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Burden of Proof

Investigating a Serial Killer in Spokane, Washington

Aired May 30, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK STERK, SPOKANE COUNTY SHERIFF: The Spokane County Sheriff's Office, with a lot of help from different agencies, we feel like we have arrested the persons responsible for up to 18 of the prostitute homicides in our community.

STEVE TUCKER, PROSECUTOR: It appears that DNA will be a major focus of this trial. There's a lot of other evidence, but DNA will be the major thing.

We're taking our time. We're looking at all the evidence when we get it, and we will make the decision then. We have a 30-day period after we arraign him to decide on whether the death penalty will be invoked, and we'll be looking at that statute carefully.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Detectives in more than a dozen jurisdiction, including two countries, are investigating Robert Lee Yates, Jr., as a serial killer. Could he be the most prolific serial killer of all time?

That's today on BURDEN OF PROOF.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Robert Lee Yates, Jr., a former military helicopter pilot who turned 48 this past weekend, is charged in Spokane, Washington, with eight murders and one attempted murder.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STERK: Information regarding the homicide victims tied to Mr. Yates are as follows. Detectives have definitive evidence tying Robert Yates to the murder of nine victims. Investigators are awaiting laboratory results in three more cases, which they believe will tie Yates to those homicides.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Authorities in Vancouver, Canada, have started looking at the married father of five in conjunction with murders and disappearances of 31 women there. Investigators in Germany are looking at Yates as a potential suspect in as many as 26 unsolved homicides that occurred during his two tours of duty there.

COSSACK: In the Spokane murders, Yates allegedly picked up prostitutes, robbed them, shot them in the head, covered their faces with plastic bags, and dumped their bodies along deserted roads and fields.

Meticulous records kept by the suspect are aiding in the investigation, as well as records kept by the military of Yates' whereabouts over the years.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us today in Seattle, Lewis Kamb, a reporter with "The Seattle Post Intelligencer." And in Chicago, private investigator Paul Ciolino, and in Houston, former FBI special agent Don Clark.

COSSACK: And here in Washington, James Colt (ph), general counsel to the D.C. public defender's office, Ron Sullivan and Cara Quindlen (ph), in the back row, Rebecca Gold (ph) and Phil Moffit (ph).

Lewis, let's go right to you. Tell us about who Robert Lee Yates is, and how did the police eventually come to arrest him?

LEWIS KAMB, "THE SEATTLE POST INTELLIGENCER": Well, Robert Lee Yates is a former military veteran, been in the Army for 18 years, father of five kids. He's known as a family man. People described him as an average Joe, nothing really stuck out about him.

What really led prosecutors or investigators to key in on Mr. Yates was the fact that he owned a white Corvette. And one of the victims in this case, a teenage runaway by the name of Jennifer Joseph, her -- she was last seen in a white Corvette, working as a prostitute in Spokane. And Mr. Yates was known to drive a Corvette, had been stopped by the Spokane police several times, twice at least. In one case he was in a white Corvette.

And from those two field reports, investigators began keying in on Mr. Yates as their potential suspect.

VAN SUSTEREN: Lewis, one of the other potential victims is a woman named Christine Smith. Now, she talks about a black Chevy van, and she has sort of an unusual story behind herself. What happened to her?

KAMB: That's right. After Mr. Yates was arrested, a woman came forward and said she recognized his photo in a local newspaper. And as similar to a man who attacked her in 1998 while she was working as a prostitute. Now, she says that a man picked her up in a van, paid her for oral sex, and during the encounter mentioned that he was a helicopter pilot, and also a father of five, allegedly. And during that incident, the woman says the man apparently struck her on the head, causing her to bleed, demanded her money back from him -- from her. And she managed to escape, but left behind her purse in the vehicle. She also sought medical attention for her wounds. And a couple years later, just a few months ago, she was involved in a car wreck, and took some X-rays of her head at that time.

During that time they found some metal fragments. It appears like it was an old gunshot wound.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, you know, it seems so bizarre that she would -- this woman might have been shot in the head, and it takes a year and a half before they find metal fragments in her head. Did she make any statement about whether she heard a gun go off when she got first assaulted in the head?

KAMB: Well, I think she was pretty groggy at the time. She was taken off guard, according to investigators. And she was blacking out a bit, so it was kind of startling, and she was having trouble recognizing what was happening to her at the time.

COSSACK: Lewis, they've -- they have evidence of -- the authorities have collected much evidence, much physical evidence that ties Yates to these crimes. Tell us about some of the evidence that they have.

KAMB: Right. Well, they say his DNA from blood drawn from him after he was arrested initially for the murder of Jennifer Joseph ties him to semen found on at least eight dead women. In addition, they say they've recovered a fingerprint from one of the plastic bags found around one of the victims' heads. And they also have some yard trimmings, debris, bits of peanut shells, some concrete, Styrofoam, that they say they found covering three of the victims.

And that -- that...

VAN SUSTEREN: But what's this sig -- I mean, that the allegation is he's a serial killer, and I underline the word "allegation." But in every serial killing, there's some sort of signature that tips off the investigators they may be related. Is there a signature in these homicides?

KAMB: Well, the plastic bags in addition, combined with the fact that these women had similar lifestyles...

VAN SUSTEREN: What's the plastic bags?

KAMB: On several of the women, plastic bags were found around their heads at their dump sites, sometimes just one, sometimes up to three, kind of like grocery bags, Safeway bags, covering their heads. And sometimes the bags were found near the bodies.

COSSACK: Lewis...

KAMB: It appears... COSSACK: Oh, I'm sorry.

KAMB: ... that the -- it appears that the killer had wrapped these bags around their heads.

COSSACK: Lewis, they -- but these were -- victims were shot, they weren't suffocated by these plastic bags. And yet the police have yet to find the weapons that were used to shoot these prostitutes. Isn't that true?

KAMB: That's right. They haven't really said why they think the plastic bags were used. They haven't come out and actually said what they believe the motive of the plastic bags were. But in fact, these women were shot first, and apparently the bags were placed on their heads later.

VAN SUSTEREN: Lewis, it's reported that German police are investigating unsolved deaths of about 26 prostitutes. Do you have any information about whether or not those deaths occurred, one, when Lewis was stationed in Germany, and two, whether plastic bags were used?

KAMB: No, I don't have any information about that. Right now, the authorities in Spokane are really keying in on the charges he's faced with in this state. They say while they're getting calls from law enforcement agencies around the country, as well as in Germany and British Columbia, that right now they're really focused on these charges.

While some new information is turning up about Mr. Yates's whereabouts during his military career, and he was, in fact, stationed in several of the states, as well as Germany during the time of maybe some of these killings, there's no real information that's come forward to say that he was the man in these -- those cases.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. When we come back, could Robert Lee Yates, Jr., be the most prolific serial killer of all time? How detectives in more than a dozen jurisdictions are investigating. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

Legal Brief: After passing a 40-hour course and ride-along training, Bertha Gue is ready to join the 500-member San Diego Police Department Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol. She is 91 years old.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: The FBI's helping investigators in at least 11 states and two countries piece together what might be the longest, bloodiest trail of a serial killer ever.

Don, if you were running this investigation on behalf of the FBI, what would be your first steps? DON K. CLARK, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Well, the first thing that we've got to do is determine where these incidents occurred, and kind of look at the venue, and kind of look at the audience, if you will, that we're going to have to be dealing with. And the key thing here is looking at the evidence, so that we can start to track and see where this person may have been.

In this case now, particularly the case out on the West Coast, where you have an individual, a suspect in this, now you can start to look at where this person has been, to see if there have been any more activities similar.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you worry that the investigators in these other homicides, some of them a little bit old, may have done a poor job or may have contaminated evidence that might have otherwise been useful?

CLARK: Well, evidence is always key, and you hope that that didn't occur, Greta. But I think what we're seeing today is that we're seeing a real good quality of police work with these investigations, and a real good protected -- efforts to protect that evidence, knowing that even after you identify and catch someone, that you're going to have to prosecute them.

COSSACK: Don, what do you do when you cooperate with authorities in other countries? For example, we've heard that the -- that Germany is interested in this man, that perhaps they suspect him of doing the same thing there. How does the FBI work with the police in other countries?

CLARK: Well, it's very similar to working with the police here. As you know, the FBI has legal attache offices established in a number of countries throughout the world now, and those people are designed primarily to work with the police officers and police agencies over there.

And there's an exchange of information. And the key to this -- to the solution in this case, as well as any others, is going to be the knowledge and exchange of information. And that's what that entity overseas serves as a conduit for that.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you think is the reason? If this man is indeed this serial killer, why did it take so long to catch him?

PAUL CIOLINO, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: Well, I think -- well, the biggest problem is, right now, for him, is this name -- Why do all these serial killers, Robert Lee, John Wayne, Henry Lee, I mean, right away he has a problem there. But getting by that, the reason it took so long is, he was very careful. He's very bright. He covered himself well. He had a great cover, with five children, Army helicopter pilot, I guess a distinguished helicopter pilot, and now...

VAN SUSTEREN: But you say he kept himself -- wait a second. Apparently the same gun was used, and (inaudible) plastic bag was wrapped around the head. There are trimmings from his yard or something around or near the bodies. And you've got DNA samples. That doesn't sound like someone who is particularly clever. CIOLINO: What I'm saying is, he's a middle-class American. He's not someone you would normally look at. In a case like this, you're looking at a drifter, you're looking at convicted sex offenders, people who have committed these kind of crimes prior to this. And once they got onto him, it fell apart. He wasn't a master criminal. Obviously he wasn't very good at this at all.

And now -- I mean, he's in -- he's got some serious problems. I'm glad I'm not defending him.

COSSACK: Paul, compare him -- you -- someone like Andrew Cunanan, who also was a serial killer from a few years ago. What would -- what is the similarities and the differences between someone like Yates and someone like Cunanan?

CIOLINO: Well, I think the differences is, Cunanan was just a binge killer, and this guy carefully thought out, he had a plan, he picked on a certain type of person all the time. He wasn't doing it, I don't think, for any other reason other than personal gratification. Certainly he didn't want to be in the newspapers, draw attention to himself.

Cunanan, on the other hand, was a celebrity killer. He liked the limelight, he loved this whole thing about being on TV and being wanted and being looked for. And he killed people who would bring him a lot of attention.

This guy's killing prostitutes who normally don't get a lot of attention in homicides.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ron, this sounds like a nightmare case for any public defender. What's the first thing a public defender does upon being appointed to this case? What do you say to the client when you meet him?

RONALD SULLIVAN, GENERAL COUNSEL, D.C. PUBLIC DEFENDER'S OFFICE: Well, you have to first try to gain the client's trust, tell the client that you are his representative, and that you're going to do everything you can to try to gain an acquittal in this case.

What the public defender has to do, though, first off, is not look at this evidence as an overwhelming, huge mountain of evidence, as it appears to be. But you have to look at each piece, piece by piece, and begin to develop strategies to...

VAN SUSTEREN: The DNA is a tough...

SULLIVAN: ... to work against...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... the DNA, though...

SULLIVAN: ... each piece.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... is a little tough, Ron. I mean, even -- I don't care how good a public defender you are, that's a rough hurdle for any public defender. SULLIVAN: Well, it is. But, you know, there was a case a couple of years ago where there was a lot of DNA evidence, and the defendant was acquitted. So, you know, skilled defense attorneys can work with bad evidence, even DNA evidence. And right now, we don't know what the DNA evidence is, and we don't know the extent to which the laboratory procedures were done properly. So it could be issues of contamination there as well.

COSSACK: Don Clark, recently we've seen a -- the railroad killer convicted and sentenced to death. Does the FBI learn things and study things from these kinds of killers, these serial killers, that aids and helps them in getting others?

CLARK: Absolutely, Roger. This is out of a profilist's dream, and this is where we can benefit society the most, is that after these people have been caught and attached to these crimes, is to really start to study and to look at where these people come from and how they're involved in that, so that hopefully we can provide some information for prevention.

I think we all know that many times these people start from their childhood, these activities start as a result of their childhood, such things as cruelty to animals, playing with fire, a lack of a father figure, and those are statistically pretty accurate based on the serial killers that we've identified.

And that -- using those tools will kind of help us, once you've got a suspect, to be able to pin down what we can look at in the future.

VAN SUSTEREN: (inaudible)...

COSSACK: (inaudible) able to sort of prepare a profile? Is that what you're talking about?

CLARK: Well, I don't -- not a profile in terms of looking across at people and say, This person may be a serial killer, but in terms of having a suspect identified, to have some clues in the background that can help you get further into whether or not this person is the actual suspect, based on what the evidence has to support.

VAN SUSTEREN: Lewis, apparently there are eight dead prostitutes, and we're hearing the term serial killer. Were -- did the people in your area hear about serial killer before this man was arrested, as a warning to other prostitutes?

KAMB: Very much so. In fact, when most of the bodies were recovered in -- between 1996 and 1998, a task force was actually established in Spokane to investigate the possibility of a serial killer. So this is something that people have known about for a while, have been investigating these crimes because of their similarities for one -- looking for one particular suspect.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. Defending a client like Robert Lee J. -- Robert Lee Yates, Jr., when we come back.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: What percentage of parole cases in California get approved?

A: Since 1996, fewer than 19 percent -- of the 8,536 cases heard by the parole board in the past four years, only 55 have been approved.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Accused serial killer Robert Lee Yates, Jr., has asked that a new judge handle his case. Yates' court-appointed defender refused to elaborate on the request.

Ron, it would seem to me, with all the problems that Yates has, who the judge is in this case is probably the least of his problems. Why would he want a new judge?

SULLIVAN: I mean, that's -- your statement's probably accurate. That's probably the least of his troubles. But the judge probably had some association with Yates before. I don't know any of the facts or any of the basis for that motion. But a motion for recusal of the judge usually means that the judge has some interest in the matter or in the defendant or some relationship with the lawyer, good or bad, where the idea is that the judge would not be able to be impartial.

COSSACK: I would think that even if this judge had a reputation of being a very tough judge, it really wouldn't matter very much in this case.

SULLIVAN: Seems to be a lot of evidence in this case. But, you know, the job of the defense attorney is to put the government to its proof. So the defense attorney has to marshal all the evidence, to the extent the defense attorney can come up with some evidence, in its -- in the defendant's favor. And again, put the prosecution to its proof, make them prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

VAN SUSTEREN: And, of course, regardless of the charges, he is even at this very moment presumed innocent.

Paul, if you were hired as a defense attorney in this case, what would be your advice to give the defense attorney? How do you go about investigating from the defense perspective?

CIOLINO: Well, I think, Greta, we got to establish what the defense is going to be. I mean, is it going to be, one, I didn't do it, or is it going to be, two, Well, I did do it, but these are the reasons I did it for? And either way, if he didn't do it, you're going to start working on his alibi, because I think they're going to try and put every unsolved murder on this guy for the last 20 years.

He's got serious problems, and...

VAN SUSTEREN: Could you help the defense attorney by showing sloppy police work? Is that something a defense investigator could do, to sort of chop away at the prosecution's case?

CIOLINO: Well, I think in a single murder case, absolutely. But one where we have multiple jurisdictions, somebody will have gotten it right, and that'll be probably the strongest case they'll go with. So maybe we don't want to attack the sloppy police work, unless, indeed, that is the case.

I would be attacking -- you'd have to look at this guy's background. What made him do this? And you're going to have to find some sympathy there that a jury can -- is going to want to spare his life. I think right now, everyone's job is to keep him from getting the death penalty.

COSSACK: Don...

CIOLINO: That's the best-case scenario.

COSSACK: Don, oftentimes when there are competing jurisdictions for suspects like this, there are problems between these jurisdictions. As someone from the FBI, how do you go about keeping the jurisdictions at peace with each other and not having a problem legally arise?

CLARK: Well, if it's a federal jurisdiction, I think we will get together and try to solve these things between us and work out the pros and cons. On the local aspect, my experience has been -- and just recently, seeing what's going on in the trial here, or what was going on in a trial here in Houston, that there's a lot of discussions between those venues and those jurisdictions, because they want to get it right, and they want to make sure that justice is served.

And I've witnessed that. So there's a lot of discussion, and there's a lot of pros and cons on both sides, but eventually I think they'll come to the right conclusion. And they're going to have to keep that dialogue going on so that they can come to the right conclusion.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you know, Roger, (inaudible) the extraordinary aspect, we talk about the investigation, we talk about the potential trial, but imagine what it's like to be those five children or that wife. I mean, what did they know? What didn't they know? And what are they living under now?

COSSACK: Six more lives ruined, possibly.

VAN SUSTEREN: Yes, no, no, by all means.

But that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Join me tonight on "NEWSSTAND" for the latest in last Friday's horrible Florida school shooting. Should the 13-year-old gunman be tried as an adult? Trial attorney Roy Black joins me tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific.

COSSACK: And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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