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Robert Yates sentenced to die

A Pierce County jury sentenced serial killer Robert Yates, Jr. Thursday to die by lethal injection for killing two Tacoma women.

Yates, an Oak Harbor native, took the stand during the sentencing phase to apologize to the families of the victims and explained that he’s found God. The prosecutors brought out many grisly details of Yates’ crimes during the trial — details that weren’t released after Yates confessed in Spokane County court to 13 murders.

But nobody, except maybe the man himself, seems any closer to understanding why the 1970 Oak Harbor High School graduate, a quiet kid with a strong pitching arm and a normal family, grew up to become a serial-killing monster.

“He was a normal high school kid,” Oak Harbor resident Eugene Verburg said. He was Yates’ high school baseball coach and testified for Yates’ defense during the sentencing phase of the trial.

“It’s a surprise to me how he turned out the way he did,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a surprise to everyone involved.”

The Yates family lived in a Barrington Drive home and were very loyal to the First Adventist Church. 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. In fact, Yates worked with her as a janitor at the hospital for a short time in the 1970s. His mother later died and his father moved to Arizona.

Robert Yates Sr. and Yates’ sister, Shirley Hess, were both in court Thursday and were brought to tears when the verdict was read.

“He said, ‘Dad, I’ll be OK, but have a good life,’” Yates Sr. told TV reporters afterward. “That’s the last words he told me.”

“I’m just heartbroken for the families,” Hess said. “You know, his kids.”

Yates, a father of five and a former helicopter pilot in the Army and National Guard, was living in Spokane with his unsuspecting family when he was arrested by the serial killer task force more than two years ago.

Yates confessed to killing 13 people in a plea bargain that spared 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, mainly prostitutes, in and around Spokane. He buried one of the bodies in the yard of his family’s home.

Yates also confessed to shooting another woman, Christine Smith, in the head. She survived and later led investigators to him.

He was sentenced to 408 years, but the plea bargain didn’t include one murder in Spokane Yates was linked to.

Prosecutors in Pierce County, however, didn’t go along with the plea bargain and charged Yates with murdering Melinda Mercer and Connie LaFontaine. Yates was convicted last week of aggravated first-degree murder, which carries life in prison or the death penalty as possible sentences.

In all, Yates is believed to have killed 16 people.

Yates’ attorney, Roger Hunko of Port Orchard, said there will definitely be an appeal, but he won’t be handling it. He said “there’s a lot there” to base an appeal on.

Hunko spoke to Yates after sentencing and said “he’s doing fine.”

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