Former island man charged with murder

Man linked to Spokane serial killings grew up in Oak Harbor.

  • Wednesday, April 26, 2000 8:00am
  • News

“Some remember an ace baseball player who once ran all the way to Coupeville for fun. 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 Oak Harbor High School.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 April 19 for the murder of a 16-year-old girl in Spokane, and he has been linked by police to the murders of 17 other women.Burlington resident Al Gatti, Yates’ best buddy in high school, has stayed in touch with Yates since high school. He said he finds it hard to believe his friend could be 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 the serial killer’s victims now 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 years ago.Police believe Johnson, 37, a Spokane resident and mother of two, was the 11th victim among the 18 that are believed to have been killed by the same person.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 here, officials are checking to see if the dates match Yates’ presence on the island.A 47-year-old aluminum worker and former Army helicopter pilot, Yates has lived with his wife and five children in Spokane since 1996, but has visited Whidbey 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 years ago.Dentist Gary Berner, who also graduated from Oak Harbor High in 1970, said Yates stopped in his Oak Harbor office to say hello 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.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. Yates later transferred to a community college in Walla Walla. Gatti said Yates dreamed of becoming a doctor.Gatti said he and Yates hung out with each other. They went fishing, hunting, camping in the mountains. The two built a raft. He remembers the two having lots and lots of long talks about God.Usually easygoing, young Yates could also be impulsive and would push himself physically. Gatti remembers that once Yates decided – completely out of the blue – to run 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.Rick Wallace, a former classmate and now an Oak Harbor police captain, remembers Yates only vaguely, and not as a stand-out personality or a troublemaker.In his senior year, Yates was mentioned in the Whidbey News-Times sports pages several times. Fellow baseball player Harry Ferrier, who now lives in Anacortes, remembers him as a quiet, thoughtful boy who once amazed him in English class with a sonnet he wrote. It was pretty well-written, he said.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.Those who were adults in 1970 remember pretty much the same thing. Gene Verburg, Oak Harbor High School baseball coach at the time, remembers Yates as 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.Unsolved crimes reopened after serial killer caseThe Island County Sheriff’s Office is opening three unsolved cases in light of the recent arrest of a former Oak Harbor man as a serial killer suspect.Robert Lee Yates Jr., 47, who grew up in Oak Harbor, was arrested last week in Spokane where he had lived for many years. He is suspected of killing as many as 18 women in the Spokane area.Sheriff Mike Hawley said that Yates may have maintained ties to this area — for that reason, two homicides and a missing person case are undergoing further review. Those cases are:* Linda Moran, 27, a missing person who vanished Dec. 22, 1996 from the Bayview Exxon station where her husband had stopped to get gas.* Darrin Wade Gehrke, 23, a homicide victim who died of a gunshot wound June 20, 1995 near Oak Harbor.* Teresa Hesselgrave, 19, a homicide victim who died of asphyxiation on April 15, 1976. Her body was discovered in a wooded area near Coupeville.At this point there is no proven link between Yates and these cases, said Hawley. The arrest of the suspect provides us with the opportunity to again revisit these unsolved crimes, in cooperation with other agencies.”

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