By LUIS CABRERA
TACOMA – Serial killer Robert L. Yates Jr. pleaded innocent today in the slayings of two women in Pierce County, where the prosecutor has filed charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Yates, who last week pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder in Spokane County, was arraigned in Pierce County Superior Court on two counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of Melinda L. Mercer in 1997 and Connie Ellis in 1998.
Yates showed little emotion, but relatives of the victims gasped both times when he said: “Not guilty, your honor.”
The trial date will be set at a Nov. 16 hearing. Judge John McCarthy, who presided at today’s proceeding, will oversee the trial as well.
At a news conference after the arraignment, Prosecutor John Ladenburg declined to say whether he would seek the death penalty if Yates is convicted, but he noted the three prosecutors handling the case all have experience in capital cases.
If he does seek the death penalty, Ladenburg said a higher court would have to determine whether Yates could be executed before he serves his 408-year sentence in the Spokane County murders.
“My feeling are so mixed,” said Ondraya Smith, whose daughter, Sunny Oster, was one of Yates’ Spokane County victims. Smith, who traveled to Tacoma for Yates’ arraignment, said she initially wanted Yates to spend his life behind bars. Then she wanted him executed.
“Whichever way he suffers the most is what my family wants,” she said before the hearing.
“I don’t think he deserves to live,” said Wanda Hargrove, who said Mercer was one of her clients at the Tacoma Urban League
Describing Yates as a “monster,” Hargrove said she attended the arraignment to find out “What made him tick. What kind of person takes it on himself to destroy the lives of that many people?”
Under Washington state law, aggravated murder is the only crime that carries the death penalty. Aggravating circumstances commonly include a slaying committed to cover up a robbery or other crime, as is alleged in the two slayings. But Ladenburg said his team will argue for aggravating circumstances mainly because the slayings were committed as part of a “common scheme” of killings.
“We don’t believe we are limited to two cases here, and we have notified the defense that we will introduce evidence of the 13 in Spokane as proof of a common scheme or plan,” he said at the news conference.
Defense attorneys have 20 days to deliver evidence of mitigating circumstances for consideration by Landenburg, who has until Nov. 30 to declare whether he will seek the death penalty.
Yates, 48, a married father of five, was sentenced Thursday in Spokane to 408 years in prison for his confession to 13 murders and one attempted murder. The killings go back a quarter-century to 1975, when he gunned down a young man and young woman as they picnicked near Walla Walla.
Yates has admitted killing 10 women in Spokane County in 1996-98. He also admitted the 1975 Walla Walla slayings, and killing a woman whose body was found in 1988 in Western Washington’s Skagit County.
The women slain in Pierce County, like most of Yates’ other victims, had histories of prostitution and drug abuse.
Mercer, 24, was found dead in South Tacoma on Dec. 7, 1997. Prosecutors say Yates shot her in the head twice in the previous 24 hours with a .25-caliber semi-automatic handgun and then dumped her nude body.
Four plastic bags were tied over her head. No purse, wallet or money was found.
DNA results from Yates’ blood reportedly matched semen swabs from Mercer, prosecutors said in court papers. Lab tests indicate that bullets in Mercer’s head were fired from the same handgun used to shoot four other victims that Yates has admitted killing, prosecutors said.
Army National Guard records place Yates, a U.S. Army veteran and former National Guard helicopter pilot, at Fort Lewis in Tacoma from Dec. 5-7, 1997.
The body of Connie Ellis, 35, was found Oct. 13, 1998, in Parkland, south of Tacoma. Prosecutors claim Yates shot her once in the head with a .25-caliber handgun between Sept. 11-19, 1998.
Three plastic bags were tied over her head. No purse, wallet or money was found.
Prosecutors said the bullet recovered from her body could not be positively identified as coming from the handgun used in confessed slayings.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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