Sitka man takes plea deal in murder of girlfriend; will serve 45 years

Defendant Reuben Yerkes (l.) sits by then-public defender Jude Pate in Sitka Superior Court in May of 2017, shortly after confessing to killing his girlfriend of two months, Ali Clayton. Yerkes subsequently was transferred to the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, where he has remained for the past 13 months. Yerkes will appear in person in Sitka Court on September 4 for sentencing. He’s accepted a plea deal and a sentence of 45 years, with a discretionary parole review after 15 years.
(KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

A Sitka man accused of killing his girlfriend last year has taken a plea deal, and now could face up to 45 years in prison.

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The move puts an end to over a year of legal wrangling between the state and the City of Sitka over privileged evidence, and spares the grieving community a lengthy trial.

40-year-old Reuben Yerkes appeared via video conference in Sitka Superior Court Thursday afternoon. He’s been held in Juneau at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center since shortly after his arrest in May of 2017.

Yerkes was charged with two counts of murder in the first degree, and one count of murder in the second degree, in the shooting death of 28-year-old Ali Clayton, his girlfriend of about two months — crimes carrying penalties of up to 99 years in prison.

In his settlement with the state, Yerkes agreed to plead guilty to a single reduced count of Murder in the Second Degree, and take a sentence of 60 years in prison, with 15 suspended — for a total of 45 years.

Presiding Judge Trevor Stephens wanted to make sure that Yerkes understood that he was waiving his rights to a trial — and to an appeal — by accepting the deal.

Stevens — Mr. Yerkes, has anybody made you any promises to get you to plead guilty to the reduced charge on count 1 of Murder in the First Degree, other than what’s been discussed here in court today?
Yerkes — No, Your Honor.
Stevens — Has anybody made any threats to get you to do this?
Yerkes — No, Your Honor.
Stevens — Have you had enough time to talk this over with counsel?
Yerkes — Yes, Your Honor.
Stevens — Do you need any more time now?
Yerkes — No, Your Honor.

Yerkes turned himself in to Sitka police early in the morning of May 6, 2017, and confessed to shooting Clayton in her Davidoff Street home, after the two had been in an argument.

The pair met while both were working in City Hall in Sitka: Yerkes as a paralegal, and Clayton in the Finance Department.

As part of the criminal investigation, the state seized the computers used by both — but the City claimed privilege over the contents of much of Yerkes’ computer, since he had been actively involved in other outstanding municipal legal cases — most notably, legal action surrounding a landslide in 2015 which took three lives.

The evidence dispute forced the court to push back the trial date to September of this year.

But now, that trial will not happen. Judge Stephens — who has been covering the Sitka Court since the retirement of Judge David George in April — said that he would take time to familiarize himself with the case, and to review a pre-sentencing report where he hoped to learn more about Yerkes.

Stephens told the many friends and supporters of the Clayton family present that it was relatively rare for a judge not to accept all the terms of a plea agreement at sentencing. But then he turned to Yerkes on screen and said, “I don’t know enough about you that I would commit to go along with this.”

Stephens ordered Yerkes to appear in person for sentencing at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, September 4.

If Judge Stephens signs off on the 45-year sentence, Yerkes would have a discretionary parole review after 15 years — the first third of his sentence — and a mandatory parole review after 30 years.