On August 26, 1997, the decomposed bodies of two young women were discovered in Spokane, Washington. Within months, four more women were added to the mounting death toll. Authorities knew they were looking for a psychopath—but even they were shocked when they discovered who he was . . .
By day, Robert Lee Yates Jr., was a respected father of five, a skilled helicopter pilot who served in Desert Storm and the National Guard, and the recipient of nearly a dozen military service awards. No one suspected him of a deadly secret life. By night he prowled Spokane’s “Skid Row” for prostitutes, and gained their trust before betraying them with a bullet to the head.
From American hero to American psycho, award-winning journalist Burl Barer delves into the dark heart of one of the country’s most devious serial killers.
“Brilliant investigative journalism . . . A nonstop chilling thrill ride into the mind of an evil and savage killer.” —Dan Zupansky, author of Trophy Kill
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About the Author
Barer, regarded as one of America's finest investigative journalists, is a frequent commentator on numerous television programs seen worldwide, including Deadly Sins, Deadly Women, Motives and Murders, Snapped, Scorned, Behind Mansion Walls, Epic Mysteries, and Hart Fisher's American Horrors channel via Filmon.TV.
Burl Barer hosts the award-winning Internet radio show, True Crime Uncensored with cohost, show business legend Howard Lapides, on Outlawradiousa.com every Saturday at 2 pm PST.
In addition to nonfiction/true crime bestsellers, Barer is a regular contributor to Serial Killer Quarterly, the prestigious magazine edited by Lee Mellor. Barer also writes new adventures of Leslie Charteris' The Saint, and the Jeff Reynolds series of private eye novels.
Read an Excerpt
In his hometown of Oak Harbor, Washington, they don't call him Robert Lee Yates Jr. They call him "Bobby," differentiating him from his respected father, Robert Yates Sr.
In 1945, Bobby Yates's grandmother, wielding a double-edged ax, violently ended her husband's life. "I was there," recalled Yates Sr. "I heard the murder in the night." He found his father near death and his mother seated in a straight-backed chair in another room. "She had given birth to eleven children, been under the stress of having a husband working away from home, and she simply broke. She spent seven years in a state mental hospital," confirmed Yates Sr.
When speaking of Robert Yates Jr., family friend George Cantrell said, "This is a kid who was never in trouble. He was always practicing his upbringing — and it was a good one." Yates's upbringing was idyllic, healthy, moral, and exemplary.
Oak Harbor, situated on Whidbey Island, offers stunning views of the majestic Olympic Mountains and the cerulean blue Pacific Ocean. Backpacking, hunting, dirt-bike riding, fishing, and other wholesome activities are the rule, not the exception, for life on Whidbey.
Robert Lee Yates Sr. was an elder in Oak Harbor's Seventh-day Adventist Church — a tiny congregation of less than one hundred people sharing common bonds of beliefs and values. Health, family, and the sacredness of Sabbath are well-known pillars of American Adventist culture. The elder and younger Yates were always close.
The boy and his loving father shared everything together. The only childhood secret kept by the younger Yates was sexual molestation by a neighbor boy five years his senior when he was only six years old. Father and son, however, shared all of life's joys. "They did a lot of activities together," said family friend Dorothy Cantrell. "Sports was their big thing."
His father coached Little League, and it was there that Robert Lee Yates Jr. learned the pitching skills later utilized while playing for the Oak Harbor Wildcats. "He could throw a fastball with precision," recalled former teammate Harry Ferrier. "Yates had a seven-one record his junior year in high school." According to former classmates, Yates was neither too outgoing nor exceptionally shy, neither a hedonistic animal nor a hermetic ascetic. He wasn't a wild ladies' man, but he dated with pleasant consistency. "He was kind of quiet," said Harry Ferrier, who now lives in Anacortes. "He was kind of like Joe Average."
For money, Yates mowed lawns, worked at gas stations, and harvested peas with Gary Berner in the summer, making $1.80 an hour. "The worst thing I know about Bob is he wouldn't play football his senior year," says Berner.
His "steady" moved away from Oak Harbor during their senior year. With no date for the homecoming dance, Robert Lee Yates Jr. spent the evening playing canasta with his buddy Al Gatti at the Yates family home on East 300th Street.
"He was very much loved," said Gatti of his old pal Bobby Yates. "There was a lot of respect in that family. They were the type of people that you'd want as your neighbor. Mr. Yates — he'd give you the shirt off his back."
Yates and Gatti, two youths contemplating their futures, considered careers as biologists or game wardens. Gatti joined the army; Yates went to Skagit Valley College from 1970 through the spring of 1972, earning an associate art degree in general studies.
Respectful and courteous, Bobby Yates didn't yield to pop-culture trends or in-crowd behavior. When other youths grew their hair long, Yates kept his closely clipped.
"He didn't smoke and he didn't drink. Nothing or anything like that," said Yates's closest friend, Al Gatti. "We didn't give into peer pressure; that wasn't our thing. Our thing was hunting and fishing and hiking."
One popular hiking excursion for Yates and Gatti was a sixteen-hour round- trip backpacking outing in Washington's Cascade Mountains. The purpose: fishing an isolated lake famed for its twenty-inch trout. Yates remained an avid outdoorsman, boasting to Gatti that his third daughter and he stalked deer together — a cause for celebration because none of his other daughters were attracted to the sport. According to Gatti, Yates told him, "We had a terrific time."
Yates was the twice-married father of five. At the age of twenty, he married Shirley Nylander. The newlyweds moved to College Place, where they enrolled in Walla Walla College, a Seventh-day Adventist school.
"I didn't get to know him that much," said Mary Nylander, Shirley's mother. About eighteen months after the marriage, Shirley moved out, went home, and asked for a divorce. Yates didn't give her an argument; he gave himself to Linda Brewer, a pleasant young student at Walla Walla Community College.
"Yates's 1974 marriage to Linda was illegal, and therefore annulled," commented Sheriff Humphries, "because his divorce from his first wife was not final." Six months after the invalid ceremony, Linda Brewer Yates, former high school classmate of Susan Savage's sister, Nancy, gave birth to their first child.
Robert Lee Yates Jr. always had a passion for flight. Leaving Walla Walla, he enlisted in the armed forces, becoming an accomplished pilot. His wife, however, was more concerned about her husband's other passions. Shortly after their marriage, Linda left him for thirty days when she learned that he had drilled a hole in the attic wall so he could watch the couple in the next apartment have sex.
"I left him again in the mid-1980s," said Linda Yates, "and moved back to Walla Walla with the children while he was on duty in Alabama. I loved the separation," she admitted, "but the girls were pleading to be with their dad. They didn't want to be poor and not have anything anymore."
While in the armed forces, Robert Lee Yates Jr. became a highly trained helicopter pilot. In his eighteen years of exemplary service, Yates received three meritorious service medals, three army commendation medals, three army achievement medals, and two armed forces expeditionary medals. He served in Germany and in Operation Desert Storm. Following the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, Yates participated in vital relief efforts, and he flew in a UN peacekeeping mission to Somalia. His fellow aviators praised his bravery and recalled him as "an excellent pilot, knowledgeable and very safety conscious."
In Somalia, Yates violated regulations by shooting a wild pig while flying a helicopter. Yates and his airborne buddies, after more than a month of army food, wanted a barbecue. "They tried to court-martial him because he didn't go through the proper channels," said a former military associate. "It all turned into a big joke after a while. It didn't hurt a damn thing. They were just trying to get some fresh meat."
In 1995, Yates was transferred from New York to Fort Rucker, Alabama — the "Home of U.S. Army Aviation." It was at Fort Rucker that Yates instructed helicopter pilots in the fine art of teaching other soldiers to fly OH- 58 helicopters. He drilled seven hours a day and was one of only ten instructor pilots at that level. "We were in a pinch for instructors, and Bob filled the position nicely," said Rick Ponder, his boss.
"My husband's military colleagues always seemed surprised that he had a wife," recalled Linda Yates. "When we would go to parties together, he would drink heavily, moon other women, and tell them his name was James Bond, 007." Perhaps Robert Yates Jr. came to believe that he also had a license to kill.
With less than eighteen months left to finish a twenty-year career in the army, Chief Warrant Officer Robert Lee Yates Jr. abruptly requested voluntary separation from the army. This was undertaken with the same inexplicable suddenness as his resignation from Washington State Penitentiary.
Four months later, he received an incentive bonus for leaving early, and he moved from Fort Rucker to Spokane. "It was the tail end of another reduction in army forces," commented a former associate, "and I was under the impression that he accepted a special incentive that allowed him to keep getting about forty-five percent of his normal pay, probably about twenty thousand a year. Maybe he just got tired of the army. The helicopter he knew best was also becoming obsolete and being replaced by the Kiowa Warrior."
Maybe there was another, more imperative reason Yates retired from the armed services. On August 9, 1995, while Yates was stationed at Fort Rucker, prostitute Tarayon Corbitt was found murdered. Corbitt, a male fetchingly outfitted in female attire, was shot twice in the face with a . 45-caliber handgun. Corbitt's corpse was dumped along the roadside between Ozark, the county seat, and Midland City, bordering Fort Rucker. It was only a matter of time before Dale County detectives turned their investigative gaze toward the Home of U.S. Army Aviation.
"Mr. Yates was very familiar with the area," said Dale County detectives. "He traveled to Fort Rucker several times during his career for flight school, warrant officer school, and advanced training."
Yates graduated from an instructor pilot course on August 18, 1995, just nine days after Corbitt was murdered. Nine days after that, Yates was awarded the Master Army Aviator Badge, a symbol of Yates's fifteen years of service as an army chopper pilot.
"It's just a theory at this point," explained investigators from Dale County, "but the theory is that as our search for Corbitt's killer closed in on Fort Rucker, Mr. Yates possibly panicked, resigned his commission, left Fort Rucker and his army career to avoid investigation."
"We have not determined if Yates owned a .45-caliber weapon," confirmed Sergeant Cal Walker of Spokane's homicide task force. "His first two victims, Patrick Oliver and Susan Savage, were killed with a .357-caliber handgun; the majority of his victims in the late 1990s were killed with small-caliber handguns."
Yates, who received a 407-year sentence for his confessed commission of twelve murders in Spokane, faced trial in Pierce County, Washington, in April 2002 for the murder of two Tacoma women. Melinda L. Mercer and Connie LaFontaine Ellis were both killed in the Tacoma area, their bodies dumped in remote locations. In both cases, they were killed during periods when Yates, coincidentally, was serving with the Washington Army National Guard at Camp Murray and Fort Lewis, near Tacoma.
"Even if Mr. Yates is convicted in Tacoma," said, Jerry Costello, Pierce County's chief criminal prosecutor, "interstate compacts are in place to allow him to be transferred to Alabama to face a jury if charges are ever filed against him there."
In 1996, leaving the armed forces behind, and possibly avoiding any connection with the deceased Corbitt, Yates moved his family to Spokane, Washington. With a population of 195,629 in the Spokane city limits, and another 417,939 in greater Spokane County, Spokane is located on the eastern side of Washington State, only eighteen miles west of the Idaho state line, and 110 miles south of the Canadian border. The Spokane area serves as the hub of the Inland Northwest, a thirty-six-county region encompassing eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, northeastern Oregon, and parts of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. It is also only 140 miles from Robert Lee Yates's in-laws in Walla Walla.
"I had hoped that coming back home to Washington would help the marriage," Linda Yates said, "but it really didn't. The romance was gone, but I felt guilty about splitting up the family. The kids loved their dad, and I just kind of suffered through it. I didn't love him like a wife should. He killed that."
Unable to secure a pilot position, he worked for Tony Givens, owner of Pantrol Inc. "Pantrol puts together electronic instruments for heavy machinery," explained Givens. "Yates worked for me assembling components until 1997. He was a good worker who mostly kept to himself. Nothing really stuck out about him," Givens said. "He was just an average Joe — pretty quiet. I didn't talk to him much. But he seemed friendly enough."
When orders dried up at Pantrol, Yates crossed the picket line at Kaiser Aluminum's Processing Plant in Mead, Washington, where his coworkers considered him "a very family guy" who took the leader, or "father figure," role in the group. "He got along with all of us," said Tim Buchanan, the man with whom Yates took his coffee breaks. Dan Russell, president of the striking Local 329, said, "Yates initially worked as a carbon setter, and that's intensive work that requires respirator-equipped laborers to toil around pots of molten ore that reach up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometime later," Russell said, "Yates's job changed to overhead crane operator in the pot room."
According to Susan Ashe, spokeswoman for Kaiser, "By all accounts, he was a good worker. He had a very good work record."
Robert Lee Yates Jr. joined the National Guard in April 1997. "He came to us very, very qualified. In the three years he was assigned to us, he was a good performer. He did an excellent job," said Lieutenant Colonel Rick Patterson, a National Guard spokesman. But pending medical evaluations, Robert Lee Yates Jr. was not allowed to fly. The dates of his grounding were from spring 1997 to spring 1998. The body count began.
During that one-year period, Robert Lee Yates Jr. killed Spokane women whose lost lives, one at a time, would not elicit outrage. "He learned as he went along," commented Sergeant Walker. "He learned that killing women with high-risk lifestyles did not garner the same community outrage as killing someone such as Susan Savage."
Yates's next self-acknowledged kill was the 1988 murder of Stacy Hawn, twenty-five, last seen alive in Seattle on July 7, 1988. Her skeletal remains were found five months later in Skagit County, Washington.
"Oh, he learned all right," said Cathy A., a former Spokane prostitute now living a respectable life in Renton, Washington. "He learned plenty just sitting with us in the Coach House coffee shop. All us hookers would sit around talking about who and what we did, and he would just be real quiet, pleasant, passive, and if one of us needed a ride somewhere, he would give us a lift. We didn't know him as Robert Lee Yates Jr., of course. Sometimes he was Dan; sometimes he was Bob. You never notice names; they change all the time."
"They said it was somebody we all knew and dated," said Leda, another Sprague Avenue prostitute. "Sure enough, it was." Yates was known as a reliable, safe regular.
"He paid me twenty dollars for an easy no-touch date," said Jennifer T. "I don't remember much about him other than he had big hands and a thick neck."
"Every time I dated him, which I did about nine or ten times," said Julie, "he had me get some crack cocaine for him and heroin for myself. He liked smoking it so much, I called him 'my little crack patient.' I shot him up with crank one time, too. I thought he was harmless." Today, looking over the list of murdered women, many whom she knew, she wishes she had killed him.
Yates first picked her up near Trudeau's Marina on East Sprague. "We went to Al's Spa Tub Motel, and twice we went to my apartment," she recalled. "He didn't seem to give a shit who saw him. Most married men are nervous.
"He only scared me once," she admitted, "and that's when I asked for more money. He looked angry as hell, and I mean real angry, but he drove to the cash machine and got the rest of the money.
"Our dates ended when I quit heroin for a while. Because I didn't need to support the habit, I stopped working as a prostitute," she said. "Bob was emotionless most of the time. Underneath that mild-mannered mask, there was nobody home. You looked in his eyes and they were dead.
"I hate to admit it," said Julie, "but I actually felt sorry for him when I saw on television that he had been arrested. If you'd have given me one hundred guys and said which is the least likely to do this, I thought he was a minus one. I wonder why he didn't kill me, too. Maybe it was because I didn't steal from him; maybe it was because I gave good head. I don't know. The fact that I'm alive is a God thing to me."
Julie wasn't the only woman stunned by the revelation of the serial killer's identity. "When I saw his face on TV after he was arrested, I about fell off my bar stool," said Aloha Ingram. "I thought, it couldn't be Bob. He was generous, soft-spoken, and I had halfway fallen in love with him. He wasn't kinky. He wasn't abusive. He wasn't real aggressive. He was just normal. Very passionate and very concerned about my satisfaction. He'd kiss me from head to toe. He was real intimate that way," she said. "He always had his arm around me. It was like a relationship, not a paying customer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Body Count"
Copyright © 2002 Burl Barer.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
BODY COUNT tells the true story of the Spokane Serial kiiler, from his first murders over 25 years ago, up to the 13 homicides recently in Spokane, Washington. The book covers the investigation, the lives of the victims, and the killer and his family. The photo section is excellent, too. Most impressive is the compassion and care Barer uses when telling of the victims and their lives. This is one of the best true crime books I have ever read.
I did not enjoy this crime thriller. I do like true crime, but like some other true crime books I have read or attempted to read this one had too many details that did not lend themselves to the story. It was as if the author wanted a 330 page book rather than the 250 page book that may have been a better read. The story is there, the thrills are there, you just have to look real hard through the wordy descriptions.
I did not enjoy the writer's approach to documenting this serial killer's string of murders. The writing was very matter of fact, quoting a lot from the police transcripts, rather than trying to get us in the mind of the killer.
I love how this book was written..so many lives lost .. sad their are monsters out there !! I felt close to these victims by the way the author wrote, you feel you kno them all. He mentioned everyone .... Bn
Body Count was a very interesting read. As an avid true crime fan, I don't remember hearing about the Yates case until now. Burl Barer perfectly balanced Yates' background with the investigation and victims' stories. Ann Rule is still my favorite true crime author, but Burl Barer is a close second. The reason why I gave the book 4 stars instead of 5 was because of several typographical errors throughout the book and the name of one victim not being consistent throughout the book. As a proofreader, these errors stood out and bothered me. If readers ignore these things, you will enjoy reading this book.
There is always a lag time between when a bok is written and when it appears on the bookshelves -- time for me to get a sense of perspective on my own work. The last minute rush to get this one out on time resulted in a few minor typos, but overall I'm very pleased with the final version of BODY COUNT. My goal was to engender feelings of compassion for the victims and their families, and overcome the appathy that usually accompanies the murder of "prostitutes." According to the press reviews, I achieved my goal. I also wanted to portray the frustrations of detective work, and the difficulty of investigating a serial sex killer. The book is readable, true, and authentic.
Burl Barer has done it again with a terrifying yet compelling true crime story of a serial killer. It couldn't be more timely with the recent spate of kidnapping and abductions. The pictures are graphic and are every parent or loved one's worst nightmare. This is true crime writing at its finest. Mr. Barer knows how to write true crime better than most and is adept at telling the story without it becoming salacious. A remarkable book.
Not a bad read at all... It took a while but I finally got sucked in.
Body Count by Burl Barer A book review by Ginger Dawn Harman "Murders have three essential elements," explained Detective Skeeters. "They are as follows: motive, means, and opportunity. The `means' in this crime was a handgun, the `opportunity' was the seclusion of a couple's picnic site, but the motive was something that couldn't be ascertained." Burl Barer applies in- depth research of the murderous crimes of serial killer Robert Yates in Spokane and Tacoma, WA from 1975 - 1998. This personal True Crime novel was one that the author undertook with dignity, understanding, and sympathy. Not only did the author live in the area but knew some of the victims and their families. Burl Barer has put together a highly readable, extremely accurate, and well investigated book that digs into Robert Yates childhood background and crimes. Before reading this book I was under the impression that for the most part the inexcusable prejudices of the work of a prostitute were given little thought or consideration by police. After all, some say they asked for it. I felt the author was clear when he stated that, "when a prostitute is murdered, there is not a united public outrage. It's sad, but for some reason these victims, who were wives, mothers, and someone's child." This humanistic outlook allows healing to the families and more importantly understanding without prejudice by the reader. These women were thrown on the side of the road like trash while ex-military security forces Robert Yates continues to attend church while celebrating fatherhood with his own two children. The frustration and determination can be felt by the reader as each new body is found. One might find many similarities of Yates psychosis to that of Ted Bundy. As Yates becomes more and more desperate to kill and in order to quench his own sexual thirst he buries Melody Murfin in his backyard by his bedroom window. Yet, the descriptions and use of Locard's Principal of Exchange helps homicide detectives and FBI to close in. From the very start of this book to the end I was hooked. I have read a lot of true crime books in my life and very few have required me to focus on the victims and the family members. It is easy to write a book that gives the hard facts, data, dates, and details. Yet, Burl Barer digs deeper into the life of not only the killer but each victim. I have been a fan of Burl Barer for many years. His style is engaging, addicting, and purposeful. He is an expert in his field and does not hold back. Toward the end of this book one can read the statement to the victims by Robert Yates along with statements from the family members of the victims. I was most touched by the letter that Robert Yates daughter wrote. Furthermore the reader is able to view crime scene photos along with the evidence that was collected. Some may find this disturbing but Burl Bares tackles the issue with grace. I highly recommend Body Count by Burl Barer. Additionally, I hope you too will become a fan of an amazing, talented, and entertaining author: Burl Barer!