Families lash out, killer apologizes

SPOKANE - The killer said he was sorry and that he had turned to God.

Robert Lee Yates Jr., turning to his audience at his sentencing hearing, looked out at the families of the people he shot dead, and he looked at his wife of 26 years, his father, and two of his five children. He said he was sorry to the families and friends of his victims. He said he was sorry to his "lovely wife" and to his children whom he dearly loves.

"Nothing I can say will erase the sorrow, the pain and the anguish that you feel and that I've caused in your lives," Yates said, his voice breaking. "I've caused much sorrow, much pain. You can't know how much pain I know I've caused for you and my family."

Last week, he pleaded guilty to killing 13 people, more than any other person has admitted killing in this state. He also said he tried to kill another woman. The Spokane County prosecutor is holding onto a 14th murder case: If Yates appeals the plea bargain, he could face the death penalty in that murder.

At the sentencing hearing yesterday, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder sentenced Yates to 408 years and four months in prison and fined him $620,000, the maximum sentence possible.

On Tuesday, Yates is scheduled to be arraigned in Pierce County on two other charges of aggravated first-degree murder.

If the prosecutor seeks the death penalty and Yates is found guilty, he could be put to death.

At yesterday's sentencing in Spokane, 17 family members of 11 victims walked up and talked about their loved ones. They were supposed to talk to the judge, about what these murders have done to their lives and about the sentence they wanted for Yates.

But most couldn't help looking at Yates, and he looked right back.

Yates, 48, is a former Army helicopter pilot who was so good at his job that he taught other pilots how to teach flying. He served in Germany, in Somalia, in Haiti. He lived and trained all over the world, and 47 other jurisdictions are investigating whether he might have killed there, too.

But yesterday, he was a convicted serial killer in Spokane.

Victims' relatives called him a sick monster, a callous monster, the personification of evil. Some wondered about how he would feel if his own daughters met the fate of their loved ones. Some said he should die now. One said he should rot in hell. Another hoped that prison would be hell on earth.

Two of the victims, a man and a woman, were shot in 1975 while having a picnic along a river in Walla Walla County. Another woman was shot in Skagit County in 1988, while Yates was on leave from the Army.

But his other victims were women whose bodies were left in remote places in Spokane County since 1996, the year Yates retired from the Army and moved to the Spokane's South Hill, a neighborhood of split-level homes and basketball hoops and barbecues. South Hill is five miles south of the hard-luck stretch where most of the women disappeared.

Relatives of Yates' victims' wanted their loved ones to be more than labels: Drug user. Prostitute. They were women who sometimes made bad choices, who sometimes slipped back into drugs, who sometimes took drugs to forget things that had happened in the past.

Jennifer Joseph was only 16. She played piano, she sang, she took pictures. Her father wore a button with her picture on it. Darla Sue Scott's aunt and mother wore shirts with her smiling picture on them. "Our Darla Sue," the shirts said. "Mommy," "Niece," "Honey."

Shawn Johnson was killed just after her son got married. Laurie Ann Wason loved Rottweilers and her son, and she wanted to kick drugs. Sunny Gale Oster cupped a garter snake in her hands as a child, and she dived into water without knowing how to swim, and she cared for her stepmother when she struggled with cancer. Oster was killed at 41, while waiting for drug treatment.

"Does anybody know what he does to dead girls, after they're dead?" asked OnDraya Smith, Oster's mother. "Does anybody know he has sex with them, after they're dead, like he did my Sunny?"

Her father, who brought Oster home from Spokane in a small box, thinks Yates should be turned over to the families of his victims. Her mother started out saying he should spend the rest of his life in a 3-foot-by-3-foot cell, surrounded by the pictures of his victims. But by the end of her testimony, she wanted the death penalty.

"Were you thinking maybe you were just cleaning up the trash bin, getting rid of all these girls that were in need?" Smith asked, staring at Yates, her daughter's ashes in a box in front of her, right next to her framed picture. "I thought you'd be a bigger guy. You're tiny. You're little . . .

"I'm surprised Sunny Gale couldn't whip him. She was tough."

Melody Murfin's two daughters looked at the man who buried their mother in his yard.

"How could you do that to us?" Wendi Engeldinger asked. "How could you take my mother and bury her in your yard, and your family could walk around my mother for 2 1/2 years?"

Yates didn't cry or look away as the families made their grief known to those in the packed courtroom. By the end of their testimony, the families were sobbing, holding each other, clutching tissues.

Then Yates' own family got up.

Sasha Yates, who at 25 is his oldest child, said she felt terrible, like she was in a dream, like she was still in shock.

"No one deserves to be killed like that," she said. "No one." She asked her father what caused this, and said she and her siblings were raised differently, and she cried and held a Bible as she spoke.

She talked about the victims' families. "What they went through - these families? How they feel about us? How much they probably hate us?"

She said she still loved him. And she said her 12-year-old brother, Yates' youngest child, was afraid of his father.

Then Robert Yates Sr. spoke. Instead of facing the judge, he looked at the families. "Indeed, I'm sorry you all have broken hearts." He turned back to the judge.

"I want to apologize to the community of Spokane County. I love my son. Thank you." His son wiped tears from his eyes.

Oster's sister hugged Yates' relatives as they walked back to their seats.

Shawn McClenahan's sister Kathy Lloyd hugged Robert Yates Sr.

Linda Yates, the wife of the killer, cried and wiped her eyes. Her daughter Sonja hugged her.

Then Yates himself spoke.

He looked down at a piece of paper, and he named his victims, one by one, and he said he was sorry to each person's family and friends. He cried. "In my struggle to overcome my guilt and shame, I have turned to God," he said.

Liar, one person said. They all do, said another.

People muttered and cried and stared hard at the killer, dressed in a dark navy suit, a clean white shirt and a tie, wearing glasses, his brown hair graying slightly at the temples.

And Kathy Lloyd, who has held a vigil for her sister since Yates was arrested, who goes to every news conference and every hearing because she wants to see everything that happens, stood up in court.

"Sir, why did you do it then? Mr. Yates? Mr. Yates?"

He turned around. He didn't answer her.


Yates statement

Statement made by serial killer Robert L. Yates Jr. in court before he was sentenced yesterday to 408 years in prison:

"Nothing I can say will erase the sorrow, the pain and the anguish that you feel, that I have caused in your life.

I have caused much sorrow, much pain. You can't know how much pain I know I caused for all of you and my family.

I have taken away the love and compassion and the tenderness of your loved ones, and I've submitted in that place grief and bitterness.

I pray that God will right the wrongs that I have committed and that justice will bring closure to all who as a result of my actions have become victims.

I pray and I apologize to the public, this community, this nation, to law enforcement, to my family, to my lovely wife, my children, who I dearly love, my friends and my family.

Most of all to the families and friends of Susan Savage, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Patrick Oliver, I am sorry.

To the family of Stacy Hawn, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Shannon Zielinski, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Heather Hernandez, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Jennifer Joseph, I am sorry.

To the family of Darla Scott, I am sorry.

To the friends and family of Sunny Oster, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Shawn Johnson, I am indeed very sorry.

To the friends and family of Shawn McClenahan I am sorry.

To the friends and family of Laurel Wason, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Linda Maybin, I am sorry.

To the family and friends of Michelyn Derning, I am sorry.

To the friends and family of Melody Murfin, I am sorry.

To the friends and family of Christine Smith, I am sorry.

In my struggle, my struggle to overcome my guilt and shame, I have turned to God. I hope that God will replace your grief with hope and your sorrow with peace."


Killings linked to Yates

Robert L. Yates Jr. has been sentenced to more than 400 years in prison for the slayings of 13 people in Washington state. The murder charge in the death of one woman, Shawn McClenahan, was dismissed but could be filed again. Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has said he's holding out on that charge in case Yates decides to appeal his guilty pleas in the other 13 deaths. If Yates did appeal, the charge on the remaining victim could carry the death penalty.

The last two victims listed here are those whose bodies were found in Pierce County, where Yates is expected to answer to murder charges next week.

The victims:

-- Susan Savage, 22, a recent graduate of Washington State University when shot and killed by Yates while on a picnic with friend Patrick Oliver in July 1975 along Mill Creek near Walla Walla.

-- Patrick Oliver, 21, an honor-roll pre-med student who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, slain with Savage outside Walla Walla. The only man Yates is known to have killed.

-- Stacy Hawn, disappeared from an area just north of Seattle in 1988. Body later found in Skagit County, east of Mount Vernon.

-- Jennifer Joseph, 16, a runaway from Spanaway, Pierce County. Her death was a linchpin in the serial-killer investigation. Body found northeast of Spokane Aug. 26, 1997.

-- Darla Sue Scott, 29. Body found Nov. 5, 1997, buried near Hangman Valley Golf Course South of Spokane.

-- Shawn Johnson, 36, last seen north of Spokane in October 1997. Body found Dec. 18, 1997, near a sewage-treatment station in Spokane, near where Scott's body was found.

-- Shawn McClenahan, 39. Body found Dec. 26, 1997, in a field in east Spokane. (Case still pending.)

-- Laurie Ann Wason, 31, a former adult-care home operator. Body found near McClenahan's remains on same day.

-- Sunny Oster, 41, mother of two sons, went to Spokane for drug treatment. Remains found Feb. 8, 1998, south of Spokane.

-- Linda Maybin, 34. Remains found April 1, 1998, in the same field where bodies of McClenahan and Wason were found.

-- Michelyn Derning, 47, of Southern California. Remains found July 7, 1998 in northeast Spokane.

-- Melody Murfin, 43, reported missing July 7, 1997. As part of the plea agreement, Yates dagreed to tell authorities where to find Murfin's body. He drew a map to show where he had buried her in the back yard of his Spokane home.

-- Shannon Zielinski, 38, lived in Tacoma before moving to Spokane in the early 1990s. Body found June 14, 1996, near Holcomb Road and Mount Spokane Drive.

-- Heather Hernandez, 20, moved to Spokane in July 1997 from the Southwest. Body found Aug. 26, 1997, in an overgrown and abandoned lot in Spokane.

Pierce County cases:

-- Melinda Mercer, 24. Body found in a field in South Tacoma on Dec. 7, 1997.

-- Connie LaFontaine Ellis, 35, Tacoma. Body found just south of Tacoma near Parkland on Oct. 13, 1998.