Robert Lee Yates

The Spokane Serial Killer

Confirmed Kills
Suspected Kills
Total Possible Kills
Years Active
May 27, 1952
Sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment
Alive or Dead?
Death Row Commuted to Life
US States Operated
Info Box

Robert Lee Yates is a convicted American serial killer, born May 27, 1952, in Spokane, Washington. He was known for murdering active prostitutes working on Spokane’s “Skid Row” on E. Sprague Avenue from 1996 to 1998. He also confessed to killing two women in Walla Walla in 1975 and another in Pierce County in 1988. In 2002, Yates was convicted of murdering two other prostitutes and is currently awaiting his death penalty.

Early life

Yates grew up in Oak Harbor in Washington, D.C. He graduated from high school in 1970 and went on to work as a prison guard for the Department of Corrections at the Walla Walla Penitentiary for six months. In 1975, he enlisted in the U.S Army and worked as a civilian transport pilot. Yates received several military awards and medals during his 19-year military career while also becoming certified to fly helicopters and airplanes before he retired in 1994. 


The murders Robert Lee Yates committed during the 90s (1996-1998) in Spokane stemmed from his interest in prostitutes in the area. The victims were initially approached by Yates as they worked their trade on “Skid Row,” an area along East Sprague Avenue that is known to be a hub for prostitution and drugs. A group of young prostitutes was initially solicited by Robert Lee Yates and he would pay some, have sex with them (in his 1979 Ford van most often), do drugs with them, then kill them and dump their bodies in rural locations. 

All of Yates’ victims died of gunshot wounds to the head, with at least eight being killed by a Raven .25-caliber handgun. The same model weapon was used in one attempted homicide. It is particularly strange how Yates’ murder of Melody Murfin played out as he simply shot her buried her just outside of the bedroom window of Yates’ family home.

On 1st August 1998, Robert Lee Yates picked up Christine Smith, a prostitute who managed to escape from his car after being shot, assaulted, and robbed. She is the only known attempted murder survivor of Yates. On 19th September 1998, Yates was asked to give a DNA sample to Spokane police officers after being pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he refused, stating that it was too invasive of a request for a “family man”


Serial killer Robert Lee Yates, was arrested on April 18 1999 for allegedly murdering Jennifer Joseph. A search warrant was served on a white 1977 Corvette that he had previously owned because a white Corvette had been identified as the vehicle one of the victims had last been seen in. This left police suspicious because the suspect had been pulled over in this vehicle but the field interview report misread it as “CAMARO” not “CORVETTE.” Police discovered blood in the Corvette that they linked to that of Jennifer Joseph and also DNA from Yates that linked him to the death of 12 other victims.

In 2000, Yates was found guilty of thirteen counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder. In exchange for confessing to this horrendous crime, he avoided being sentenced to death by agreeing to receive a 408 years prison sentence. 

In 2001, Robert Lee Yates was charged with 2 additional murders in the killing of Mercer and Ellis. Prosecutors sought the death penalty because they were believed to be linked to the deaths in Spokane County. In 2002, Yates was sentenced to death by lethal injection for these crimes.

On September 5, 2008, a judge signed Robert Lee Yates’ death warrant. He was scheduled to be executed on September 19, 2008. However, on Sept. 11, 2008, the Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander issued a stay of execution so that Yates’ defense file could additional appeals in an attempt to overturn the death penalty against him.

Robert Lee Yates is currently on death row at the Washington State Penitentiary.

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