SO, FOR MONTHS NOW, we've been watching the man who looks like a dissolute, jaundiced football coach--Robert Lee Yates Jr.--stare down cameras as he fights eight charges of murder. More specifically, he's accused of picking up Spokane-area prostitutes, stuffing their heads into plastic grocery bags, and shooting them to death. Oh, and taking their purses. The case hardly makes a ripple in the national bastion of serial killers: There is no gourmet refrigeration, no unorthodox sex practice, no lampshade made of skin. There are only streetwalkers, drug addicts, and an average-looking family man.

The case makes me think of something I'd rather forget: that I lived in Spokane. Spokane is a strange place--it's the size of a city, boasting a population of approximately 185,000, but it's got the frontier values of a small town in Montana. The differences between Seattle and Spokane, its shadow-city across the mountains, have resulted in verbal cockfights many times. But the truth is, Spokane really is fucked up. It's 90 percent white, with 17 percent of its population living below the poverty level; it's a hoedown where Seattle is a roller derby.

Yates trolled for his victims on--and in fact lived within minutes of--Sprague Avenue. Sprague (rhymes with "plague") is the main thoroughfare in Spokane, a road that jumps from car dealerships to gun shops, sex shops, and pawn shops. There are offshoots of Sprague that peter into dirt roads, impromptu garbage dumps, crenelated overpasses--all shaded by Spokane's infamous affinity for billboards (there are no limiting city statutes, and billboards proliferate). Spokane is one of those cities whose grid, like the lines of palmistry, reveals its character, and Sprague is the "heart" line. It's the disseminator of drugs and religious pamphlets, the place to cruise, the street that leads in and backs out, toward Idaho.

It's a street I walked down many times. I once saw a dead body (the incident was not, as far as I know, related to Mr. Yates) on Sprague, the first dead body I had ever seen. I was 21, had just moved to Spokane, and was out job hunting. It was over 100 feverish degrees, and when I turned a corner, the glint of police cars made a mirage, wavering around a heavy man flat-backed on the sidewalk. His skin gleamed slicker than the heat seemed to warrant; one foot was angled slightly upward, as if he'd been in mid-step when struck down--by the violence of heat, or error, or life in general.

Later, when I told the guy I was living with (I'll call him "Spike"--and, okay, I was married to him) about what I'd seen, he didn't seem surprised. He was a Spokane native and believed, like everyone else, that if you died on the street, you deserved to be a spectacle. This was, I learned, part of the "Code of the West," a system of libertine ethics absolutely essential to life in Spokane. The Code emphasizes values like independence, the indisputable virtue of a difficult life, and the need for privacy. Many features of the Code end with "you get what you deserve." When it was discovered that a man related to Spike regularly hit his wife, the consensus was that she was annoying and "got what she deserved." Also, it was nobody's business.

Some other unfortunate Codes of the West, unspoken, include the idea that one does not rat on one's neighbors, that prostitutes deserve what they get, and that women make completely unreliable witnesses in court. Spokane County's Domestic Violence Consortium reveals that, in a 1993 opinion poll, one in every five heads of households was aware of someone who had been affected by intimate partner violence.

And Yates' record was no secret, either. In November 1998, Spokane police were called to his home on a domestic violence complaint, at which time, according to media reports, Yates' 19-year-old daughter said that her father hit her all the time, a charge to which Yates would later plead guilty. The charge, and subsequent plea, should have resulted in mandatory therapy for Yates, but instead charges were simply dropped. Police said there had been a "processing mistake."

Two days before that incident, Yates was pulled over by police in a known prostitution area at 1:30 a.m. with a young woman in the car. He claimed to be driving the woman home at her father's request, and the police let them go. Later, the woman admitted Yates had paid her to perform oral sex. He was never charged.

It's all an elegant illustration of the Code. Yates was never seriously scrutinized because he's a man, doing what Spokane men do. The Code created the atmosphere that allowed 18 women to be killed over a period of 16 years without a serious effort to catch the murderer. Police put up billboards (of course) and offered a reward--but later, when the budget got tight, they pulled all city officers off the task force investigating the murders. And really, how could a serious effort not have netted Yates--who lived just a few blocks from Sprague, where the women were picked up; who had been stopped on that very street with a prostitute in his car?

The Code is also what Yates thinks will exonerate him. When a prostitute asked him if he was "the psycho killer," Yates reportedly told her that he was a father of five and would "never never do such a thing." Now, the father of five seems at ease in court. This, despite voluminous circumstantial and DNA evidence (at press time, the DNA evi- dence was being re-evaluted). His confidence probably stems from the fact that the only living witness is a streetwalker with bullet fragments in her brain, who managed to escape when Yates tried to shoot her.