Yates to duck death penalty by leading police to victim

By MARK JEWELL

Associated Press

SPOKANE — Robert L. Yates Jr. will plead guilty to 13 murders and one attempted murder under a plea agreement to escape the death penalty in a serial slayings investigation, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said Monday.

Two of the murders occurred in Walla Walla County and one in Skagit County, Tucker said. The others were in Spokane County.

The 48-year-old father of five had previously pleaded innocent to eight killings in Spokane County. The deal does not cover two slayings Yates is charged with in Pierce County.

A day of dramatic developments began with law enforcement officers, working from a map Yates drew from jail, digging up a body in the yard of his home.

The deal will only be valid if the body turns out to be that of Melody Murfin, a presumed serial killer victim missing for two years, Tucker said.

"None of the rest takes place if it’s not Murfin," Tucker said.

Yates would receive sentences of life in prison under the plea agreement.

The prosecutor declined to release the names of the other women Yates will plead guilty to killing. It’s not clear whether the eight women Yates is charged with killing in Spokane County are all part of the plea agreement, and which other victims are involved.

The Walla Walla County connection had not been disclosed before Monday. Walla Walla County Prosecutor Jim Nagle said he was surprised.

"I don’t have any information on that," Nagle said. "I understand they’re talking to him about a bunch of unsolved cases."

Yates’ wife Linda is from Walla Walla County and Yates lived there in the 1970s.

Yates, a U.S. Army veteran and National Guard helicopter pilot, was raised in Oak Harbor, and graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1970.

All the women Yates was charged with killing were involved in drugs, prostitution or both.

Yates has also been charged in Spokane County with attempted murder in an attack on Christine L. Smith. The 32-year-old survived a gunshot wound to the head when she was working as a prostitute in August 1998.

Aggravated murder is the only crime in Washington punishable by death. But Tucker had been agonizing for months over whether to seek the death penalty against Yates, largely because the evidence of so-called aggravating circumstances was weak. Those aggravating factors include requirements that the killings were part of a pattern, or were committed to conceal a crime.

Yates, who often cruised Spokane’s red-light district in a white Corvette, was linked to the killings by DNA and other physical evidence, authorities have said.

No court date has been set to enter the plea agreement. Yates’ trial in Spokane had been scheduled for May 21.

On Monday, a body was found 6 to 8 inches beneath the ground on the east side of Yates’ house, Spokane County sheriff’s spokesman David Reagan said.

Reagan said the body was well-hidden and officers would have been unlikely to find it if Yates had not drawn a map.

Sheriff’s officers spent weeks searching Yates’ house and yard after his April arrest.

"At that time we were looking for firearms," Reagan said. "There was a variety of evidence we were looking for not related to specific bodies."

The spot where the body was found had not been previously dug up by investigators, Reagan said.

Pierce County prosecutors, who suspect Yates in two Tacoma-area cases, said they were caught off-guard by the plea deal.

A Spokane County agreement would not preclude Pierce County Prosecutor John Ladenburg from deciding to pursue the death penalty in the Pierce County cases, said Gerald A. Horne, Ladenburg’s chief criminal deputy.

"He makes the decision independent of any offers," Horne said.

Yates has not made a court appearance in Tacoma on the Pierce County charges.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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