Before investigators learned the name of Spokane serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr., fear gripped the women who worked as prostitutes on East Sprague Avenue.
As their friends disappeared in the early 1990s, the terror grew. Yet the women, many of whom believed they had no other options, continued to put themselves in harm’s way.
Every Wednesday, the women would visit a van named “Gloria” and grab a fistful of condoms and clean syringes. The rig was the home base for Lynn Everson, the needle exchange coordinator for Spokane Regional Health District. She would give the women a hug and advice and send them on their way.
“If you look at the victims of serial killers, prostituted people are at the top of their list because they have no choice but to get into vehicles with strangers,” Everson said. “Some carried pepper spray. Some carried butcher knives in their pockets. They were afraid, but at the same time they had no other choice but to go out and work.”
Everson said she personally worked with most of the women who would become the murder victims of Yates, who pleaded guilty in 2000 to 13 counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to 408 years in prison. Then in 2002, he was convicted of two additional murders in Pierce County and was sentenced to death.
But on Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, saying the law is applied arbitrarily and in a racially biased manner. As a result, Yates, and every other death row inmate, had their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“I am pleased that (Yates) gets to sit in one small, miserable cell for the rest of his life,” Everson said. “I think the death penalty is too easy. I think the consequences of lifetime in prison are both cheaper and better justice.”
Everson, 69, is about eight months away from retirement. She’s spent more than 29 years working with the city’s most troubled clients. For 27 of those years, Everson maintained a “bad trick list” that included rapists and men who robbed, choked, beat and stabbed prostitutes.
“Yates was on there,” she said of the list. “These women face hostility, anger and violence every single day of their lives. I admire their courage, and I’m very sorry about the choices that they have to make.”
Everson experienced that fear one night when she realized that a “trick” had followed her from East Sprague to downtown Spokane. She was driving a marked health district car.
“I took evasive action and he came back around, so I parked the vehicle … and ran into the Dead End Tavern for safety,” she said of the former bar at 1121 W. First Ave. “In my panic, I did not get the license plate.”
But her pursuer drove a black van with rainbow stripes. She later learned from detectives that the van was driven by Yates. “My theory was that he just liked to mess with people,” Everson said.
For the social worker, working East Sprague was just her job. But to Everson’s clients, the street was their life.
“I knew one woman who had gotten an insurance settlement. She used the insurance money to change her life,” Everson said. “She was the only one we ever heard from who was able to leave prostitution as a means of survival.”
A different woman used prostitution to support her mother until her mother died. “Her mother was her first pimp,” Everson said.
Most women on the street suffered some sort of psychological, physical or emotional childhood trauma, or a combination of all those ordeals, and turned to substance abuse at an early age.
“Some of the women could not read or write. Some had violent pimps,” she said. “Prostitution is not a choice. They came from painful, dysfunctional places.”
And some had the misfortune of meeting Yates. As a result of her interactions with the women, Everson testified as a witness in Yates’ trial.
“It’s very emotional. When I was in court testifying, (Yates) tried to stare me down when I was on the witness stand,” Everson said. “I just remember staring back thinking, ‘You will never walk out of here. I, on the other hand, am going to go enjoy my life.’ ”
“Knowing that he will occupy a small cell forever and ever, it works for me. And the women I know, it works for them, too.”