In an excruciating confrontation with the families of his victims, serial killer Robert Yates Jr. tearfully turned to a crowded courtroom Thursday and apologized for "the sorrow, the pain and the anguish that you feel." He was sentenced to 408 years in prison for one of the longest murder rampages in U.S. history.
"I've taken away the love, the compassion and the tenderness of your loved ones, and I've submitted in that place grief and bitterness," Yates, a former military helicopter pilot and father of five, said with his voice breaking.
"In my struggle to overcome my guilt and shame, I have turned to God, I will return to God," he added, as hisses and jeers broke out in the audience. "I hope that God will replace your grief with hope and your sorrow with peace."
Yates, 48, pleaded guilty to 13 killings in eastern Washington, mostly of destitute young women, from 1975 to 1998. He is charged with three additional murders, and, if convicted, he will exceed the conviction record of every killer in U.S. history except Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of 17 killings.
The extraordinary hearing, in which Yates faced his own weeping and uncomprehending daughter, concluded a massive multiagency investigation that for more than two years attempted to find out who was leaving the bodies of young prostitutes and drug addicts scattered on rural roads outside Spokane.
Once evidence linking Yates to the murders was found in the white Corvette he used to cruise Spokane's red light district, Yates confessed to additional murders, including the 1975 killing of a Sorbonne-educated premed student and his young female friend. They were shot while picnicking in Walla Walla, Wash. Yates said he came across them on a hunting trip and decided to kill them.
His arrest stunned the small city of Spokane, which had lived with headlines about the serial killer for years but never expected that the murderer would be a decorated former Army pilot and a father known for tossing softballs with his son in the frontyard of his split-level home.
After the arrest, family members said Yates was often out late with his job at Kaiser Aluminum, but they never imagined he could be linked to the string of killings that included one body, suspected to be that of 43-year-old Melody Murfin, buried under a flower bed in their backyard.
"How could you take my mother and bury her in your yard, and your family walk around on my mother for 2 1/2 years?" demanded Murfin's daughter, Wendy Ergelbinger. "You're a sick monster, and you will be judged."
John Joseph said he feels proud that it was evidence from his daughter Jennifer's murder left in the Corvette that led to Yates' arrest.
"She marked him for all the world to see with her blood and a pearl button in a white Corvette," he said. "Yes, your honor, Jennifer . . . reached from her grave to snare her murderer."
Several family members lashed out at Spokane County prosecutor Steve Tucker for negotiating a plea agreement in which Yates disclosed Murfin's grave site and admitted to the previously unknown Walla Walla murders in exchange for a sentence that would not include the death penalty. But others took the opportunity to present the killer with the humanity of his victims.
Ondraya Smith, mother of 41-year-old Sunny Oster, told of the spirited and lighthearted child her daughter was. "I remember one time when she was little, she was out on the porch giggling, and I went to investigate, and she had her little hands cupped up and inside was a garter snake, and it was tickling her," she said.
"She was so adventurous and so brave, and without fear. She would jump into the water not knowing how to swim. She just trusted life. She knew nothing would happen to her," Smith said.
Throughout the hearing, Yates stared straight ahead, as if contemplating, or remembering. But he broke down in tears when his 25-year-old daughter, Sasha, and his father, Robert Yates Sr., stepped to the lectern.
"It just makes me mad that this happened to so many people; they didn't deserve this. No one deserves to be killed like that. No one," Sasha Yates said. "I also, like most of the victims, want to know why. What caused this? Because we were raised different, that you don't do that kind of thing."
Fighting back tears, she said: "I still love you, Dad, even though you did this."
Yates is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Tacoma for two more murders. The prosecutor has not said if he will seek the death penalty.