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Police still pursuing unresolved killings

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Clark (The Spokesman-Review)

Similarities between the deaths of two women killed by an aging convict in Illinois and as many as five unsolved homicides in Spokane have drawn the interest of police.

Robert Clark, 72, who is serving a prison term at Lawrence Correctional Facility in Sumner, Ill., for a strangulation murder in that state, had spent at least two years in Eastern Washington during the mid-1980s, when several women were killed by a still-unknown assailant, police said. Clark confessed to the Illinois murder while at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, where he was serving time for the 1987 strangulation of a Spokane woman, Rochelle English.

Police lack solid evidence that would tie Clark to any other murders but suspect he is also responsible for the slayings of Ruby Jean Doss, 27; Mary Ann Turner, 30; Dorothy Burdette, 62; Kathleen DeHart, 37; and possibly Linda Lewis, 48.

All the women suffered blows to the head, most were sexually assaulted and all were strangled. Lewis was killed in 1995, but the others were killed between 1986 and 1987.

“The vast majority of murders are gunshots, knife wounds and blunt trauma,” said Spokane police Detective Kip Hollenbeck. “Strangulation is not one of the top ways. When strangulation is involved, it’s common that it is the same person because they get off on it for some reason.”

It’s a theory at this point, Hollenbeck said.

“We are basing this all on the coincidences that add up,” he said.

“We can’t prove it yet. It’s a bunch of theories and circumstantial evidence, but not enough to arrest him.”

Banking on the fact that Clark probably wouldn’t live to make it out of prison and had confessed to the two previous murders, Spokane police Sgt. Joe Peterson and Hollenbeck flew to Chicago to question him.

“But he wouldn’t confess,” Peterson said. “What he did tell us was that his attorney in the second trial told him that if he had not confessed, he never would have been convicted of either of the murders.”

His attorney is appealing the Chicago murder conviction, Peterson said.

“He’s sure his attorney is going to win his appeal and even if the attorney doesn’t, he’s sure he’ll get out in 2016.” Clark will be 80 then.

Clark, who has a criminal record going back to 1957, is originally from Milwaukee, Wis.

He told detectives he was kicked out of his home when he was a teen – and he never talked to anyone in his family again.

He was taken in by a 42-year-old woman, he told detectives.

Clark followed his children to the Inland Northwest in 1986, after living in Tennessee for 10 years.

He would take a bus over to Spokane from Moses Lake or Ritzville and stay at the Union Gospel Mission for a week or two, sometimes for a month, Hollenbeck said. He partied at downtown bars and cruised Sprague Avenue for prostitutes.

Detectives said the dead women were known to frequent the same places.

The strangulations stopped when Clark left the Spokane area and went to California in late 1987, Hollenbeck said.

Detectives are unsure where Clark was when Lewis was killed in 1995, but her slaying is similar to the others’.

Clark was arrested on a probation violation in 1996, in Escondido, Calif., after a forgery conviction, and he returned to Grant County. He was interviewed by Spokane detectives in jail and confessed to English’s murder, Hollenbeck said.

When detectives interviewed Clark in Illinois, he never admitted he killed the women police asked him about, but he denied it either, detectives said.

He liked to talk, and he never got angry about the allegations.

“When we got up to leave, he said, ‘You know what? I like you guys,’ ” Hollenbeck said. ” ‘If I change my mind, I’ll give you guys a call.’ ”