Robert Lee Yates Jr.by Bill Morlin
Robert L. Yates Jr. engaged in the hobby of killing women he
hired for sex, shooting them in the head and stealing their money to conceal the
dark side of his middle-class life in Spokane, a jury was told Monday.
The description of Washington state's most prolific convicted serial killer came as he went on trial in Pierce County for killing two more women. He faces the death penalty if convicted in a trial that is expected to last until October.
In seeking the death penalty, Pierce County prosecutors will detail the 10 murders Yates confessed to committing in Spokane between June 1996 and July 1998.
Details of those cases weren't discussed in open court in Spokane, because Yates struck a plea bargain with Spokane Prosecutor Steve Tucker to avoid the death penalty almost two years ago. Tucker said the plea deal saved taxpayers money and victims' families a lot of grief.
Victims Sunny Oster, Linda Maybin, Michellyn Derning, Connie Lafontaine-Ellis
But now across the state, the Spokane murders Yates committed
will be explained, as Pierce County prosecutors attempt to show the Spokane
killings matched the murders of Melinda Mercer and Connie LaFontaine Ellis.
Jerry Costello, chief criminal deputy prosecuting attorney for Pierce County, spent almost three hours Monday outlining the "mountain of evidence" against Yates.
The bearded 50-year-old killer sat expressionless, occasionally taking notes and talking softly with his attorneys, Roger Hunko and Mary Kay High.
A 12-member jury and six alternates were selected before noon, ending a jury-selection process that began on June 20. The panel is composed of seven women and 11 men, varying widely in ages. The alternates won't be identified until the case is submitted for deliberations.
Judge John McCarthy won't sequester the jury, but cautioned members to avoid media accounts and not to discuss testimony.
In a last-minute motion, Yates' attorneys were successful in preventing the prosecution from telling the jury in opening statements that investigators believe Yates had sex with many of his victims after he murdered them.
"We believe that postmortem sex was one of his motives," Deputy Prosecutor Barbara Corey-Boulet told the judge.
But defense attorney High said such remarks would cause undue prejudice to Yates. The judge said the prosecution could introduce the necrophilia theory through testimony of its witnesses.
In his opening remarks, deputy prosecutor Jerry Costello said evidence suggested Yates had sex with the victims for several days after they died.
"The evidence in this case will show you that appearances can be deceiving," Costello said in his first remark to the jury. "We will unmask Robert Yates Jr. and show you the dark side of this man."
Victims Sherry Palmer, Shannon Zielinski, Heather Hernandez, Jennifer Joseph
Costello said it was necessary to march the jury through a
series of grim murders Yates admitted committing in Spokane between May 1996 and
"His dreadful, secret hobby was to locate women, murder them with a handgun and discard their bodies," Costello said. "He exported his violence from Spokane, killing two women here."
Investigators still don't know for certain why, how or where Yates killed his victims, Costello said. But Yates is tied to the killings in Spokane and Tacoma by biological evidence, either his or the victim's DNA traces that were recovered by detectives.
Yates used one Raven .25-caliber handgun to kill seven women in Spokane. Then he bought a second Raven .25-caliber handgun from a Spokane gun store. Experts tied that second gun to one of the Spokane murders and one attempted murder.
Those same two guns were used on the Tacoma victims, Costello said.
"By his own admission, he premeditated the Spokane murders," the prosecutor said.
The prosecutor said he will show that Yates deserves to be sentenced to death because he killed a string of women as part of a "common scheme or plan."
Victims Darla Scott, Melinda Mercer, Shawn Johnson, Laurel Wason
Other "aggravating factors" that warrant the death penalty, he
said, are that the murders were committed to conceal other crimes -- his victims
were prostitutes, and he took money from them.
In outlining the common scheme needed to justify the death penalty, the prosecutor said every victim was a light-skinned woman. All were shot in the head. All but one was killed with a .25-caliber handgun.
Every victim had a prostitution history, and nearly every victim abused drugs. The killer used his vehicles to capture, conceal and transport the victims, dumping their bodies in generally rural locations, hoping the elements would destroy the evidence before discovery.
Yates also took items of the victims' clothing, usually undergarments, and tied most of their bullet-riddled heads with plastic bags, Costello said, calling that the killer's "unique signature."
Costello told jurors that Yates is tied to both Mercer's and Ellis' killings by blood, hair and sperm DNA, and that military records show Yates was in Tacoma at the time of the murders. Mercer was found in Tacoma on Dec. 7, 1997, and Ellis' body was found Oct. 13, 1998.
Then, one by one, the prosecutor briefly walked the jury through
the Spokane murders Yates confessed to committing as part of his Spokane plea
Costello pointed to photographs of the Spokane victims and detailed how their lives violently ended -- Shannon Zielinski, Jennifer Joseph, Heather Hernandez, Darla Scott, Shawn Johnson, Laurie Wason, Sunny Oster, Linda Maybin, Melody Murfin and Michelyn Derning.
The Pierce County prosecutor did not mention the murder of Shawn McClenahan, whose body was found Dec. 26, 1997, alongside that of Wason's.
But he alluded to her murder when he said Yates killed five victims in five weeks after buying his 1979 Ford van and equipped it with a "death bed" where he had sex with prostitutes.
In striking the plea bargain with Yates, Tucker held back the McClenahan killing because it is one with the strongest evidence against the killer. Since there is no statute of limitations on murder, Tucker could refile the McClenahan charge if Yates' reneged on his Spokane plea.
Alluding to the Spokane plea bargain, Costello said Yates was allowed to confess to premeditated murders of 10 women "with minimal acceptance" of guilt. Yates never was forced to undergo a "free talk" with detectives, answering their questions about the crimes, which is a routine part of most plea bargain.
Costello said jurors will get an understanding of Yates by listening to the testimony of Christine Smith, a woman he attempted to kill in the back of his 1979 Ford van in Spokane.
Smith escaped, not realizing she'd been shot.
"She got inside his rolling execution chamber," Costello said of Smith. "She will come in here and face this man who tried to kill her."
It wasn't until after Yates was arrested and Smith read media accounts that she realized that she, indeed, had met Yates, Costello told jury.
When detectives searched Yates' home two years later, they found Smith's Mickey Mouse jacket. "A souvenir? Perhaps," Costello told the jury.
Investigators also believe Yates robbed the victims he killed. The prosecution, Costello said, intends to present testimony from a Spokane woman who saw Jennifer Joseph with "hundreds of dollars" the night she disappeared and was killed by Yates.
"Every single victim was in prostitution and had money, but not a single dollar was found with any of the victims," Costello told the jury.
"That was part of his scheme: To rob them."