A middle-age father of five who often cruised Spokane's red-light district in a flashy white Corvette is linked by DNA and other physical evidence to at least a dozen murders, authorities said Thursday.
Spokane County Sheriff Mark K. Sterk said samples of DNA taken from Robert Lee Yates Jr. matched DNA found on the bodies of at least eight prostitutes. Other physical evidence links him to the murders of four other women, the sheriff said.
All of the victims were shot to death, and their bodies were dumped in remote locations.
The 47-year-old Yates has been charged in only one death, but additional charges are expected, Sterk said. Identities of the victims linked to Yates were not immediately released.
Yates, an aluminum plant worker and National Guard helicopter pilot, was being held Thursday in Spokane County Jail in lieu of a $1.5-million cash bond.
Yates was among hundreds of suspects investigated by a police task force formed three years ago to probe the serial killings of 18 prostitutes in the Spokane and Tacoma areas.
He had come to the attention of detectives only recently following tips that he liked to frequent Spokane's red-light district in his Corvette. Two police reports also linked him to the prostitution area.
"The white Corvette and evidence we found in that vehicle led us to the arrest of Mr. Yates, and through DNA to a number of the other victims in this case," Sterk said.
"If we knew what pushed this guy's buttons early on, it would have helped us solve this case earlier. We didn't know," the sheriff added.
On Wednesday, Yates was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Jennifer A. Joseph, a 16-year-old prostitute whose body was found on a farm northeast of the city on Aug. 26, 1997.
Joseph, of Spanaway, near Tacoma, was last seen in August 1997 getting into a white Corvette driven by a white male in his 30s or 40s, according to court documents.
Preliminary results of a DNA analysis of blood smears found in the Corvette once owned by Yates matched Joseph's blood, Sterk said. Additionally, hair, clothing and other evidence that could have come from Joseph were found inside the car, court records show.
Meanwhile Thursday, investigators began combing the inside of Yates' house for fiber and other microscopic evidence, Sterk said. Yates lived in the home with his wife and their five children.
Among other clues, investigators were seeking a weapon, he said.
Police also have seized eight vehicles, including the Corvette--which Yates sold in 1998--and two vans formerly owned by Yates. Another car Yates formerly owned was recovered Thursday in Idaho.
Detectives began 24-hour surveillance of Yates after he returned to Spokane on Sunday from a two-week Army National Guard summer camp at Ft. Lewis.
Records show Yates left the Army in 1996 after an 18-year career. He joined the National Guard as a helicopter pilot with the 66th Aviation Brigade, which trains at the base near Tacoma.