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Yates grew up in Oak Harbor, Wash., a small town on picturesque Puget Sound, where his father was an inventory specialist at Whidbey Naval Air Station. His Seventh-Day Adventist family observed the Sabbath, avoided alcohol and pork and never used four-letter words. When their Oak Harbor church was destroyed in a fire, Yates Sr. and Jr. chipped in to reconstruct it. In high school Yates pitched for the baseball team, sang in the choir and picked vegetables in the summer. A "solid guy" and "Joe Average" is how classmates remember him.
After two years of premed at Walla Walla College, Yates married Linda Brewer, daughter of a prison guard, and at 25 enlisted in the Army. By the end of his 18-year career, Yates was a master aviator, instructing other pilots on how to teach flying. He was quiet, methodical and extraordinarily patient. Only one incident from his military record stands out: while on assignment in Somalia, Yates and his fellow soldiers spied a wild pig from their helicopter. Weary of Army rations, they shot it, swooped down and brought it back to cook in camp. The breach of discipline had no serious consequences.
Like many soldiers, Yates was a defender of the National Rifle Association, writing to a Watertown, N.Y., newspaper in 1994 and declaring, "If we seek answers to the crime problem, let's look to the criminal and focus on enforcement of existing laws, stiffer penalties, more prison space and deterrents to criminal activities." Home videotapes of his possessions, seized after his arrest, show five handguns, among them two of the type used to kill the victims.
Yates did not retire from the military and move back to Washington until 1996, but police believe they can link him to several of the murders through his frequent vacations before then. In June 1996, three months after the Yateses moved to South Hill, a tony section of Spokane, a prostitute turned up dead. That fall, Linda Yates would later tell investigators, her husband failed to return home one night and showed up the next morning with blood all over the back of his van. He claimed he had run over a dog and transported the animal and its owner to a veterinarian. She believed him. "Bells and lights would normally go off," says Sterk. "But this guy hid everything from his family. I'm convinced his wife and daughters didn't have a clue." But there were also signs of domestic trouble. He was charged with a misdemeanor when his daughter Amber, 19, filed a complaint that he had hit her. The case was still pending when he was arrested on more serious charges.
It was not until September 1999 when sheriff's deputies, working their way through Corvette owners, called in Yates. He had sold his Corvette in 1998, but before that he had been stopped twice in it for traffic violations, once near East Sprague, once near the burial site of a victim. Yates told investigators he had not patronized prostitutes in Spokane, but they noted in their report that he was "sweating profusely." He refused to provide DNA samples. Several weeks later, police pulled him over as he was driving a Honda Civic with a known prostitute in the passenger seat. He was not charged with a crime until, a few months later, a crime lab analyzed fibers from the Corvette he had owned.
On May 31 Yates was arraigned on charges of murdering eight women, all allegedly engaged in prostitution and drug use. He was also charged with robbing and attempting to kill Christine Smith. Hands folded before him, Yates looked more like a solemn insurance adjuster than a criminal. He pleaded not guilty on all counts. His lawyer, veteran public defender Richard Fasy, who is trying to persuade prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, describes Yates as "a relatively intelligent man who has some insights into his predicament."
Smith will be a star witness against Yates. Her 1998 police report, in which she describes her assailant in detail, will help the prosecution, as will the fact that she can attest to being robbed. Washington State law permits the death penalty only for aggravated murder--in other words, murder plus something else, and she will testify that he stole her money.