After 47 years, Yakima police identify a cold case homicide victim

A photo of Vereta Jon Gates.
After 47 years, Yakima police identified Vereta Jon, or Joni, Gates as the victim of an homicide that occurred in 1977. (Credit: Yakima Police Department)



A cold case victim from nearly 50 years ago has been identified. The Yakima Police Department spoke about the case on July 2. 

Investigators from the Yakima Police Department gave Vereta Jon, or Joni, Gates her name back after 47 years of investigation. 

Detective Kevin Cays, one of the investigators in the case, said Gates’ siblings’ DNA played a crucial role in her identification. 

Gates was found on July 25, 1977, inside an abandoned van parked at the Yakima Hardware Company in downtown Yakima. 

Her body was very decomposed and had no ID when it was found. She also showed signs of being sexually assaulted. 

“The autopsy concluded that the victim had several injuries and ultimately died as a result of strangulation,” Cays said.

According to Cays, the path to identifying Gates was complicated from the beginning. 

He said initially detectives followed up on leads to people believing they knew who the victim was, and who was responsible. None of those leads seemed to pan out.

They also created dental records from the remains and compared them to several missing women from jurisdictions around the country. However, there were no matches. 

In the 1990s, he said Gates’ skull and mandible was sent to the University of Washington’s anthropology department for possible feature identification or forensic reconstruction. There were never any results. 

As the years went by, evidence was lost. For instance, the skull was never returned, Cays explained.

Then, with forensic advances, investigators also tried to get good DNA samples.

Amber Ross, an evidence technician at the Yakima Police Department, said an exhumation in 2004 was crucial in the case.

“In 2005, the femur bone was sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center to obtain a better DNA profile. They were successful in obtaining enough quality DNA to enter the profile into CODIS,” Ross said. 

She said no hits were generated from that search.

However, in 2022, the department made a petition to use forensic genetic genealogy. It allowed them to search for DNA matches in a wider range of databases. That was possible through a state grant, Ross said. 

“The application was completed and submitted to the Washington state attorney general’s office to receive a grant through a sexual assault kit initiative funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance to fund the genetic genealogy process,” she said.

Cays said it led to the identification of possible relatives and the subsequent identification of Gates.

According to the detectives, Gates was 25 years old when she disappeared. 

“She was known to hitchhike from Vermont in New York, where she was from, to the West Coast and back,” Cays said. 

Cays said she was last seen at a hospital in Chicago less than two weeks before her remains were found in Yakima.

In a written statement, Gates’ relatives said her identification allowed for some closure to the family after 47 years and a wound that never healed.

Now, detectives are calling on the public for more information to be able to solve her case. 

“Although we were successful in identifying Vereta 47 years later, we were left with an unsolved murder,” Cays said. 

He hopes something about this case sounds familiar to someone in the community. 

“We want to know what information you have to help hold the person or persons responsible for her murder accountable,” Cays said.