A witch I know told me the earth under Spokane is restless. She says the hot spot, the source that feeds the Old Faithful geyser 500 miles away, once coursed under the land that is now the city. The acid fumaroles and mud pots at Yellowstone represent the steam boiled off steam of deeper toiling groundwater, making the bedrock of my city nauseous. When hot pressure builds, it must find a way out.
To say you knew a victim of Robert Yates was to say you knew a prostitute. The grief itself is shameful.
Robert Yates lived on the deep South Hill of Spokane, exactly where an Army veteran, Seventh-Day Adventist, blue collar dad would live. At a glance, he matched the description of a lot of men in Spokane at the time: he was white with a fading patch of pale hair, worked at the Kaiser Aluminum plant, he abused his wife, mowed his big front lawn and tried to love his kid the best he could.
More than 15 women were murdered by Robert Yates between 1996 and 1998 in Spokane, Washington. In 1996, I had just gotten a room separate from my brothers. It was the smallest in the house, soft pink. My window had a valence covered in roses. It is what was given to me. I was four years old.
Robert has five kids; his older kids were in high school when his investigation began. His youngest, Kyle, is three years older than me and went to the same elementary school. My older brother played Pokémon cards with him at recess. He was the type of quiet that I could now see as a hurt child, but as a kid, he felt dark and elsewhere.
I met Kati when we were both four. She lived two blocks from Yates’ house, before anybody knew his name. We grew up to be best friends, performing plays we wrote about pumpkins in the basement of her split-level after we scarfed stuffed crust and got called lesbians by her brother’s friends.
It took six minutes to ride my bike from my house to Kati’s. If you ride for a minute more down Crestline Street, past her house, and take a left on to 48th Avenue, the Yates’ house is the first on the right. After he was caught, I pictured riding past his house all the time. I wanted to stare at the front door, the arthritic maples, the corrugated aluminum shed and the front door with its yellow glass window. Most of all I wanted to figure out where he buried Melody.
I don’t remember seeing Robert at our elementary school. Not at the Hamblen Carnival, or at the spaghetti feed fundraiser. I almost never noticed parents anyway. I wonder if he played along at the carnival, if he let his kids keep the goldfish from the ping pong ball toss game.
Spokane is near nature, near perfect. Spokane is a great place to raise a family. Spokane is quiet chatter. Spokane is a river valley that got a facelift in the 70’s. Spokane is unassuming, a generic face, one of the crowd. It could be anywhere.
In the early 1800s, the land around Spokane Falls was stolen from the Spokane and Kalispel tribes by white westward expanders who scammed the government (who had even less right to the land) into giving it to them for free. Deeds and ownership are all white ideas. The map of the land the Spokanes lived on is more like a song than a blueprint. They’re songs about how the earth moves and how people move, they’re about the past, they’re about the infinity of place.
Detectives call the area where prostitutes started disappearing from, The Track. I’ve never heard anybody from Spokane call it that before. Everyone I know called that strip of tired businesses East Sprague. It’s the artery palpitating through lowest income zip codes in the state. Sprague is home to stores like, More Better Antiques and Best Buy Surplus, an army surplus store run by a 90-year-old deaf man who lost his brother in the war. He’ll tell you the story if you stand there long enough. He makes the barapbarapbarap noise of the plane getting shot down, then he screams after his dying brother. Best Buy Surplus sells tactical gear, guns, and ammunition.
The women walk up and down the sidewalk waiting for a john while men walk out of Best Buy Surplus with long, white boxes.
The women Yates killed had been double tapped, a military term for shooting someone in the head twice, to neutralize the threat, one detective said. These women weren’t a threat in the typical way, they didn’t want to hurt him. He was a wad of cash pressed into a sweaty palm. For them, a brief payday. Another john in a long string. The women he killed represented something much worse, much darker: they saw him for who he really was.
I’m in high school and my friend Mike is giving me a ride home. First, he says, he needs to swing home. He’s driving an ancient burgundy Honda Civic. We pull up to the house and park. I sit alone in the car, the radio still playing a pop punk song about a man beating up a woman. My eyes track Mike skipping up the front steps, he disappears into the front door I used to fixate on. I stare at the house. I’d never been so close to the Yates’ before. I shudder and refocus.
He hops back in the car. I ask if he knows the story.
Mike pulls out into wide, empty street, eyes straight ahead. He says, “The realtor didn’t tell my parents what had happened there, just that it was cheap.” He flicked the turn signal on to my street, “I think we are kind of lucky he buried a woman in the yard, otherwise we couldn’t afford to live in this neighborhood.”
“See ya tomorrow,” I say to Mike slamming the car door louder than I mean to.
Four years after Yates was arrested and charged, I started 8th grade, my first year at All Saints Catholic School.
“Are you the psycho killer?” Christine Smith, a prostitute, asked after getting in a van with Robert Yates while he parked in a secluded clinic parking lot. She said it like a joke, but searched his eyes for an answer.
The doors clicked locked.
He paid her $40 for a blow job and shot her in the head. She made it out of his van and ran. Christine became Yates’ only survivor.
The first assignment in religion class at All Saints was to identify our patron saint. Most kids already knew theirs, it was chosen for them at birth–- a lot of Saint Matthews, Saint Josephs and Saint Clares. Mr. Harper suggested Saint Maria Goretti for my patron saint, a twelve-year-old girl canonized for forgiving a man who brutally raped her before he stabbed her fourteen times. Maybe Mr. Harper already knew what was going to happen to me. He needed me to learn to forgive.
“You’re such a public school girl,” my science teacher told me while he bumped shoulders with me at recess. I didn’t know what he meant, so I said, Sure, and wandered to another corner of the yard to stand alone. I now know what he meant but I’m embarrassed to say.
Everyone thinks they know why girls end up at Catholic school after eight years of public school: because they’re sluts or into drugs. Neither were true for me, yet.
I was taught to be afraid of the wrong people.
The first penis I ever saw was poking out of the waistband of my classmate’s navy blue uniform trousers. We were 13. It was raw red. I tried to look away. He looked down on me in my desk toward the back of our busy class.
He said, “Look, I found a new way to hide it.”
There wasn’t anywhere to look. No posters on the wall, nothing to read. Just a crucifix perched above the blackboard, staring back at me.
“Are you…jacking off?” I sputtered.
He looked at me like I was an idiot, pulled his uniform sweatshirt back over his crotch and walked away.
Women working on The Track got scared when it became clear someone was after them. They made a system based on makes and models of cars and referrals. The list included men that raped women, beat women, or didn’t pay. The bad trick list.
Red Toyota pickup — white male, gun, bat, says he’s cop, is not
Yellow Chrysler 4-door — white male, hand saw
Green Pickup with tinted windows — young white male, strangled woman till she passed out
Blue Honda, 2-door — white male, rapist, Eastern bloc accent
Robert never made the list.
The women working The Track started interviewing men before they got in cars — scanning his body language, the inside of his car, asking him what he did for a job.
Yates introduced himself to the women. He said hello, he made eye contact. “I’m a father of five, I’m a helicopter pilot in the Army. I’m just looking to have a little fun today.”
It was a believable story.
Trust is made in moments.
On September 19, 1998, Yates was asked to give a DNA sample to Spokane police after being stopped— he refused, stating that it was too extreme of a request for a “family man.” I wonder if the cops believed him. If they looked at this man, wire frame glasses with a military ID, saw themselves, and agreed.
“Maybe you’ll be next” -A john to a prostitute after picking her up from East Sprague.
Hangman Creek is named for the 17 Palouse Indians that were hung far Southeast of town near Mt. Hope. They changed the name of the creek to Latah in 2001, but everyone still calls it Hangman. A constant reminder of the blood in the water.
Four of Yate’s victims were found on the banks of Hangman Creek.
I read an article that they’ve been able to identify trauma as a genetic trait. Trauma and pain can be passed on with the rest of the ways we are like our fathers and mothers — the shape of our eyes, the ways our fists clench, our heartbreak. The DNA of Spokane is carried by the Spokane River, our circulatory system. What we piss and spit and cum and bleed into the dirt becomes our water. Rushing through the veins and faults of this earth is Spokane’s genetic darkness.
About half of Yate’s victims were teenage girls.
When I was 10, before Robert was caught, a dad on my soccer team pulled the parents together. He noticed the FBI around the neighborhood, looking for information about Yates. They brought a picture of his car, the 1973 Corvette. Or was it a Camaro? (The police got the two cars confused once, so they let Yates go on a traffic stop because the cars didn’t match.) The dad wanted us to change soccer fields because ours was less than a block away from Yates’ house. A mom said It’s okay, he only kills prostitutes.
Read the rest at Pacifica.