Pop Culture & Mental Health Psychology

Women Who Kill: Andrea Yates

According to Andrea, she killed her children to save them from Satan and her own evil maternal influences…

Andrea Yates’ life became a case study for the rare occurrence of postpartum psychosis, demonstrating the severe implications of untreated mental illness. From the re-telling of her story, we will see a woman whose hormonal shifts gave rise to violent hallucinations and thoughts – detailing how the combination of a history of depression and anxiety, hormonal changes, and noncompliance with medication can lead to the making of a woman who would kill her own children.

Andrea Yates was raised in Houston, Texas in a middle-class family. The youngest of five, she was expected to be a high achiever. She succeeded in high school as she was the captain of the swim team, a National Honor Society member, and valedictorian of her 1982 graduating class. Andrea attended the University of Houston and the University of Texas, graduating with a nursing degree in 1986. She worked as a registered nurse at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center from 1986 to 1994 – until she ended her nursing career shortly after marrying Russell “Rusty” Yates in 1993.

The couple first met in 1989 at the Houston apartment complex they both resided in. Both were twenty-five at the time. Rusty, “a popular jock” in high school and summa cum laude graduate of Auburn University, was employed designing computer systems for NASA. Andrea approached him first in conversation – something that Rusty would later reveal as an uncharacteristically bold move for her. Only after her arrest did Rusty learn that Andrea had never dated until she turned twenty-three, that she was recuperating from a romantic break-up at the time they met, and that her directness in initiating contact with him was most likely prompted by intense loneliness and depression.

According to sources, the couple spent the next four years becoming acquainted, living together, and reading the bible and praying. Their wedding, while small and simple, was noteworthy for the couple as they confidently proclaimed to their guests that they would not be using birth control – as they wanted as many children as nature would provide. This desire for children was immediately fulfilled, with Andrea becoming pregnant three months after their wedding.

Shortly after the birth of their first child, Andrea begins to show signs of mental illness, when she had a hallucination that involved a stabbing. Shortly after, Rusty accepted a job offer in Florida and relocated the family to a small trailer in Seminole. By the birth of their third son, the family had settled back in Houston and purchased a GMC motor home. Following the birth of their fourth son, Andrea became severely depressed.

Coincidently, at the same time, the couple’s religious beliefs were becoming less than conventional. While they were not members of any local church, they hosted a Bible study group in their home 3 nights a week. They became attached to a fundamentalist preacher, Michael Woroniecki – the same person who sold them their GMC motor home. Woroniecki’s rhetoric centered around statements such as, “Hell is right on the doorstep, waiting to bring you in.” He believed parents were especially responsible for ensuring the salvation of their children, ‘lest they perish in hellfire’. He would also say that parents ought to commit suicide rather than cause their children “to stumble” and go to hell. Andrea’s family became increasingly concerned by how captivated Andrea was by Woroniecki’s words, while Andrea’s mental health began to deteriorate more and more. The media would later allege that Andrea’s condition was strongly influenced by Woroniecki’s extremist sermons.

On June 16, 1999, Rusty finds Andrea shaking and chewing her fingers.

The next day, she attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. She was admitted to the hospital but was discharged before her symptoms resolved (due to her insurance company limiting the number of days of inpatient care it would pay for) and prescribed antidepressants. Andrea allegedly refused to take the medication. Shortly after her release, she was hospitalized again – after begging her husband to let her die as she held a knife against her throat. She was then diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. When she became near catatonic, doctors suggested electroconvulsive therapy, but the family rejected this option. The hospital instead gave her a mixture of medications, including an anti-psychotic drug. The medication was immediately effective, and her condition improved immensely. However, Andrea believed that she was given a ‘truth serum,’ which caused her to lose control of herself.

Despite a psychiatrist’s warning that having another child would almost guarantee another psychotic episode, the couple conceived their fifth and final child approximately 7 weeks after her discharge.

In March 2000, Andrea stopped taking her antipsychotic medication and gave birth to a girl on November 30th of that year. She seemed to be coping well until the death of her father on March 12, 2001, when she then stopped talking, drinking liquids, nursing the baby, and began pulling out her own hair. She thought video cameras were watching her in the house, and that television characters were speaking to her and calling her a bad mom. Mute and catatonic, Andrea was admitted to the hospital for a third time to a facility that specialized in substance use (which was chosen by her husband because it was close to home). A new psychiatrist restarted her on the antipsychotic drug therapy; and she was discharged 10 days later, despite still being depressed and mute, because her sleeping and eating had improved.

Andrea’s return home was marked by newly eccentric behaviors, including filling the bath with water just in case, telling her mother-in-law, she “needed it.” She was hospitalized the next day after a scheduled doctor visit, as her psychiatrist believed she was suicidal and that she had filled the tub to drown herself. Later on, Andrea confessed to police that she was actually planning to drown her children then but had decided against it.

Three months later, on June 20, 2001, Rusty leaves for work, leaving Andrea alone to watch the children despite her psychiatrists’ explicit instructions to supervise her around the clock. Shortly after his departure, Andrea fills the bathtub with water and methodically drowns her five children, one by one.

In her confession, she stated that she first drowned 2-year-old Luke, followed by 3-year-old Paul and 5-year-old John. She carried each child’s body to the master bedroom, placed them on the bed, and covered them with a sheet. As she was drowning 6-month-old Mary, the oldest Noah (7-years-old) confronted her. “What’s wrong with Mary?” he asked and then, realizing what was happening, fled. Andrea chased Noah through the house, dragged him to the tub, and drowned him alongside his dead sister. There is no evidence that any of the children were drugged.

Next, she telephoned the police and cryptically said, “it’s time.” She then asked for the police to come to her home. She also called Rusty at work and told him he needed to return home. When a police officer arrived and asked her what was wrong, her response was: “I killed my kids.”

While in jail, awaiting trial, Andrea stated that she considered killing her children for 2 years, adding that she thought she wasn’t a good mother and claiming that her sons were developing improperly. She told her jail psychiatrist: “It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren’t righteous. They stumbled because I was evil. The way I was raising them, they could never be saved. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell.” She also told her jail psychiatrist, Dr. Melissa Ferguson, that Satan influenced her children and made them more disobedient. She claimed to have been marked by Satan, and that the only way to save her children from hell was to kill them; then when the state punished her for their deaths, Satan himself would be destroyed.

She stated that she was not mentally ill and had never been depressed because she had never cried.

One psychiatrist asked Andrea what she thought would happen to the children. Andrea indicated that she believed God would “take them up.” He reversed the question and asked what might have happened if she had not taken their lives. “I guess they would have continued stumbling,” which meant “they would have gone to hell.” The psychiatrist then wanted to know specifically what the children had done to give her the idea that they weren’t behaving properly. Andrea responded that they didn’t treat Rusty’s mother well, adding that, “They didn’t do things God likes.”

Dr. Lucy Puryear, a psychiatrist from the Baylor College of Medicine, said on Court TV’s Mugshots that Andrea was the sickest person she had ever seen in her life; noting Andrea’s appearance during this time as unbathed, dressed in an orange prison uniform, seemingly unaware of what was going on around her. She was shaking and every now and then would absently scratch her head. After hearing her history, Dr. Puryear immediately knew that Andrea was suffering from postpartum psychosis.

However, despite psychiatrists for both the Texas State prosecutors and the defense team agreeing that Andrea was severely mentally ill with one of several psychotic diseases at the time she killed her children, Texas law requires that to successfully prove an insanity defense, the defendant must prove that he or she could not discern right from wrong at the time of the crime. Due to this, the state of Texas asserted that Andrea was by legal definition aware enough to judge her actions as right or wrong despite her mental defect. The prosecution further implied spousal-revenge as motive for the killings, despite the conclusion of defense experts that there was no evidence to support such a motive.

The jury believed Andrea was legally aware of her actions – although they disagreed that her motive was spousal-revenge – and rejected her defense of insanity. In March 2002, Andrea was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice with eligibility for parole in 40 years.

On January 6, 2005, a Texas Court of Appeals reversed Andrea’s conviction, due to one of the prosecution’s witnesses admitting to providing materially false testimony during the trial. The witness stated that shortly before the killings, an episode of Law & Order had aired featuring a woman who drowned her children and was acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Author Suzanne O’Malley, who was covering the trial for Oprah Magazine and had previously been a writer for Law & Order, reported that no such episode existed. But, the appellate court felt that the jury may have been influenced by the witness’ false testimony and that a new trial would be necessary.

The jury in 2006 completely disagreed with the prosecution’s assertions and Andrea’s earlier conviction from 2002 was overturned; as she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, as defined by the state of Texas, and committed to the North Texas State Hospital – Vernon Campus. In January 2007, she was moved to a low security state mental hospital in Kerrville, Texas.

The Abnormal Behavior of Rusty Yates

It should be noted that Rusty’s behaviors during Andrea’s descent into severe mental illness gravely influenced her actions and their outcome – demonstrating the important role support systems can play in the presentation of mental illness. This is detailed throughout the trial, as Rusty claimed to have never been warned of his wife’s psychotic features. Yet, according to trial testimony from 2006, when Rusty was advised not to leave Andrea unattended; it was revealed that Rusty acknowledged the doctor’s advice and proceeded to ignore it, as he purposely left Andrea alone with the children in the weeks leading up to the drownings for short periods of time, in an attempt to improve her independence.

He had even announced at a family gathering the weekend before the drowning that he had decided to leave Andrea home alone for an hour each morning and evening, so that she would not become totally dependent on him and his mother for her maternal responsibilities. Andrea’s mother, Jutta Karin Kennedy, expressed shock when she heard of this plan while at the gathering, as she declared that Andrea wasn’t stable enough to care for the childrennoting that her daughter demonstrated she wasn’t in her right mind when she nearly choked her still-toothless infant daughter Mary by trying to feed her solid food.

Her brother, Brian Kennedy, told Larry King on a broadcast of CNN’s Larry King Live that Rusty expressed to him in 2001 while transporting Andrea to Devereux treatment facility that all depressed people needed was a “swift kick in the pants” to get them motivated. Additionally, Andrea revealed to Dr. Ferguson that prior to their last child, “she told Rusty that she did not want to have sex because [her previous doctor] said it might hurt her children.”

Rusty, she said, simply asserted his procreative religious beliefs, complimented her as a good mother, and persuaded her that she could handle more children.

O’Malley highlighted Rusty’s continuing sense of unreality regarding having more children, in her Oprah article, noting that: “During the trial, [Rusty] successfully maintained the position that Andrea would be found innocent. He had fantasies of having more children with her after she was successfully treated in a mental health facility and released on the proper medication. He worked his way through various fixes for their damaged lives, such as a surrogate motherhood and adoption (horrifying Andrea’s family, attorneys and Houston psychiatrists) before giving in to reality.”

All of this to say that while Rusty would have no reason to have any inclination that Andrea would kill their children, his inability to put her mental health first contributed to the horrific event that occurred that Spring of 2001.

References:

Since completing my undergraduate studies, I've dedicated my time to supporting and empowering individuals with behavioral health issues. This blog is to be a platform for the behavioral health community; examining the history of behavioral health and the progressions made within the field while providing information and resources to those who need it.

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