Pain, work relentless in Yates case

Rusty Yates shifted his inscrutable gaze from an empty patch of grass to the children at play.

His four boys used to love this Clear Lake park, he said. They would jump on playground equipment over there, he said, pointing, and run staggered races over there. The NASA engineer worked it so that Luke, 2; Paul, 3; John, 5; and Noah, 7, arrived at the finish line at the same time.

“It was cute,” Yates said, his voice trailing off.

See Also

Andrea Yates is said to have been influenced by Michael Peter and Rachel Woroniecki, so-called ‘preachers’ whose extremist views and behavior place them outside the norms of normal Christianity

Resources on this case: articles, audio, video, photos, available at the web site of the Houston Chronicle

Book: Breaking Point, by Suzy Spencer

It’s been almost three years since his wife, Andrea, drowned the boys and 6-month-old Mary in the bathtub in their home. Interviews with people close to the convicted murderer reveal that her life has become a hazy blend of grief, tedium, mental illness. Rusty says he feels as if he’s imprisoned, too.

Supporters say she should be detained in a psychiatric hospital, not a prison.

Those are fighting words in Houston, usually comfortable with its Wild West approach to crime and criminals. The Yates case, however, is different. Defense lawyers are pushing for a new trial, the case still is a cause célçbre among mental health advocates, and local debate is as divisive as ever.

One camp sees Andrea, 39, as a cold-blooded murderer. What could be worse, they ask, than a mother who holds her children, one by one, facedown in a tub until they quit struggling? She deserves her life sentence, they say.

Kaylynn Williford, one of the assistant district attorneys who prosecuted the case, thinks Yates deserves to be executed.

“If Andrea Yates had been a man, the public reaction would have been very different. Here were five beautiful children who didn’t get a chance to grow up, five beautiful children who didn’t want to die. Think about the fear those children went through at the hands of their mother — the one person they expected to defend them.”

The other camp is equally impassioned. They don’t have enough fingers to count the people and systems who failed the Clear Lake mom before she killed the children. She tried to commit suicide twice, they note, and she was hospitalized for psychiatric problems four times. Supporters ask, how crazy did she need to be for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity? They’re not trying to free Yates, they say, but confine her in an appropriate psychiatric setting.

Wendell Odom, one of Yates’ attorneys, summed up his feelings when she was found guilty, then dealt a life sentence.

“I may never get over it,” he said.

Prosecutors say it’s time to let all this go. They say the system did work, and Yates is where she needs to be. Defense attorneys, now working for free, vow they will keep working until justice is done. In mid-February, they’ll file the appeal for a new trial.

Andrea’s lead attorney, George Parnham, is one of those lawyers who almost always has something to say. But one rainy day in early January, he was painfully silent. He’d just been to the Skyview Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to visit Yates. She still was so vulnerable and sick, he said, it took his breath away.

He turned his back on the ugliness — the beige stucco prison, the double coils of razor wire atop 10-foot fences, the ochre-colored guard towers receding in the background — and ticked off his reasons for the visit.

Most important, Parnham wanted to update Andrea on the appeal. But then he stopped. Yates is a bright woman, a former cancer nurse. But these days, her short-term memory is poor. She seems to understand what she is told, then she forgets. She isn’t agitating to leave her prison home, Parnham said. For her, for now, there is a nightmarish past and no future.

That sense of futility is another reason Parnham tries to make the six-hour round trip to Rusk to see Yates every month or two. He wants to support her, whether she is able to discuss the finer points of her case or just chit-chat about prison gardening projects or his old dog.

“She’s the sweetest,” he said. “She always wants to talk about me.”

Parnham is well aware there’s a high incidence of suicide among mothers who murder their children. During one prison visit, he thought she was actually telling him goodbye. Another reason to visit, he said. He wants to give her a reason to live. He tells her the entire community shares her blame.

That possibility, that all Houstonians bear some responsibility for Yates’ crimes, is discussed in Suzanne O’Malley’s new book, Are You There Alone? — The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates.

The book was a sore point with some of Andrea’s family members. Rusty Yates said he has found a few errors but generally is satisfied with O’Malley’s work.

Small wonder, Andrea’s immediate family thinks. Rusty, 39, is painted in a flattering light — devoted husband, devoted father, devoted nurse to Andrea.

The Kennedy family believes Rusty and his decisions about how they would live are at least partly responsible for Andrea’s downfall. Rusty was the one who met traveling evangelist Michael Woroniecki, admired his message and introduced him to Andrea. Though the two men have had a falling out, it’s widely believed that the itinerant preacher inadvertently supplied Andrea with the framework for her psychotic delusions.

She told her doctors she believed Satan lived within her, her children were going to hell and she had to kill them while they were young so God would accept them in heaven.

Rusty, the leader and authority figure in the Yates household, is commonly blamed for other decisions — such as to home-school the children or live in a converted bus — that made life more difficult for Andrea.

At times Rusty is bitter about the criticism he has received from near and far. He was a devoted nurse. He desperately wanted his wife to get well. Early on, he was ignorant about her mental health problems, but most Americans are slow to recognize the signs and symptoms. He tried to work and juggle his responsibilities to Andrea and the children. That he couldn’t do everything and be everywhere was no surprise.

Incompetent doctors, insurance companies more concerned about the size of the bill than the quality of treatment, a legal system seeking an eye for an eye — those are the villains in the Andrea Yates story, he said, not him.

Publicly, the Kennedy and Yates families try to maintain a united front for Andrea’s sake.

Skyview is the prison system’s version of a psychiatric hospital. The prison staff makes sure their most infamous prisoner takes her medicine, attends group therapy sessions and sees a psychiatrist. All those events take place regularly, says senior warden Todd Foxworth, but he won’t say how regularly.

What Foxworth can say: Yates lives in a 10-by-12-foot cell that is painted white. She has a metal door, not bars, and two narrow windows. She wears prison whites. She is allowed a few books, magazines and photos in her cell. Meals are served starting at 4 a.m., 10 a.m., and 3:30 p.m.

Foxworth said his job would be easy if all inmates were as docile as Yates. He didn’t mention the three or four times she was off her anti-psychotic medication. Off the drugs, she was hearing things, seeing things, and refusing to eat or drink.

Over the years Yates has had numerous diagnoses — everything from postpartum depression to schizophrenia. The diagnosis at Skyview at the moment is bipolar disorder.

“I don’t believe that for a second,” said Dr. George Ringholz, who testified during the trial that Yates is schizophrenic.

Ringholz, chief of the section of behavioral neurology and neuropsychology at Baylor College of Medicine, spent considerable time testing Yates. He said all indicators — the abnormalities in the frontal lobe of her brain, her visual and auditory hallucinations, the postpartum psychosis after the births of Luke and Mary, and interviews with her and her family — all point to schizophrenia.

Dr. Lucy Puryear, also an expert witness for the defense, thinks Yates may have schizo-affective disorder. But the precise diagnosis really doesn’t matter, said the psychiatrist and expert on women’s mental health issues. “What’s important are the symptoms,” Puryear said. And that they be treated correctly.

“The medical system failed her,” Ringholz said. “There was an overemphasis on calling this postpartum depression. People saw her problems as isolated events, as opposed to a disease unfolding.”

Had Yates been helped before she killed the children, Ringholz said, her prognosis would be fairly good today.

But she wasn’t. And it isn’t.

“It’s horrid,” Ringholz said.

It may be impossible to save Andrea Yates, Puryear said. “My guess is she’ll stay in prison the rest of her life. The day she killed her children, her life was effectively over.”

Rusty visits his wife at Skyview every two weeks. Four out of five visits, they are allowed to hug hello and goodbye and hold hands while they talk.

“What Andrea needs to recover is a good psychiatrist,” he said. “A marriage needs certain things, too, like time together. And two hours every two weeks is not much time. We’ve talked, you know, about where we’re going to go from here. We both love each other. But we’re not together. It’s difficult.”

About a year ago, Rusty quit wearing his wedding ring. Is he dating?

None of your business, he said. “But no.”

Does he think about having more children?

His life once was filled with children. He misses them horribly. Yes, he might want to try again.

So, is he married or single?

Neither, he said. Both, he said.

He says he is caught, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. The Israelites waited on God’s help, and God parted the Red Sea.

“I’m at that point,” Yates said. “I’m waiting for God to show me the way. I don’t like either of the options that I see.”

While Rusty throws himself into his job at NASA, he ponders what to do with his personal life. He tries to get organized. He works on his Web site, (

A while back, Yates sold the family Suburban and bought a Suburu. He moved into an apartment and fixed up the family home on Beachcomber to sell.

It’s still on the market. He says, wistfully, that another family may buy it and establish happy memories there.

He wants to be involved in the Yates Children Memorial Fund for Women’s Mental Health Education, launched by the Mental Health Association of Houston and Parnham after the trial. The idea, Rusty said, is to educate new mothers about postpartum illnesses and to make sure his babies didn’t die in vain.

“What happened in my family will always be with me and associated with me,” Rusty said. “But I would like people to know we had a great family. I’d like people to know something good can come from all this, and I want to be a part of it.”

He’s sitting at a table in the Clear Lake park. It’s Sunday, family day. He takes one more look at the children playing.

He has been described as enigmatic, smooth, unfeeling. But on the way out of the park, the face of the man who has lost everything is full of feeling.

“I’m desperately lonely,” he said.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Houston Chronicle, USA
Jan. 25, 2004
Claudie Feldman

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This post was last updated: Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 4:40 PM, Central European Time (CET)