Yates to plead guilty to 13 murders

By MARK JEWELL

Associated Press

SPOKANE – Robert L. Yates Jr. will plead guilty to 13 murders and one attempted murder on Thursday, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said.

Yates will be sentenced Oct. 26 to more than 400 years in prison, but the plea bargain will allow him to escape the death penalty for those crimes, Tucker said today.

The agreement doesn’t cover two slayings in Pierce County and one more in Spokane. He could still face the death penalty in those cases.

“This plea agreement doesn’t keep him from being prosecuted anywhere else,” Tucker said.

The agreement, announced Monday, depended on a body found buried outside Yates’ Spokane home being Melody Murfin, a prostitute who had been missing for two years.

The decomposed body was dug up Monday, but an autopsy failed to positively identify the remains as those of Murfin, 43. However, Tucker said jewelry found with the corpse matched jewelry that Murfin’s family members described.

“Last night by telephone, family members verified the rings she had on and the necklace,” Tucker said. “Everything matches, he (Yates) hasn’t told us anything that is not true yet.”

Yates will plead guilty to premeditated first-degree murder, but not aggravated murder, Tucker said. In Washington, aggravated first-degree murder is the only crime punishable by death.

Tucker said the deal would result in a sentence of consecutive life prison terms totaling 447 years.

“He’s agreed to death in prison, and I’ve agreed to let him die in prison without lethal injection,” Tucker said.

Pierce County Prosecutor John Ladenburg said he turned down an offer to make the two Tacoma-area homicide cases in his jurisdiction part of the plea bargain.

“I told them I never plea-bargain the death penalty,” he said Tuesday.

Yates, a 48-year-old father of five, has actually confessed to 14 killings, but will plead guilty to only 13.

Tucker said the agreement calls for dismissing an existing aggravated first-degree murder charge in the death of Shawn McClenahan, whose body was found Dec. 26, 1997.

Tucker said the McClenahan case was the strongest, with DNA, ballistics and fingerprint evidence linking Yates. He is holding that case in abeyance should Yates try to renege on the agreement or seek appeals.

“We’re holding it out as a hammer over his head … we can bring this case back and ask the death penalty against him,” Tucker said.

Yates’ father on Tuesday revealed his son was sexually assaulted as a child by a neighbor. Robert Yates Sr. told The Spokesman-Review newspaper that his son, then 6, was molested by an 11-year-old boy.

Serial killer experts frequently point to childhood sexual molestation as a trigger that can produce such a killer. The elder Yates said he did not think that molestation was relevant in his son’s case.

Most of the victims were women involved in drugs and prostitution in Spokane. The attempted murder charge involves a woman who survived a gunshot wound to the head.

Yates sealed his offer from his jail cell Monday when he drew a map investigators used to find the body.

Yates has agreed to plead guilty to killing 10 women in Spokane in 1996-98, and to three earlier killings in Walla Walla and Skagit counties. Those three deaths had not previously been linked to him.

The Army veteran and National Guard helicopter pilot, who investigators say often cruised Spokane’s red-light district in his 1977 Corvette, had previously pleaded innocent to eight aggravated first-degree murder counts in Spokane County. He was arrested in April after investigators said DNA evidence from the car linked him to the slaying of a 16-year-old runaway.

Yates is to be arraigned next week in Tacoma on the two counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of Melinda Mercer and Connie LaFontaine Ellis. Ladenburg said he believes prosecutors have a good chance of proving aggravating circumstances in the two killings, which would allow the death penalty.

Once Yates is arraigned in Tacoma, Ladenburg will allow the defendant’s lawyers 30 days to present evidence why Yates shouldn’t be executed if convicted.

If Yates’ plea agreement in Spokane is finalized, he would enter the company of some of the country’s most notorious serial killers.

If he were convicted in the two additional Tacoma deaths, the 15 victims would exceed the 14 that Richard Ramirez, Southern California’s “Night Stalker,” was convicted of killing, and the total of Henry Lee Lucas, convicted in Texas of 13 murders.

Yates could be sent to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, where he briefly worked as a guard in the mid-1970s and where Kenneth Bianchi – convicted of killing two Bellingham women and nine others in the “Hillside Strangler” case in the late 1970s – is serving seven life terms.

Prosecutors in Walla Walla and Skagit counties dusted off records of unsolved homicides after Yates’ lawyers said he would admit to killings there.

Yates was a 23-year-old Washington State Penitentiary officer in Walla Walla when Patrick Oliver, 21, and Susan Savage, 22, were shot to death while picnicking east of town on July 13, 1975.

The victim in the Skagit County case was a Seattle woman whose remains were found in a rural area in late 1988.

Stacy Elizabeth Hawn, 23, had last been seen that summer. Her identity was confirmed in early 1989, when she was reported missing.

Yates provided information about Hawn’s death that only the killer could have known, Skagit County Prosecutor Tom Verge said.

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

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