Islanders react to Yates' murder confession
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:00 PM
"Robert Yates murdered Debbie Fine's sister exactly three years ago Tuesday. On the evening of that sad anniversary, Fine and her mother Margaret Dettman got a phone call at their home in Oak Harbor from a detective in Spokane. He told them Yates had struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty and has admitted to killing their sister and daughter, Shawn Johnson, along with 12 other women.Fine said she felt a strange sense of joy at the news.It's absolutely wonderful that it's finally coming to an end, she said. It's nice to know he's finally owning up to what he did. But the confessions haven't brought any deeper understanding of the murders for either Johnson's family or the local people who remember Yates as a nice, quiet boy and the star pitcher on the school baseball team.People who graduated in 1970 with Yates, like local dentist Gary Berner and high school baseball coach Jim Waller, were baffled when they heard their classmate was a serial killer. I never would have suspected him, Waller said Tuesday. I don't know how his circuits got crossed somewhere. It's really a shame that something like this could happen.Burlington resident Al Gatti refused to accept that his best friend from high school had become a monster up until the day he confessed. Gatti has stayed in touch with Yates and his family over the years and received five letters from Yates since he's been in jail.Gatti is in shock. It leaves a big hole in you. Who can you really trust? he said. I guess you can never know people. You might think you do, but you never do.Gatti said the scariest thing for him is that he never saw any personality change in Yates. He always was in a good mood, had a smile on his face and a ready laugh.It was always good to see him, Gatti said. He hid it very, very well.Since he's been in jail, Gatti said Yates has gotten into the Bible and even sent him Bible pages with his letters. I wish I had kept them, he said. There might have been some kind of clue in them.While Yates' murder spree puts a definite strain on their friendship, Gatti said he still plans to go see him in jail and will continue to write to him. He said his friend deserves any punishment he gets, but he just can't see throwing a 36-year relationship away just like that. For the victim's families, the next step will be the sentencing hearing. Dettman said the confession gives her some peace and she believes justice will be served if Yates gets a life sentence without the possibility of parole.We don't want the death penalty, she said. If we say we want him to die, we are no better than him. Someday he will have to meet his maker and I wouldn't want to be him.Fine said she plans to speak at the sentencing hearing but has been struggling to distill her sister's life down to a short statement. Tuesday afternoon, she got an inspiration as she walked into her garage and watched as the wind blew a notebook open to a page she'd never seen before.It was her sister's writing: All I ever wanted was a family, a home, children and someone who really cares about all of the above and me, of course. "