Robert Lee Yates Jr.
A Suspect Emerges
While the investigation into the prostitute murders was in full swing, with detectives and undercover officers frequenting those areas where prostitutes were known to work, a police officer on routine patrol made the first contact with Robert L. Yates, Jr., 45. Yates, driving a 1977 white Corvette with Washington license plate KIH442, was stopped for a minor traffic infraction at 12:45 p.m. on Wednesday, September 24, 1997 in the vicinity of Sprague and Ralph. Yates was ticketed and allowed to proceed. However, the connection between Yates' Corvette and the murder of Jennifer Joseph was not noted immediately because the patrolman had mistakenly written in his report that Yates had been driving a Camaro. The connection was not noted until later, after the task force checked the "Camaro's" registration and learned that it was actually a Corvette. In the meantime, the bodies continued to pile up.
On November 5, 1997, a Wednesday, a local resident stumbled upon a decomposing corpse in the vicinity of South 12600 Hangman Valley Road. The body, in an obvious attempt to conceal it, had been buried in a shallow grave, and was located near a small stream. No clothing, with the exception of a blouse, was recovered. The corpse was later identified as Darla Sue Scott, 29, who had an extensive history of prostitution and drug arrests. Scott had been shot, possibly with a .25-caliber or smaller caliber gun. A plastic bag with handwriting on it was recovered with Scott's body, as was a second "grocery type" plastic bag. A Styrofoam "packing peanut" was found nearby in the road.
Meanwhile, a month later, another body was found in the western part of the state. On Sunday, December 7, 1997, the Tacoma, Washington police department responded to a call of a body found in the 5000 block of South Adams Street at 1:30 p.m. The woman's body was nude, and was found partially obscured by brush near the road. What was believed to be the victim's clothing was strewn over her body, and plastic bags covered her head. A .25-caliber spent shell casing was recovered from the scene. The body was subsequently identified as that of 34-year-old Melinda L. Mercer.
Missing from the crime scene was a large green purse that Mercer was known to carry, as well as several costume jewelry type rings. The missing items of Mercer's, as well as the numerous items not recovered from other victims, prompted the detectives to theorize that the killer had kept some of his victims' belongings as trophies or souvenirs of his "kills."
The Tacoma investigators learned that Mercer was last seen during the late evening hours of December 6 in the parking lot of a QFC grocery store in the 1800 block of Northeast 45th Street in Seattle in the company of a man driving a newer, burgundy colored minivan. Mercer had a history of prostitution and drug abuse, and toxicology tests revealed that she had used cocaine and opiates prior to her death. The autopsy showed that she died from gunshot wounds.
Another body was found on Wednesday, December 17, 1997, a week before Christmas, in the same area of Spokane where Darla Sue Scott's body had been found in November, this time in the 11400 block of Hangman Valley Road. The body, which was fully clothed but had plastic bags placed over the head, had been tossed over the side of a steep embankment where it rolled down the hill and came to rest about 25 feet from the edge of the road. Crime scene investigators recovered a number of hairs and fibers, which were sent to the state crime laboratory for processing. She had been shot to death. The body was later identified as that of 36-year-old Shawn L. Johnson, who was last seen leaving a home in northeast Spokane two months earlier, on the evening of October 17, to work as a prostitute in the East Sprague area.
Johnson was supposed to have called her roommate later on the evening that she disappeared, but she failed to do so and was not seen again until her body was found. Although Johnson's vehicle was found in a K-Mart parking lot on East Sprague on October 19, reported as abandoned by a store employee, it was not taken as evidence by authorities until December 23, after her body had been found and it had been determined that she was a victim of the elusive serial killer. It was processed for evidence and a number of items were recovered, including hairs and fibers.