Along East Sprague, where the clamor of freight trains punctuates the night and the Rainbow Tavern advertises "cold beer and hot women," a giant billboard remains standing. In large black letters it demands HELP US FIND OUR KILLER! above photographs--some smiling, some sullen--of Sherry, Shannon and Shawn, of Melody, Melinda and Michelyn, of Sunny, Heather, Laurie and Linda. The first three bodies turned up in 1990 along forested roadsides outside Spokane. Another was found two years later, then another in 1995.
In the summer of 1997, the fatal shootings began to fall too thick and fast to be coincidental. On Aug. 26 two bodies were found in different parts of town: Heather Hernandez, 20, a drifter, and Jennifer Joseph, 16, a runaway, last seen in the passenger seat of a white Corvette speeding down East Sprague. By December, five more victims were discovered. All were shot in the head with handguns and found dumped by roadsides with plastic grocery bags over their heads. None had purses or wallets. As many as 18 murders in Washington State from 1990 to 1998 may be linked to one killer. The inquiry has also widened to include unsolved murders of 26 prostitutes near U.S. Army bases in Germany.
The killer, it seems, was never on Everson's bad-trick list. He left no decipherable signature: the bags tied around his victims' heads were more likely an effort to contain the blood than a symbol of suburban anonymity. Even FBI psycho profilers were stymied, offering only that the perpetrator was probably a white male age 20 to 40. When a suspect was finally arrested, hookers recalled him as a regular, paying cash several times a month for a $28.95 room at the Spokane Budget Saver Motel. "He was a good trick," says Everson. "He was never weird. The women were happy to see him coming. Now they're asking, 'Why didn't he kill me?'"
Someone did try to kill Christine Smith in August 1998. She remembers a man about 50, 5 ft. 10 in. tall, blue-eyed, picking her up on East Sprague at about 1 a.m. "You're not the psycho killer, are you?" she asked as she climbed in. As they drove to a secluded spot, he told her he was a helicopter pilot for the National Guard. He was not a murderer, he told her, because he had five kids and "wouldn't do that." He was calm and--unlike many of her customers--sober. He paid Smith $40 for oral sex. Then suddenly she felt a blow to her head. At first she did not know what hit her. As blood gushed from the wound, she almost lost consciousness. The man asked for her money, but Smith managed to scramble out of the vehicle. At the hospital, the wound, mistakenly deemed a knife cut, was sewn up with three stitches. It was not until early this year, when Smith was in a car accident that required a head X ray, that she discovered shrapnel: the 1998 attack had in fact been a shooting, and she had been too shaken at the time to realize it. Smith's police report of the incident would remain buried in a police filing cabinet until this year.
It was the slick, shiny, vintage Corvette that ultimately led investigators to the suspect. A prostitute told police she had seen the killer's youngest victim, Jennifer Joseph, in the car nine days before her body was found. Joseph, a striking Asian-American teenager from Tacoma, had dropped out of high school only three months earlier. The hair of a Caucasian male was found on a towel near her decomposed corpse. Working through 6,000 tips associated with more than a dozen victims, police eventually compiled a database of all Corvette owners in Washington and Idaho and another of all Corvettes stopped by police checks. They tracked a car that had recently been sold and matched its carpet fibers to those on Joseph's shoes. Seizing the vehicle, they found bloodstains similar in genetic makeup to that of Joseph's parents. And they found a mother-of-pearl button identical to one on Joseph's blouse. They then tracked the car's previous owner.
On April 18, sheriff's deputies arrested Robert Lee Yates Jr., 47, on his way to work. His Honda Civic carried a bumper sticker saying WHY MUST I BE SURROUNDED BY FRICKIN' IDIOTS? Forensic experts found his fingerprint on one of the plastic bags tied around a victim's head, and Yates' genetic profile, from blood drawn after his arrest, matched semen found on the corpses. Says Sheriff Mark Sterk: "There's no doubt in my mind we're going to convict this guy." But at Yates' arraignment, the mother of one of the victims looked in disbelief at the accused killer, a balding father of five in a navy blue suit and wire-rimmed spectacles. "He looks like a little mouse," she said.