Detective is Tacoma’s longest-serving officer

6 unsolved homicides weigh on him as he retires

Staff writerMarch 31, 2014 

After more than three decades of catching killers, Bob Yerbury is utterly bewildered by the idea of relaxation.

It’s a concept the homicide detective will have to get used to as he retires Monday after 44 years with the Tacoma Police Department, making him the longest-serving commissioned officer in the department’s 129-year history.

Only three others have worn the badge for four decades.

Yerbury, 67, has spent the past 10 years telling people he’ll retire in two more years.

Then he continued to put on a suit coat every morning and go to work, clutching the tattered black Kenneth Cole briefcase he’s carried since the mid-1980s.

“I didn’t have a good reason to retire,” said Yerbury, who was eligible for retirement 17 years ago. “To be honest, I’m not sure I have a good reason now. I still like my job; I’m still interested in what I do.”

Yerbury doesn’t know how many homicides he’s investigated, but he’s been the lead detective on more than 100 cases. In court, he testifies he’s helped with 500 to 600 crime scenes in his years as detective.

He will end his career with six unsolved cases, which weighs on him.

There was Terri Main, sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in 1986; Antonio Giles, a drug-related shooting in 1993; William McKinney, a drive-by shooting in 1989; Linda Tran and her two children beaten and left to die in their burning home in 1998; Robert Keisler, a drug-related shooting in 2003; and Troyvon Taylor, killed in his apartment in 2010.

“I remember very well each one of those cases and can see each one of them in my mind’s eye,” Yerbury said. “Nothing could make me happier than to see each one of those cases solved, even if it’s not me.”

Yerbury didn’t always want to be a cop, even though his father was a Tacoma police officer for 26 years.

He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and returned home to work in an auto parts manufacturing plant while going to college at night.

With a wife and infant, he searched for a more stable job with better wages and was sworn in as a patrol officer on March 30, 1970.

He worked as a motorcycle officer before returning to patrol for a while and investigated narcotics and burglaries before being promoted to homicide detective in 1981.

Back then, Yerbury was one of only four detectives.

His tactics have not changed over the years, and he still follows the same philosophy: Keep it simple. Let the facts reveal themselves rather than try to interpret a crime scene.

That’s one of the first lessons detective Brian Vold learned from Yerbury after joining the division 14 years ago, and one he never forgot.

“He’s an extremely good teacher,” Vold said. “Everybody looks up to him. He’s been to every type of homicide you can think of, and experience is the best teacher.”

Other detectives routinely brought their cases to Yerbury for his insight. When the investigators gather in their conference room to go over a case, the chair at the end of the table stays empty until Yerbury strides in.

Nobody would dare take the seat of the revered detective who has been working at the department longer than some of the officers have been alive.

“He’s really a fixture around there,” said Lt. Bob Maule, who supervised the homicide unit until last year. “He brings a wealth of knowledge to the table. He is a polite person and a professional person, and he truly cared about all his cases.”

In the criminal justice community, Yerbury is known as hard-working, persistent and kind.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said the detective’s “gentlemanly demeanor” put suspects and witnesses so at ease that they opened up.

“He solved cases by hard work and a lot of chat,” Lindquist said.

Some of Yerbury’s cases have been featured on television. One — about three Tacoma men who killed two people in 1984, severing the head of one and placing it in a cement-filled bucket later found in the Puyallup River — became a true crime book called “Head Shot.”

Over the years, Yerbury solved dozens of cases, but a few stayed with him because of the time and effort invested.

He recalls the 1987 murder-for-hire of Jonathan Perkins, a Fort Lewis Army sergeant. Yerbury was convinced the man’s wife, Rita Perkins, was guilty, but without proof, the case stalled.

Yerbury never gave up.

Years later, he found a report from a car accident Rita Perkins had been in that listed a male passenger. Yerbury tracked the man’s address to California and eventually discovered he’d been arrested with a .22-caliber pistol — the same type of gun used to shoot Jonathan Perkins.

The gun was quickly recovered from a pile of weapons slated for destruction, and Yerbury traveled out of state to the mall where Perkins worked to slap handcuffs on her.

“It was one of those great moments,” Yerbury said. “I told her I’d see her again.”

He also was lead investigator in the 1995 death of Robert Henry, considered one of the most intensive investigations in the department’s history.

Yerbury examined the case almost daily for five years before arresting Henry’s business partner, Larry Shandola, for the shooting.

Henry’s wife, Paula, said the detective helped her get counseling, was always straightforward about developments in the investigation and would let her sit in his office when fear overwhelmed her, comfortingly patting her hand.

“Bob is much more than a detective,” Paula Henry said. “He’s a very compassionate human being as well.”

Formal accolades for Yerbury are plentiful — he has 48 commendations in his personnel file. Many are thank-you notes from prosecutors, victim families and other agencies.

In 1972, the department honored Yerbury for saving the life of a 6-year-old boy who’d been hit by a car. The detective performed CPR on the child, who suffered a collapsed lung and wasn’t breathing, until paramedics arrived.

Yerbury was recognized that same year for clearing more than 85 burglaries in the McKinley Hill area and again in 1998 for having an exceptional homicide clearance rate.

“He has done outstanding work his entire career,” Chief Don Ramsdell said. “He’ll leave here as a legend.”

Yerbury isn’t excited about retiring, but he feels it’s time to go. When the zipper on his ratty briefcase broke three months ago, it wasn’t the first time, but he didn’t bother to replace it.

He’s been too busy closing out his cases to think much about what comes next. More time sitting on the deck at his lake house is probably in order. He’d like to do some fishing and hunting in Alaska.

There will be no setting an alarm clock to rise in the morning.

“Whatever retired means,” he said, “that’s what I’m going to be.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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