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Suspect points police to body in plea bargain

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SPOKANE, Wash.— For years, the bodies of women were discovered in remote sites, dumped on the edge of this eastern Washington city and across the state in Tacoma.

Each had been shot, and some were left with plastic bags over their heads. Many of the victims, police said, were involved in prostitution or drugs, or both.

Now the man charged in those deaths has allegedly agreed to admit to killing 13 people — and drew a map for investigators showing that evidence of the serial killings may have been right under their noses.

Robert L. Yates Jr. sealed his plea offer by directing police Monday to a body buried in his own yard, evidence investigators missed in more than a month of searching his home.

"We've been saying all along it's just a house, no one's been killed there," said neighbor Angie DeArth as investigators across the street found a body buried 6 to 8 inches beneath the ground. "But now this happens."

The plea agreement, under which prosecutors would support a sentence of life in prison without parole, will only be valid if the body at the Yates home turns out to be Melody Murfin, who has been missing for two years, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said Monday.

The 48-year-old father of five will plead guilty to 13 murders and one attempted murder to escape the death penalty in Spokane County, Tucker said. No court date has been set to enter the plea agreement.

"Mr. Yates is remorseful," said Richard Fasy, Yates' chief public defender. "Mr. Yates wants to put this matter to rest."

Ten of the slayings occurred in Spokane County, with two others in southeast Washington's Walla Walla County and one in Skagit County, in northwest Washington, Tucker said. Those two counties had not been previously mentioned in the serial killings.

In western Washington's Pierce County, Yates still faces aggravated first-degree murder charges in two Tacoma killings. The plea agreement does not include those counts. Yates was to be arraigned in those two cases Monday.

Yates also has been charged in Spokane County with attempted murder in an attack on Christine L. Smith. The 32-year-old survived a gunshot wound to the head when she was working as a prostitute in August 1998.

Yates, who often cruised Spokane's red-light district in a white Corvette, was linked to the killings by DNA and other physical evidence, authorities have said. He was arrested in April.

"I feel good about it," Tucker said of the plea agreement. He met with relatives about six weeks ago to alert them that plea negotiations were under way. "The two families I talked to today thought it was great."

But other relatives were angry that Yates won't stand trial, said Kathy Lloyd. Yates had been charged in the death of her sister, Shawn McClenahan.

"I've wanted him to get life in prison; just because I felt a man such as him might suffer more with life in prison and the death penalty would be an easy out," she said.

After an 18-year Army career, Yates settled in the mid-1990s in a comfortable Spokane neighborhood with his wife, four daughters — aged 25, 21, 20 and 16 — and 11-year-old son.

They lived in a two-story home valued at $122,000. Investigators spent 36 days last spring searching the home and the well-tended yard.

The body was found in a dirt area that presumably had once been a garden. It was not considered a location where evidence might be found, said Spokane County sheriff's Sgt. Cal Walker.

"A lot of us feel we're relieved not to have to do a trial. It would have been really traumatic," said Lynn Everson, a Spokane County social worker who distributes health education pamphlets and condoms to prostitutes. "A lot of us didn't want him to have the death penalty. We wanted him in prison the rest of his life."

On the Net: www.spokanepolice.org