Moratorium on executions reopens wounds for mother of serial killer's victim

Oak Harbor resident Margaret Dettman holds a photo of her daughter, Shawn Johnson. The photo was taken just a couple of months before she was murdered by serial killer Robert Yates. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Margaret Dettman holds a photo of her daughter, Shawn Johnson. The photo was taken just a couple of months before she was murdered by serial killer Robert Yates.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

If Shawn Johnson were alive today, she would be looking forward to the birth of her twin granddaughters in about two weeks.

This promise of new life, however, helps to ease the pain of her absence for Johnson’s mother, Margaret Dettman. The retired, 72-year-old woman lives in an Oak Harbor trailer park with her other daughter and son-in-law and tries to focus on the good in life while she lets go of the hurt and anger.

That task became more difficult, she said, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced this week that he was placing a moratorium on executions, which will prevent any death sentences from being carried out while he remains in office.

DETTMAN SAID she was aghast by the governor’s decision. It forces her to once again consider the man who murdered her daughter and at least 14 other people.

Serial killer Robert Yates, who happens to be an Oak Harbor High School graduate, sits on death row and is awaiting his fate as his latest appeal makes its way through federal court.

Dettman said Yates doesn’t deserve a reprieve.

“I want to forgive him. I want to,” Dettman said. “God says you are supposed to forgive. But I don’t know. I just can’t.”

PIERCE COUNTY Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, whose office sent Yates to death row, said Inslee’s action may not affect Yates’ case after all. He said the case will likely remain tied up in appellate litigation until after Inslee leaves office.

“Because the appeals process is so absurdly lengthy, Robert Yates may never land on this governor’s desk,” he said.

Dettman is skeptical and worries that “some fluke” will someday lead to Yates being released. She said it feels like the governor is siding with Yates over her daughter and the other young victims.

“She wasn’t a bad girl,” she said. “She was just a girl who was stupid and lost.”

THE SEATTLE TIMES reported that Inslee made the decision after examining a system so flawed that victims’ families wait decades for justice and, ultimately, most death-row inmates are not executed. In addition, life in prison is less expensive than prosecuting a death sentence and there is no evidence it deters murder.

But it would prevent Yates from ever hurting anyone again, said Dettman, who remembers staring at him from just feet away in a courtroom and seeing “blank, soulless eyes.”

Though she seldom talks about the murder or the murderer, forgetting about Yates is especially difficult for Dettman since she happened to move to his hometown just as he started killing women in Spokane County about 20 years ago.

YATES IS a 1970 graduate of Oak Harbor High School remembered for being mostly unremarkable, except that he was a pretty good pitcher on the school baseball team.

Dettman knows where the house he once lived in stands, and that he and his father helped rebuild the Seventh-day Adventists church after it burned down. She knows that he worked at Whidbey General Hospital with his mother, who later died there.

Yates still has family members on the island. Dettman said she worked on the Navy base with his cousin.

DETTMAN SAID she stopped wearing make-up in the years after her daughter was murdered because she grew weary of mopping up colored tears.

“Why did this happen to me?” she asked. “Why did this happen to my family? We were just everyday people.”

But time finally brought acceptance.

“I have agonized and hurt and hurt. I can’t live like this anymore,” she said. “I’m at the point now where I can finally let it go and turn it over to God.”

She sometimes remembers her daughter as the child who grew up in Alaska. She was the baby of the family.

“We had so much fun with her,” she said. “She was so full of love and life.”

JOHNSON IS survived by two sons whom she loved deeply and who “loved her to pieces,” Dettman said. Her older son and his wife are having twin daughters, who were originally due on Johnson’s birthday, which is St. Patrick’s Day. But the babies will likely be born early by C-section.

Johnson would have been 53 years old.

Johnson loved the water, she said, and was “one of those people” who feel invigorated by standing out on the beach as wind and stormy weather sweeps in from the ocean.

In keeping with Johnson’s love for the water, her family spread her ashes at Bowman’s Bay.

DETTMAN SAID her daughter was naive and starting running with the wrong crowd after moving from her hometown in Alaska to Washington state. She dabbled in drugs, thinking she was invincible, but got hooked.

Dettman said she didn’t even know what drugs her daughter was using. She said she didn’t want to admit to herself that her daughter was prostituting herself to pay for her drug habit, but she eventually came to accept the truth.

She believes that she once spoke to Yates on the phone. She said Shawn may have called her from Yates’ home while “on a date” and let her briefly talk to him. That was shortly before she went missing.

“I remember that he seem enthralled by the fact that we were in Oak Harbor, his hometown,” she said.

IN 2000, Dettman and her daughter, Debra Fine, were among the families of victims who agreed with a deal that spared Yates from the death penalty under a plea deal in Spokane County.

He admitted killing 10 women, including Johnson, who were believed to have worked the streets of Spokane as prostitutes. He pleaded to shooting and killing a young couple who were picnicking near Walla Walla in 1975 when he was a state penitentiary guard; he admitted killing a Seattle woman in Skagit County in 1988.

Dettman said she was hesitant to agree with the deal, but felt it was the right thing to do.

Under the plea bargain, Yates agreed to lead investigators to the body of a victim.

THERE WOULD be no plea deal in Pierce County. Two years later, a jury found Yates guilty of the aggravated murder of two additional women. For those crimes, he was sentenced to death.

As for Johnson, Dettman said she feels her daughter’s presence at times. Sometimes things will move, as if on a breeze, but there’s no wind.

“Door puffs open every now and again,” she said. “We start laughing because we know it’s her.”


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