the enlisted ranks in 1980 to go through a warrant-officer basic course at Fort Rucker, Ala., the Army's aviation center, which has more flights every day than anywhere in the country. About one in 40 soldiers in the Army is an aviator.
He learned to be an instructor pilot for the OH-58, the Kiowa, at the time the Army's primary observation helicopter.
Yates then moved to the base in Goeppingen, Germany, and served there until 1991. It's not clear who in his family came with him. Records show that for one year, his oldest daughter was in the sixth grade in Walla Walla. Linda Yates had grown up in the Eastern Washington town.
Then Robert Yates moved to Fort Drum, N.Y. While there, he wrote a letter to the local newspaper, defending the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment and the right to own a weapon.
He ended his letter, "Do not seek what seems like the simple solution, because it isn't."
As part of the base's assault-helicopter division, Yates served in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in late 1992 and early 1993 and Operation Restore Democracy in Haiti in 1994.
In Somalia, Yates shot the wild pig while flying a Kiowa. Yates and others in the helicopter landed, gutted the pig and put it in the back of the helicopter. They wanted a barbecue after more than a month of eating Army food, says Dennis Mills, who later served with Yates.
"They tried to court-martial him because he didn't go through the proper channels," Mills says. "It all turned into a big joke after a while. It didn't hurt a damn thing. They were just trying to get some fresh meat."
In 1995, Yates was transferred from New York to Fort Rucker. There, he taught helicopter pilots how to teach soldiers to fly OH-58 helicopters. He drilled for seven hours a day with two students. He was one of only 10 instructor pilots at that level.
"We were in a pinch for instructors, and Bob filled the position nicely," says Rick Ponder, his boss.
People liked him, but they didn't know him well. Few people remember his wife. Miles Merrill, who learned to teach flying from Yates, thought the man he spent time with seven hours a day for eight weeks was a single parent.
"Bob was really kind of quiet. He would say, `I think there might be a better way,' " Merrill says. "He was very methodical. Saw things through quite well. Patience like you wouldn't believe."
While in the Army, Yates had 30 days of leave a year. The Army hasn't yet released a complete time line of Yates' duty, but state records show he returned to Washington state at least once.
In early September 1994, Yates came to Walla Walla. He bought a white 1977 Corvette from Sarah Marsh, and he drove the car back to New York.
Women's bodies started showing up along the Spokane River in 1990. By the time Yates moved to town, five women were already dead.
In March 1996, the tail end of another reduction in Army forces, Yates accepted a special incentive that allowed him to continue receiving 45 percent of his normal pay, probably about $20,000 a year. Acquaintances say Yates grew tired of the Army. The helicopter he knew best was also becoming obsolete, replaced by the Kiowa Warrior.
One Army colleague says he thought Yates planned to join a friend at a company cleaning paper mills. Another thought he planned to be a pilot in Spokane. Al Gatti thought Yates had found a good deal on a house in Spokane and steady work.
"You knew it had to be something good," says Dennis Niles, who served with Yates.
But Yates didn't have a job.
In Spokane, the family rented a modest brown home on the South Hill, in a cul-de-sac subdivision with manicured bushes and tulips and ranch homes that stretch for blocks.
Yates had three cars, and he fiddled with them and washed them in front of his home. Neighbors joked that if they parked a car out front, maybe he'd wash that one, too.
He told a neighbor he thought he'd be a bus driver. The three oldest girls slept in the basement, the neighbor says. She says she never exchanged more than 10 words with Linda Yates, who stayed at home with the children.
Late that spring, another prostitute was found shot to death. There were rumblings that a serial killer might be loose in Spokane, but nothing official.
Six months after moving to Spokane, Yates found a job at Pantrol, a tiny company that makes circuit boards. He joined the National Guard and trained near Tacoma once a month. He brought the family to company picnics.
Yates bought a new home for $122,000, a tan split-level about a mile away from the rental. His oldest daughter moved out.
In August 1997, more women's bodies started showing up, one after another. Among them was Jennifer Joseph, who was last spotted in a car resembling a white Corvette, a white man at the wheel.
Police looked for a white Corvette, and a state patrolman pulled over Yates in his Corvette along the drag in Spokane where prostitutes work. He wasn't ticketed.
Two months later, the day after Thanksgiving, he was cited for speeding in his Corvette. He was pulled over near Hangman Valley, where a body had been found three weeks before and another body was found a month later.
In September 1998, Pantrol laid off two people, including Yates.
In October 1998, the final body linked to the serial killing was found, in Tacoma.
On Nov. 10, 1998, a police officer pulled over Yates' car, with a known prostitute in the passenger's seat. Yates said she was his friend's daughter, and he was driving her home.
Two days later, his middle daughter Amber, then 19, showed up at the county jail lobby.
She said her father hit her all the time. He later told police that he held her by one arm and slapped her face lightly several times because she was "disrespectful." Yates was charged with misdemeanor assault.
Robert Lee Yates Jr. kept trying to hold his life together. He crossed a strike picket line to work 12-hour shifts at Kaiser Aluminum, a hot, ear-splitting smelting plant.
At the same time, detectives were closing in on the mystery of the dead women, a tiny clue at a time.
At Kaiser, Yates followed the rules, the only overhead crane operator to actually drive the crane as slowly as he was supposed to. Another co-worker who still works at Kaiser says Yates was meticulous.
"If something didn't go his way, he would try to take charge," says Chazz Wellington, a former crew leader. "He would overstep his boundaries."
Yates displayed anger only once, another co-worker says. Someone spilled coffee in his hard hat, and Yates shouted, jokingly at first, and then seriously. He threw the coffee on the other crew members as they waited to punch out.
In March 1999, Yates tried to get a job flying helicopters for Spokane's air-ambulance service, but no positions were available. The same month, he picked up a prostitute, detectives say.
The serial-killer task force began circling Yates. They interviewed hundreds of potential suspects and considered Yates to be only one of them. Last September, they called him into the office. Yates sweated profusely, the detectives said. He told them he never patronized prostitutes in Spokane. He still maintained that, when stopped the year before, he had been driving a friend's daughter home. He didn't remember his friend's name.
He also refused to give a blood sample for a DNA test.
Detectives then talked to the "friend's daughter," who said Yates had agreed to pay her $20 for oral sex, according to police.
This past January, investigators tracked down Yates' Corvette, which he had sold in May 1998. They clipped out carpet fibers and sent them for testing.
Gatti last saw Yates the same month in Tacoma, when he was in town for training.
"We had laughs, a good talk," says Gatti, who now works in a factory. "He's been married 27 years. He told me most marriages, they have their ups and downs. He told me, `Through all those years, Linda and I are the best of friends.' He told me he never imagined love could be that wonderful. He's telling me, `It's greater than anything I can imagine.' "
Last month, the Washington State Patrol crime lab matched the carpet fibers from the Corvette to fibers found on Jennifer Joseph's shoes and a towel left near her body.
Authorities seized the Corvette. A mother-of-pearl button was found that matched one missing from Joseph's jacket. Blood was found on the seat and seat belt in the car.
On Saturday, April 15, Yates returned home from Yakima, where he had been training with the National Guard. He stayed at home, mostly, for the next two days, throwing a baseball with his son in his front yard.
He left for work about 6 a.m. on April 18, driving his Honda Civic. Just before he pulled into Kaiser, police pulled him over. The next day, he was charged in Spokane County District Court with killing Jennifer Joseph. Sheriff Mark Sterk says DNA and other evidence link Yates to at least 12 of the slayings.
Authorities expect to bring additional charges in the deaths of other women within the next two weeks. They also expect to move the case to Spokane County Superior Court, at which time Yates will enter a formal plea.
Detectives are still investigating, taking the house apart, piece by piece, looking for evidence. They still haven't found a gun, although Robert Yates had a hunting license and helped his daughter through a gun-safety course last year.
"If he did do these things, knowing Bob like I do, he'd 'fess up to it," Gatti says. "If he did do these things, the way I feel about it is, my friend Bob Yates died a long time ago. Because this isn't the same Bob Yates I know."
Seattle Times staff reporter Susan Gilmore contributed to this report.
Kim Barker's phone message number is 206-464-2255. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
Keiko Morris' phone message number is 425-745-7804. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
All of these women were shot and dumped in remote areas. All had ties to prostitution or drugs or lived on the streets. These dates are when their bodies were found, not necessarily when they were killed. Some of them were found in days, others in months. Detectives are still investigating the killings.
At the time Yolanda Sapp, Nickie Lowe and Kathy Brisbois were found, police linked them to a single killer, investigators have said.
Victims whose names are followed by an asterisk ( # ) have been linked to Robert Yates, through DNA and other evidence, according to the Spokane County sheriff.
Yolanda Sapp, 26
Nickie Lowe, 36
Kathy Brisbois, 38
Sherry Palmer, 19
Patricia Barnes, 60
Shannon Zielinski, 38 #
Jennifer Joseph, 16 #
Heather Hernandez, 20 #
Darla Scott, 29 #
Melinda Mercer, 24 #
Shawn Johnson, 36 #
Laurie Wason, 31 #
Shawn McClenahan, 39 #
Sunny Oster, 41 #
Linda Maybin, 34 #
Melody Murfin, 43
(reported missing; not yet found)
Michelyn Derning, 47 #
Connie Lafontaine Ellis, 35 #
Robert Lee Yates
May 27, 1952 - Born in Anacortes to Anna Mae and Robert Lee Yates.
1965 - Anna Mae Yates and Robert Lee Yates Sr. are baptized into Seventh-day Adventist Church in Oak Harbor.
1970 - Robert Lee Yates graduates from Oak Harbor High School.
Fall 1970 - Goes to Skagit Valley Community College. Meets Shirley Nylander from Fall City.
August 1972 - Marries Nylander in Fall City at the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
October 1972 - Enrolls at Walla Walla College, a Seventh-day Adventist school, majoring in pre-med. He almost had enough credits to be a junior there.
March 1974 - Nylander and Yates separate. He stays in College Place, home of Walla Walla College. She moves home to Fall City with her parents.
May 1974 - Nylander files for divorce. Yates leaves Walla Walla College without a degree.
June 1974 - Yates and Linda Brewer, of Benton County, apply in Walla Walla County for a marriage license.
July 1974 - Yates and Brewer marry in Walla Walla County. His divorce from Nylander is not yet final.
August 1974 - Yates' and Nylander's divorce is official. Nylander takes back her maiden name.
December 1974 - Linda Yates gives birth to a daughter. The couple later have three more children. The youngest - the only boy - is now 11.
May 1975 - Yates gets an associate-of-arts degree from Skagit Valley.
July 1975 - Yates takes a job as a prison guard in Walla Walla. He lasts four months. He later works as a janitor in a hospital and as a theater usher.
July 1976 - Robert and Linda Yates have another wedding ceremony, in Oak Harbor, with her parents as the witnesses.
October 1976 - Anna Mae Yates dies after a long bout with cancer.
1977 - Yates enlists in the U.S. Army.
1980 - Yates attends a warrant-officer basic course to become a helicopter pilot.
October 1981 to February 1984 - Yates is a helicopter pilot in the 503rd Aviation Unit in Europe.
February 1984 to October 1984 - Yates is a support aviator in the Brigade Support Company, Aviation Training Brigade, Fort Rucker, Ala., the Army's flight training center.
October 1984 to October 1987 - Yates is a support aviator in a different unit in Fort Rucker. While there, he learns to teach soldiers to fly Huey helicopters.
October 1987 to May 1988 - Yates is a support aviator and a standardization pilot at Fort Rucker. He takes an advanced aviator course. During this school year, Sasha Yates, his oldest daughter, was enrolled in a middle school in Walla Walla. It's not clear where Linda Yates or the other children lived at this time.
May 1988 to May 1991 - Yates teaches soldiers to fly helicopters and serves in the 1st Infantry Division, Goeppingen, Germany. In 1990, he returns to the United States to take a survival course.
May 1991 to June 1995 - As a platoon leader, he teaches soldiers to fly Kiowa helicopters in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, Assault Helicopter Battalion, Fort Drum, N.Y. Yates takes another warrant-officer course. He goes to Somalia in late 1992 and early 1993. He takes vacation in Washington in September 1994, to buy a white 1977 Corvette from Sarah Marsh in Walla Walla. He has to rush back to New York to go to Haiti.
July 1995 to March 1996 - Yates is a flight leader in the 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment at Fort Rucker, Ala.
March 1996 - A chief warrant officer 4, the highest rank he could attain at the time, Yates accepts early retirement from the Army with about $20,000 a year in retirement pay. At this point, he has 32.5 days of unused leave.
April 1996 - Yates moves to Spokane without a job, rents a house with his wife and five children. The four youngest children enroll in the public school system. He is unemployed for several months.
September 1996 - Yates is hired to assemble circuit boards at Pantrol, a Spokane company.
April 1997 - He joins the Washington National Guard as a Chief Warrant Officer 4, assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 185th Aviation, a component unit of the 66th Aviation Brigade Headquarters at Fort Lewis near Tacoma.
September 1997 - Driving a white Corvette, Yates is stopped for a traffic violation near East Sprague Avenue, the strip of town where prostitutes work. He is not cited.
November 1997 - Yates is cited for speeding in his Corvette, about 2.5 miles from where a slain woman's body was found three weeks earlier.
March 1998 - The Yateses buy a home a mile away from their rental house.
May 1998 - Yates sells his Corvette to Rita Jones in Spokane.
September 1998 - Yates is laid off from Pantrol as part of a reduction in force.
November 1998 - Yates and a known prostitute are pulled over by a police officer at 1:25 a.m., near the area where women are disappearing. He's driving a Honda Civic. He says the prostitute is a friend's daughter he's driving home. Two days later, his middle daughter complains to police that her father "hits me all the time." He's charged with a misdemeanor assault.
December 1998 - Yates crosses picket lines to go to work at Kaiser Aluminum as a carbon setter.
January 1999 - He's told the misdemeanor charge for striking his daughter will be dropped if he doesn't do anything similar for two years.
March 1999 - He applies to fly helicopters for the only air ambulance service in Spokane. There are no openings.
March 1999 - Yates picks up a prostitute in his Honda Civic for oral sex, according to court documents.
September 1999 - Investigators interview Yates in connection with the serial slayings. He is one of hundreds interviewed and asked for blood samples. Yates refuses to give a blood sample for a DNA test. He sweats, police say.
January 2000 - Detectives track down the white Corvette, parked in the garage of Jones' sister, who works for the Spokane police. They take some carpet fibers for testing.
March 26-April 1, 2000 - Yates trains with his National Guard unit in Eagle County, Colo.
April 2-15, 2000 - Yates trains with the National Guard at the Yakima Training Center.
April 5, 2000 - The fibers removed from the white Corvette match fibers found on Jennifer Joseph's shoes and a towel found near her body, police say.
April 10, 2000 - A search warrant is signed for the Corvette. Police later say they found a button matching one missing from Joseph's jacket and traces of blood on a seat and seat-belt buckle.
April 18, 2000 - Yates is arrested on the way to work.
April 19, 2000 - He is charged with murdering Joseph. The Spokane County sheriff says he is suspected in the deaths of 12 to 18 women.
The Seattle Times
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