The 20-by-20-foot room where detectives
spent three years tracking serial killer Robert Yates Jr. is a tidy
Thousands of tips are catalogued in three-ring binders. A detailed account of Yates' many travels covers three walls. Gruesome pictures of his decomposed victims are stored in photo albums. Even though Yates pleaded guilty to killing 13 people and faces trial for the killings of two more in the Tacoma area on the other side of the state, the office in the Spokane County Public Safety Building is still in use. A handful of sheriff's officers are trying to get a complete picture of Yates' movements from January 1968 until his arrest in April 2000. They share data with outside law enforcement agencies investigating whether the 49-year-old married father of five is involved in unsolved murders in other areas. They are also helping Pierce County officials prepare for Yates' murder trial next year. "No one else has this information," said Sheriff's Sgt. Cal Walker, a leader of the task force that caught Yates. "We are becoming a clearinghouse for Yates' movements."
Fighting Killers, and Mark Fuhrman
The task force has also been conducting a public relations battle with celebrity crime author Mark Fuhrman, whose latest book faults the task force for not catching Yates two years sooner. Fuhrman, the Los Angeles police officer who found the bloody glove in the O.J. Simpson case, says the task force spent too much time building computer databases and chasing DNA samples, and too little time doing old-fashioned police work among the prostitutes who were Yates' victims. "Whether it was laziness, incompetence or just plain human error, the task force could have caught Yates back in September 1997," sparing the lives of perhaps nine of his victims, wrote Fuhrman, who lives nearby and has a Spokane talk radio show that focuses on crime. The Spokane County Sheriff's Office has been outraged by Fuhrman's comments. Walker said the overwhelming physical evidence against Yates, primarily DNA, was what prompted him to plead guilty. "The end result speaks for itself," he said.
Inside the War Room
As part of their rebuttal to Fuhrman, members of the task force recently let reporters into their office. The room once had 14 desks, but now there are four. A picture on one wall shows members of the task force dressed in Wild West garb, like a posse in pursuit of a desperado. On another wall are drawings of the interiors of Yates' vehicles, including the white Corvette that ultimately linked him to the killings. Besides binders for some 6,000 tips, there are files holding analyses of plant and soil samples taken from bodies and 560 videotapes from police and private surveillance cameras. "All had to be gone through," Walker said. He added that Yates never was the subject of a tip, nor he did not appear on any of the videotapes. Key to resolving the case was DNA evidence found in carpet fibers of the Corvette that linked Yates to the 1997 death of a 16-year-old runaway.
Yates Pleads Guilty to 13 Slays
Under a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, Yates pleaded guilty in October to 13 murders and one attempted murder. He also confessed to killing three other people and was sentenced to 408 years in prison. Ten of the victims were women in the Spokane area in eastern Washington, killed from 1996-98. In each case, the victims were involved with drugs or prostitution or both. All were shot in the head and most had their heads covered with plastic grocery bags. Their bodies were dumped in remote areas. Yates has never offered a motive, but sex appears to be the key reason. The only known survivor, Christine L. Smith, told officers Yates shot her only after he failed to become sexually aroused while she performed oral sex. Law enforcement officers, fearing the victims' families would be upset, have played down the sexual motives. The task force likely will go out of business at the end of the year. "There are other problems out there," Walker said. "We will put this stuff away and use this room for another function."