Yates' life now in hands of jury

Oak Harbor High School graduate Robert Yates may face the death penalty for killing two women in Pierce County.

A jury found Yates guilty this week of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, a crime that carries two possible sentences — life in prison without parole or death.

The jury will decide between the two in a penalty phase set to begin next Tuesday.

Yates, a 50-year-old father of five, confessed in Spokane two years ago to killing 13 people between 1975 to 1998. He was sentenced to serve 408 years in prison under a plea bargain that spared his life.

One of those victims was Shawn Johnson, the sister and daughter of two Oak Harbor residents. Debra Fine and her mother, Margaret Dettmann, went to closing arguments in the trial this week.

Fine said she was “very pleased” with the verdict. “We feel that justice is being served,” she said. “But we were always confident that the justice system would work.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Fine said she and her mother aren’t advocating for the death penalty, though they think it’s likely he will get it. She said it’s a “tough decision” for jurors and she feels sorry for them having that kind of responsibility.

It’s not that Fine feels Yates doesn’t deserve the ultimate punishment. “I’m not sure the death penalty is good enough for him,” she said. “What he did was so horrific. He’s a very sick, sick man.”

Fine said she and Dettmann feel more of a sense of closure after this trial. She said a lot more information came out about what Yates did to the women and “how he got them in his clutches.”

“It was weird seeing him in court,” she said. “I was surprised at how small he seemed.”

Fine said the murder of her sister, Shawn Johnson, and the other women Yates killed in Spokane came up again in the trial. The prosecution needed to prove that Yates’ killing spree was part of a common scheme or plan.

In order to be convicted of aggravated murder, the prosecutors needed the prove one of three aggravating factors about the murders he committed: that it was during the commission of another crime, that he killed them to conceal another crime, or that it was part of a common scheme.

The jury found that all the aggravating factors existed.

Yates didn’t testify during the trial. His attorneys didn’t dispute that Yates had killed the two women. Instead, they concentrated on arguing that Yates did not commit aggravated murder.

Most of the woman Yates murdered were prostitutes. He shot them in the head, put a bag over their heads and then dumped their bodies.

After years of fear in the Spokane area over the serial killings, Yates was finally captured two years ago after one of his victims got away. He shot the woman in the head, but she managed to escape.

Her story was initially discounted by police. The woman didn’t even realize she had been shot until she got into a car accident months later and an X-ray showed bullet fragments in her head.

Yates grew up in Oak Harbor and graduated from high school in 1970. He’s remembered by many local people as a nice, quiet boy who had a strong pitching arm.

Fine said it’s been eerie for her and her mother to meet people in the city who knew Yates. They go to the same church that Yates did, the Seventh-day Adventist. In fact, it’s the church that Yates helped to build when he was a boy.

“My mother said he’s so scared right now,” she said. “If he’s executed he’ll have to meet his maker. He’s a religious man, at least he used to be.”

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

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