Oak Harbor’s serial killer gets another chance to live

Robert Yates - Courtesy of KIRO TV
Robert Yates
— image credit: Courtesy of KIRO TV

On Sept. 11, the justices of the state Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Oak Harbor High School graduate Robert Yates, who also happens to be one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers.

While attorneys expected the stay, this may be Yates’ last chance for an appeal before he faces the lethal needle or noose.

Two Oak Harbor residents, Margaret Dettman and her daughter Debra Fine, were in a Pierce County Court with Yates Sept. 5 to witness a judge signing the killer’s death warrant. He was scheduled to be put to death Sept. 19, but the Supreme Court ruling puts a hold on that.

Dettman and Fine have a very personal interest in Yates. He killed Shawn Johnson — Dettman’s daughter and Fine’s sister — just before Christmas of 1997. It’s a strange irony that they ended up living in Yates’ hometown and Dettman even briefly attended the church he helped build.

Dettman said she feels that justice was accomplished in Yates’ case and that the death penalty is part of that justice.

“I’ll be so relieved when this case is over with and I won’t have to see his face ever again,” she said. “I don’t want to have to think about him sitting in his prison cell anymore.”

Yates was convicted of killing 15 people. He murdered 10 women, including Johnson, who he picked up in Spokane’s “skid row” area from 1996 to 1998. He also admitted to killing one woman he dumped in Skagit County in 1988. He was convicted of killing two women in Pierce County, which were the crimes that ultimately earned him the death penalty.

Yates’ first victims were a couple he shot in a woods outside Walla Walla. Ironically, Yates worked at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla as a prison guard that year. Now he sits on death row in the same prison.

Yates was a 1970 graduate of Oak Harbor High School. A few of the people who remember him from school say he was a quiet, unremarkable boy who was a good pitcher on the high school team.

Jim Waller, the recently-retired baseball coach, played baseball with Yates in high school. Yates was a year older and they weren’t close friends, but Waller said his former teammate seemed perfectly normal.

“After he was arrested, it kind of shocked everyone around here,” Waller said. “He was a mild-mannered, quiet guy, without any kind of temper.”

Waller said it’s a weird feeling knowing that someone you used to spend time with may be executed.

The Yates family lived in a Barrington Drive home. Father and son helped build the Seventh-day 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. 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.

Perhaps it’s fitting that all these years later, the family of one of Yates’ victims has appropriated his hometown. Shawn Johnson’s oldest son and his wife, along with Johnson’s mother and sister, now live in Oak Harbor.

“Her other sons comes up to visit,” Dettman said.

If Yates is ultimately executed, Dettman said she’s not sure it would bring any sense of closure to the family; nothing has done that so far. She and Fine have gone to many court hearings, but she’s not sure she would want to be there when — and if — he’s put to death.

“We weren’t asked and I don’t know what I would say if they do ask,” she said.

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