Friday, October 20, 2000

Spokane

Yates admits to 13 murders in plea deal

Kevin Blocker - Staff writer

Spokane _ Six months of suspense ended in less than 30 minutes.

But the debate over serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr.'s punishment will last much longer.

Yates pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder in Superior Court Thursday afternoon.

The plea, agreed to by Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, all but concludes what may be the most highly publicized case in the city's history. Yates now joins the ranks of the country's most notorious killers.

Yates will be sentenced Oct. 26 at 1 p.m. to 4461/2 years in prison. But critics -- including state Attorney General Christine Gregoire -- said the death penalty would have been a more fitting punishment. Tucker himself hopes the Legislature will make serial killing a death-penalty crime.

In Yates' six previous court appearances, his facial expressions revealed little emotion. But the seventh was different.

As Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder read the list of charges and victims' names, Yates fought to hold back tears. His face reddened and his jaw trembled. Defense attorney Scott Mason handed him a box of tissues. Yates removed his glasses and wiped his eyes.

Shari Flores, the sister of victim Laurie Wasson, wiped her eyes at the same moment. But she was hardly crying for him.

"I have no sympathy for that man," Flores said after the court proceeding. "He had none for my sister."

Yates' eighth court appearance -- his sentencing next Thursday -- stands to be even more emotional. Victims' families are scheduled to address him, and he is expected to apologize to his family and victims' families.

Yates, a 48-year-old father of five, led an apparently normal life until he was arrested April 18 for a string of Spokane County killings from 1996 to 1998.

All but two of his victims were women who had ties to drugs, prostitution or both.

Nine victims were shot to death with a similar handgun and moved by car to remote sites and dumped. Most were found with plastic bags over their heads -- considered by investigators as Yates' signature.

found with plastic bags over their heads -- considered by investigators as Yates' signature.

The body of one victim, Melody Murfin, was discovered by investigators Monday after Yates directed them to his former home.

Tucker accepted defense attorney Richard Fasy's request to not seek the death penalty in exchange for Yates' confession to 10 Spokane County murders, the recovery of Murfin's body and an admission to three unsolved murders.

Two of those murders occurred in Walla Walla in 1975, when Yates shot a picnicking couple. In the other, he picked up a Seattle prostitute, shot her and abandoned her body in rural Skagit County.

Yates was initially charged with eight counts of aggravated first-degree murder in Spokane County, which would have allowed Tucker to pursue the death penalty. Tucker agreed to the plea deal after judicial experts he consulted told him the aggravating factors he cited -- robbery and common scheme or plan _ weren't strong enough to get a death sentence.

Gregoire, who was in Spokane for other business but not in court Thursday, said her office "doesn't plea bargain death-penalty cases."

"We believe a serial killing is a common scheme or plan that would allow us to charge aggravated first-degree murder, subject to the death penalty," Gregoire said.

But Gregoire, a Democrat seeking re-election, said she wasn't second-guessing Tucker, a Republican serving his first term as Spokane County prosecutor.

Gregoire said investigators from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia recently met in Western Washington to discuss the Yates case.

They are puzzled about the interlude of Yates' admitted murders from 1975 to 1988 and from 1988 to 1996, Gregoire said.

"We're not convinced we have all the victims," the attorney general said.

As part of the plea agreement, Yates passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in other killings. Tucker also has defended the plea bargain because it provided some measure of relief for Murfin's family.

Tucker said he believes the death-penalty law needs to be amended to specifically include serial killings. He said he will urge passage of such legislation immediately.

"If the prosecutors are in doubt, then we ought to do that," Gregoire said.

Even Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk, a Republican, said there are still "certain parts" of him that wished Tucker had pursued the death penalty.

"If there's anybody that deserves the death penalty, it's Mr. Yates," Sterk said. "I saw the pictures of the Walla Walla victims for the first time this morning.... they were so young."

Sheriff's Sgt. Cal Walker admitted the plea bargain is a "mixed bag" for the department.

"We all have our personal opinions," Walker said.

Walker noted that Tucker's decision to cut a deal with Yates was not influenced by law enforcement.

"One thing we are proud of is we handed prosecutors a case that took the defendable issues away so he (Yates) had to plead guilty to these crimes," he said.

Sterk said some members of the Sheriff's Department and the Homicide Task Force may participate in future counseling sessions to help deal with the emotional strain the case took on some in its ranks.

Fasy said he was pleased Yates avoided the death penalty in Spokane County, though he's concerned about his client's safety if he were to be incarcerated in the state prison in Walla Walla. Yates has received threatening letters from inmates who knew his victims.

Fasy is also concerned that Pierce County might pursue death for two murders Yates is charged with there.

Pierce County authorities told Tucker Thursday morning they would not arraign Yates on Monday as they first planned.

Instead, Yates will be arraigned at Tacoma on Halloween at 12:30 p.m. before Pierce County Superior Court Judge John McCarthy.

Fasy said Pierce County authorities should follow Tucker's lead and help bring "closure" to that community.

But not everyone in Spokane shares that feeling. Kathy Lloyd, the sister of victim Shawn McClenahan, is one of those people. Tucker dismissed the murder charge against Yates for McClenahan's death, but will hold the charge in abeyance in case Yates decides to appeal or back out of the agreement.

Tucker picked the McClenahan case because it is the strongest, with fingerprint, DNA and ballistics evidence linking Yates to the crime.

"When I met with Tucker eight weeks ago, he proposed the plea bargain," Lloyd said. "I was very mad then, and I told him what I thought and he said he'd take it into consideration."

Lloyd said it hurt her not to hear her sister's name read with the other victims.

In the East Sprague neighborhood where Yates picked up many of his victims, emotions were mixed.

"I'm so glad it's over," said Elsie Clayton, owner of the Checkerboard Tavern. `I'm heart sick, really heart sick."

At the end of the bar, Ron Bemis said avoiding a death penalty trial for Yates will save the county millions. He said he feels safer without a serial killer prowling the street.

But he's still angry.

"There are people that got the chair for one killing," said Bemis, who lives a few blocks from the Checkerboard. "He buried one in his back yard, for God's sake. He deserves that lethal injection."

The court proceedings drew a crowd of family members, reporters and onlookers. The courtroom was packed with about 70 people, and an extra viewing room was set up for people to watch the proceedings via a television feed.

After the hearing, Yates' family members left court quickly, receiving an armed escort from sheriff's deputies past a media gathering that clogged the fourth floor.

Officials closed down all other court activity Thursday afternoon to free up deputies for security, said court administrator Dave Hardy.

Earlier in the day, Robert Yates Sr. said he visited his son in jail.

"It was just crushing for me," he said. "I just told him that I loved him and cared for him."

Robert Yates Sr. said his son replied: "Don't worry about me. Just take care of the family."

•Staff writers Bill Morlin, Virginia de Leon, Jonathan Martin, Wendy Harris and Mike Roarke contributed to this report.