Former Sitka paralegal sentenced for 2017 murder of his girlfriend

Reuben Yerkes (l.) enters court with his attorney, public defender Nathan Lockwood. As part of his deal with the state, Yerkes pleaded guilty to second degree murder, which carries a penalty of up to 99 years in prison. Judge Trevor Stevens did not see a reason to reject a proposed sentence of 60 years, with 15 suspended, because of Yerkes’s otherwise spotless criminal record. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

A Sitka man has been sentenced to 45 years in prison for second-degree murder for shooting his girlfriend during an altercation last year. Tuesday’s sentencing concluded a 15-month legal drama that began with a romance inside Sitka’s city hall.

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During a heart-wrenching two-hour hearing in Sitka Superior Court, 40-year old Reuben Yerkes — a former city paralegal — told the overflow audience that taking the life of 28-year-old Ali Clayton “constitutes the single worst failure of my life,” and expressed deep remorse over the act, and over the trauma he has inflicted on the community.

“All that matters now is that Ali isn’t here,” Yerkes said through tears. “People are suffering greatly as a result of my actions. Words cannot express the sorrow, regret, and shame I feel knowing I took away the life of a kind and loving woman — a woman who should have had a bright future.”

Yerkes turned himself in to Sitka police early in the morning of Saturday May 6, 2017, and confessed to shooting Clayton in her home during an argument that night. After formal charges were brought, Yerkes initially asked for a trial by entering a plea of not guilty. He changed his plea,however, when he realized the further potential for pain it would cause in the community.

Yerkes was raised in Sitka.

“You had every right to expect more from me,” Yerkes said. “In the face of the crushing tragedy I have inflicted on this town, I am broken.”

Before taking a job in Sitka’s City Hall, Ali Clayton (pictured here in 2012) spent nearly a decade working at Harris Air. At Tuesday’s sentencing, friends and family spoke movingly about Clayton’s energy an ambition: She had started a vacation rental business in her late grandmother’s home, and she was hoping to expand. Nevertheless, Clayton died there in her upper floor apartment, after Yerkes held her to the bed and shot her four times. Judge Trevor Stevens said from the bench, “The horror, the terror that he caused her in that moment is simply beyond my powers to describe.” (Photo courtesy of Scott Harris)

The couple met after Clayton took a job in Sitka’s Finance Department. They had only been dating for about 10 weeks, when Yerkes shot and killed Clayton. He has already spent 15 months in jail — most of that time at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau — while the state and the city engaged in a protracted dispute over confidential emails on the computers seized from the pair’s work computers.

His mother, Karen Yerkes, told the court that she expected him to forge a meaningful life behind bars.

“Having loving, encouraging family and friends will make all the difference in his ability to make a life for himself, and provide him some measure of self-worth, which will allow him to atone for his deed,” Karen Yerkes said. “I can’t go back and change the past, no matter how much I wish it. I can wish and pray for peace for Ali’s loved ones. I can make the best of the present, and have hope for the future. These things I do because despite Reuben’s responsibility in Ali’s death, he is a good human being.”

But not everyone who spoke at the hearing agreed. Ali Clayton’s father, Steve Clayton, argued that Reuben Yerkes was more dangerous than many realized. In the aftermath of Ali’s death, he and his wife discovered two weapons belonging to Yerkes — including a sniper rifle — which he had stored in her home, in addition to the pistol he used for the crime. Police found other weapons, and literature about snipers, on Yerkes’ boat. Pounding his fist on the table, Steve Clayton told the court that his daughter was not the victim of Yerkes’ rage, but of his homicidal fantasies.

“Killing people is in his brain thoughts,” Clayton said.

Judge Trevor Stevens also shared his misgivings over the manner of Ali Clayton’s death. Although he believed that Yerkes never planned Clayton’s death, Stevens said it was intentional: Yerkes had to “walk across the room, open a drawer, take out a handgun,” and then held Clayton on the bed as he shot her four times in the head.

“It’s fair to infer from the record I have before me that she was aware of what was happening,” Stevens said from the bench. “She may have attempted to defend herself; it’s likely she knew she was going to die. The horror, the terror that he caused her in that moment is simply beyond my powers to describe.”

Ali Clayton’s mother, Paula Clayton, offered the longest testimony to the court. She said that Yerkes did not deserve another day of freedom. She described “the five life sentences” that she would now face including the pain of knowing her daughter faced a violent death, the loss of joy in her family’s lives and most importantly: living with hatred. Paula Clayton said that she taught her two children that it was okay to hate cauliflower, but never people.

Her child’s murder has changed her.

“I was wrong,” Paula Clayton told the court. “I hate Mr. Yerkes with every cell in my body. I despise him. I loathe him. Some people will say that I need to forgive him, to find it in myself to forgive him, but they’re not experiencing this.”

Depending on his behavior in prison, Reuben Yerkes will be eligible for discretionary parole in 13 years and nine months. If the parole board turns him down, he’ll be eligible for mandatory parole after serving 30 years of his 45-year sentence.

Steve Clayton did not appear placated by this news. Looking at Yerkes, he said, “You’re lucky to have this court of law to protect you.”