A Serial Killer from Whidbey?

"Robert L. Yates, the man Spokane police suspect of being a serial killer who has claimed 18 victims in the past 10 years, graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1970. Friends who knew him then say they can't believe the high school baseball team's pitching star would be capable of such a thing."

  • Friday, April 21, 2000 5:00am
  • News

“Some remember an ace baseball player who once ran all the way to Coupeville for sport.Some remember a boy who was capable of composing impressive sonnets for his high school English class.Still others remember a quiet boy who barely made a ripple at little Oak Harbor High.But no matter how well they know him, everyone who can recall Robert L. Yates, a 1970 Oak Harbor High School graduate, said they were shocked by the news that he was arrested Wednesday for the murder of a 16-year-old girl in Spokane and has been linked to the murders of 17 other women.Burlington resident Al Gatti, Yate’s best buddy in high school, has stayed in touch with Bob since high school. He said he finds it hard to believe his friend is a murderer.I still consider him to be my best friend, he said. As far as I am concerned he’s innocent, totally innocent, unless I find out otherwise. If I can look in his eyes and ask him, I’ll know the truth.Ironically, the family of one of Yates’ alleged victims also lives in Oak Harbor. Debra Fine, the sister of Shawn Johnson, said she and her mother Margaret Dettman moved to Oak Harbor a couple of year ago. Police believe the 37-year-old Johnson, a Spokane resident and mother of two, was the eleventh victim among the 18 that Yates is suspected to have killed.It’s very, very ironic, she said. It totally blew my mind that he had ever lived here. Since the news came out the phone was been ringing off the hook with people who remember him.Oak Harbor police and the Island County Sheriff’s Department both say they have been in touch with the serial killer task force in Spokane and are looking at any possible tie-ins with unsolved murders and missing people on the island.Since there are at least three unsolved murders and a number of missing people, officials are checking to see if the dates match up with when Yates was on the island.A 47-year-old aluminum worker and a former Army helicopter pilot, Yates has lived with his wife and five children in Spokane since 1996, but has visited Whidbey Island at least once in the last few years.Gatti said he saw Yates after Yates went to a funeral for a relative in Coupeville about two year ago.Local dentist Gary Berner, who also graduated from Oak Harbor High in 1970, said Yates stopped in his office to say hi a couple of years ago. He said he played football and baseball with Yates in high school. He and Yates used to drive an hour into Skagit County together to pick peas in a field for $1.80 an hour.I didn’t know one negative thing about him. It was a big shock, Berner said. The worst thing about him is that he wouldn’t play football senior year.According to Gatti, the Yates family lived in a Barrington Drive home and were very loyal to 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 the hospital. She was sick while Yates was in high school and died of cancer in 1976. His father moved to Arizona.Gatti and Yates went to Skagit Valley College together after Yates got a baseball scholarship, but Yates later transferred to a community college in Walla Walla. Yates dreamed of becoming a doctor someday. Gatti said he and Yates hung out with each other all the time. They went fishing, hunting, camping in the mountains and did other outdoor things. The two built a raft. He remembers having lots and lots of long talks about God with Yates.Usually easy-going, young Yates could also be impulsive and would push himself physically. Once he remembers Yates decided – completely out of the blue – to run all the way to Coupeville, stopping on the way back to tell his mother that he wouldn’t be home for dinner.If he got an idea into his head, he wouldn’t stop until he did it, he said. He was stubborn that way.Yates grew up in Oak Harbor in the 1960s, when only about 4,700 people lived in the city. In his senior year, Yates was mentioned in the Whidbey News-Times sports pages several times – he was called an outstanding senior chucker – while the rest of the paper was full of stories about the war in Vietnam, local meetings, minor crime and a controversial proposal to let high school girls wear pants to school.Fellow baseball player Harry Ferrier, who now lives in Anacortes, remembers him as a quiet, thoughtful boy who once amazed him in Trudy Sundberg’s English class with a sonnet he wrote. He doesn’t remember Yates having any steady girlfriends, but remembers he spent a lot of time with his buddy Gatti. He was unspectacular, he said. Kind of blended in with everybody and got along with everybody.Others, like former classmate Oak Harbor Police Captain Rick Wallace, remember him only vaguely, certainly not as a stand-out personality or a troublemaker.Those who were adults in 1970 remember pretty much the same thing. Gene Verburg was the high school baseball coach at the time and remembers an average kid, nice boy who had a good arm.Another coach, Mert Waller, said he knew Yates through Little League and later in high school baseball. He also knew Yates’ parents and thought the entire family was upstanding. He also said Yates was quiet and nice.There was nothing bad about him, he said.Waller’s son, current baseball coach Jim Waller, played with Yates in Little League and on the high school team. He said he knew Yates his whole life but never was close with the real quiet boy.If it does turn out that Yates is a serial killer, that he is responsible for the violent deaths of 18 or more women, it seems his high school friends will be able to provide little insight into how he grew up to be a monster. If it is him, those who know him say he was able to hide any dark thoughts he may have harbored as a young man.As Gatti said: He was a hard-worker, an honest man, good father, God-loving. The whole deal.”

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