Yates’ death penalty upheld

One Oak Harbor woman has reason to be “ecstatic” that the state Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for convicted serial killer Robert Yates this week.

Ten years ago this October, Yates — a 1970 graduate of Oak Harbor High School — murdered Margaret Dettman’s daughter in Spokane. The body of Shawn Johnson, the mother of two, was discovered the day before Christmas.

“I don’t think he should be allowed to live when he took my daughter and all those other daughters,” she said. “I just wish he was out of this world and it was all over. It’s been 10 years.”

Yates, who was remembered as a quiet kid and a star pitcher in high school, killed at least 15 people before he was finally caught.

In Spokane County, Yates confessed to killing 13 people in a plea bargain that he thought would spare his life. He admitted to killing a young couple picnicking in a woods near Walla Walla in 1975. He picked up a Seattle woman in 1988 and dumped her body in Skagit County. Between 1996 and 1998, he murdered 10 other women — including Johnson — in and around Spokane. He buried one of the bodies in the yard of his family’s home.

Prosecutors in Pierce County, however, didn’t go along with the plea bargain and charged Yates with murdering two additional victims, Melinda Mercer and Connie LaFontaine. Yates was convicted in 2002 of aggravated first-degree murder and was sentenced to die.

Yates’ defense team appealed the death sentence. They argued that the ultimate penalty was inconsistently applied in the state, noting that Green River killer Gary Ridgway was spared the death penalty after pleading to killing 48 women. They claimed the disparity amounted to a “disproportionate, freakish, wanton and random” application of the death penalty.

The defense also argued that the Pierce County prosecutor was bound by the agreement signed in October 2000, which spared Yates from the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea in the 13 murders.

The justices, however, were unswayed and upheld the death penalty in a 8-to-1 ruling released Thursday.

Yates, 55, had lived in Spokane with his wife and five children since 1996, but he also had many ties to Whidbey Island. Many of Yates’ classmates, former teachers and coaches remembered him as a polite, but unremarkable boy.

The Yates family lived in a Barrington Drive home and were very loyal to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, his friends said. His father, Bob Yates, Sr., was in the civil service at the Navy base and his mother, Anna May Yates, worked at Whidbey General Hospital. She was sick while Yates was in high school and died of cancer in 1976. Yates also worked at the hospital, but the details of his employment were lost over time.

Ironically, Dettman and daughter Debra Fine — Shawn Johnson’s sister — had moved to Oak Harbor about a year before Yates murdered Johnson. Dettman said she actually worked with people who went to school with Yates.

“Nobody would have suspected anything,” he said. “He was a well-mannered young man, kind of kept to himself except to play baseball.”

In retrospect, Dettman said it was disappointing when Spokane prosecutors made a deal that spared Yates’ life, but she was relieved that Pierce County officials successfully sought the death penalty. Yet she predicts it will be a long time to come before Yates faces final justice.

“I just want him gone,” she said. “I don’t want to think about him anymore.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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