Casefiles Family Homicide

The Andrea Yates Case: A Tragedy Born From Postpartum Mental Illness

On 20th June 2001 in Houston, Texas, Andrea Yates drowned her five children one after the other in the bathtub of her family home. Four sons, John (5), Luke (2), Paul (3) and Noah (7), and one daughter Mary, just 6 months old.  After the drownings, Andrea called 911 and told them she needed a police office to attend her home.  She then called her husband, Rusty Yates, who was at work as a NASA engineer and told him the kids were hurt.  When he asked which ones, she told him “all of them”.

The case of Andrea Yates made worldwide headlines in 2001.  A horrific crime carried out against innocent children at the hands of their own mother.  In the years since it is a crime that is still talked about, one that understandably can never be forgotten but also one which has raised the profile of a mental illness few understood.

A mental illness that caused this mild-mannered woman to take the lives of her children because she believed she was saving them.  An illness called postpartum psychosis.

Andrea and Rusty Yates married in 1993 after dating for five years, and Rusty introduced Andrea to his preacher, Michael Peter Woroniecki.  Rusty had been following Woroniecki for a number of years and held him and his preaching in high regard.  Woroniecki believed that married couples should have as many children as possible and encouraged the Yates to do just that.  Andrea Yates, a qualified nurse, soon gave birth to their first child Noah in 1994 just a year after they married.

While Andrea stayed at home with the children, Rusty went out to work.  Rusty held very traditional beliefs and those affirmed by Woroniecki, that a wife should be in the home caring for the children and that children should be home-schooled to keep them away from temptations and unsavoury influences.

At one stage Rusty sold the family home and moved Andrea and his by then four children into a converted bus, reportedly because he was concerned the children would become materialistic. In the process Andrea sold all of her possessions and belongings keeping only her sewing machine before spending each day cramped in a bus with the children trying to home-school them.

The Woroniecki’s were a married couple with their own children who Rusty had met during college.  The family lived on a bus, travelling as street ministers and relying on donations and carrying out odd jobs when they needed money. They regularly published their own religious material which they distributed out to their followers, showcasing their strict views.

“. . . A woman is created to be a “helper.” This does not mean a wife. It means a servant, single or married. If a girl does not know how to be a servant then she is learning how to be a ruler. It’s called witchcraft. . . . There is great joy to be had in helping your children develop and apply their abilities. I can’t fathom sending them off to strangers and strange spirits for eight hours a day. Talk about demonic! . . .” Extract from 2000-1 issue of the Woroniecki’s publication, The Perilous Times.

Andrea Yates had been raised in the Catholic faith however, her family had stopped attending Church after her father had lost his job, with Andrea beginning to read the Bible again when she began dating Rusty in 1989.

In 1999, Andrea became depressed and she worried that she was not a good mother.  She was frightened she might hurt her children and attempted suicide by overdosing on pills.

“I kept thinking about my kids”, she said “the way I was raising them and the harm I’d done to them.

She was found in time and rushed to hospital where her life was saved but this was the first red flag of many that her mental health was in a dangerous decline.

The Woroniecki’s remained a heavy influence over their lives and their preachings became more serious.  The children were at risk of being corrupted by Satan, they said and they must be saved. Andrea Yates received psychiatric treatment and her family warned that she continued to be at risk of self harm, she should not be left on her own and needed to keep taking her medication.  Warnings and advice that went unheeded.

Related: Parents Who Kill Their Children [Book Review]

Rusty Yates continued to go to work each day and wanted more children.  Andrea repeatedly stopped taking her medications worried that if she got pregnant they would harm her child.  The family were advised that having another child was very likely to make her condition considerably worse. That same year Andrea had a nervous breakdown and once again tried to commit suicide.  This time she held a knife to her throat and was only saved when Rusty managed to take the knife from her.

“I had a fear I would hurt somebody . . . I thought it better to end my own life and prevent it . . . there was a voice, then an image of the knife . . . I had a vision in my mind, get a knife, get a knife . . . I had a vision of this person being stabbed . . . the aftereffects . . .” – Andrea Yates

Once again she was hospitalized and medicated to try and treat her psychosis.  The Yates had a fifth child, Mary in 2000 and after the death of her father in 2001, Andrea Yates began to unravel.  She threw away her medication, stopped eating and was no longer feeding the baby.  She spent hours in catatonic states, staring into space and she became obsessed with reading the Bible.

Postpartum Psychosis

In the months prior to the murders she was hospitalized twice for the severity of her symptoms with a formal diagnosis of Postpartum Psychosis being made. Postpartum Psychosis is a very serious mental illness which can occur in a small percentage of women soon after childbirth. Related to bipolar disorder, it can present as paranoia, delusions, mood swings, confused thinking and “grossly disorganized behaviour” putting both the mother and her child at risk.

Auditory hallucinations are common along with catatonic ‘trace like’ states and risks of suicide are high. Studies suggest that homicidal behaviour within postpartum psychosis is rare with around 30% of patients reporting delusions surrounding their child and only 9% having thoughts of actually harming their child.

“. . . the patient was near catatonic. Sat in the chair and did not move at all. Did not answer any questions. Speech, none. Thought processes could not be assessed. Some evidence of the patient being suicidal. Affect appropriate but blunt. Mood severely depressed. ” – Psychiatrist assessment, May 2001

Rusty continued to go to work each day and knowing his wife was struggling had an arrangement with his mother that she would be at the home with Andrea and the children to support her while he was at work.

On the morning of 20 June 2001, Rusty left for work as usual and in the hour period before the arrival of her mother-in-law, Andrea drowned all of her children.

Andrea Yates 911 Call Transcript – 09.48 20 June 2001

911 Operator: What’s your name?
Andrea Yates:  Andrea Yates
911 Operator: What’s the problem?
Andrea Yates: Um…I just need ‘em to come.
911 Operator: Is your husband there?
Andrea Yates: No
911 Operator: Well, what’s the problem?
Andrea Yates: I need ‘em to come.
911 Operator: I need to know why we’re coming, ma’am. Is he there standing next to you?
Andrea Yates: No.
911 Operator: She?
Andrea Yates: Pardon me?
911 Operator: Are you having a disturbance? Are you ill or what?
Andrea: Um, yes, I’m ill.
911 Operator: You need an ambulance?
Andrea Yates: No, I need a police officer. Yea, send an ambulance.

Upon arrival at the family home, Andrea opened the front door to the police officer and told him “I killed my kids”.  She led him upstairs where he discovered John, Luke, Paul and Mary laid in the master bed still soaking wet with a sheet placed over them.  7-year-old Noah was found in the bathtub. Andrea was immediately taken into custody. “If I didn’t do it, they would be tormented by Satan.” she told them.

In interviews with forensic psychiatrist Dr Park Dietz, Andrea explained why she had not told doctors before the incident of her fears about her children. “I just believed that if you tell somebody something bad that then it would happen”, she told him “It’s like, you know, Satan, he can hear us, what we say, and I was afraid to share it with people ‘cause it’ll happen, he hears it and makes it happen.. there was the thoughts about the TVs, and cameras in the house, and afraid Satan would ruin my children through himself, and that maybe even that I had some Satan in me.”

When she was taken into jail after the murders she spent the first week in solitary confinement, a police officer noted what she had told him “She claims she and the children would watch cartoons and the characters would speak directly to her and comment on her-– telling her she was a “bad mother.”

She also claims she received messages from movies. In “O Brother Where Art Thou?” a “satanic” character told her “You’ve eluded me long enough.” She says this let her know she was “marked by Satan” and “evil.”

At her trial in 2002 she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, giving the jury the task of deciding whether Andrea Yates knew what was right and wrong and knew, at the time of drowning her children, that killing her children was wrong. They decided she did and found her guilty of capital murder.  Although the prosecution was seeking the death penalty, the jury decided on life imprisonment.

In 2005 Andrea Yates was granted a new trial by the Court of Appeals after evidence given by Dr Park Dietz in relation to an episode of the crime drama series Law & Order which featured a woman drowning her children was found to be incorrect.  At this second trial the jury agreed that Andrea Yates did not know right from wrong at the time of the murders due to severe mental illness, meeting the requirements of the insanity plea under Texas law, and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Related: Familicide and the The Family Annihilator

She was taken to North Texas State Hospital in Vernon for treatment where she remained for two years before being moved in 2007 to a low security state mental hospital in Kerrville, where she still resides today.

Rusty Yates filed for divorce in 2004 and has now remarried and has a new family. He still supports Andrea Yates and is pushing for her to be released at some point in the future.  He says he has forgiven her for what she did and does not think she is a danger to society.

The case of Andrea Yates is a tragic one.  A mother who under the hold of mental illness believed in order to protect and save her children, she needed to kill them.

Andrea Yates is a woman who after the murders spent time in solitary confinement, followed by jail and then many years in psychiatric units.

At some point in this process her psychosis was brought under control. She was able to think rationally again, blend back in with the majority of society’s mind-sets and in doing so she will have had to face the reality of what she has done.  This is a woman who has to live with the fact that while extremely unwell she did murder her five children.

Her crime is one of the most serious acts that can be committed and although carried out due to mental illness, the seriousness of her actions cannot be excused. Lessons have been learnt from this case and the severity of postpartum psychosis is better understood by many people as a result.  The biggest tragedy of this case is that with the right help and support, this unthinkable outcome could have been avoided.

References:

  1. Dr Park Dietz Forensic psychiatric evaluation of Andrea Yates, Feb 25, 2002. parkdietzassociates.com
  2. F. McLellan (2006) Mental health and justice: the case of Andrea Yates. The Lancet. Volume 368, No. 9551, p1951–1954.
  3. Resnick, P.J. (2006) Child-Murder by Parents and Insanity. Forensic Mental Health Association of California. fmhac.net
  4. Sit, D., Rothschild, A.J., Wisner, K.L. (2006) A Review of Postpartum Psychosis. J Womens Health (Larchmt), Vol. 15(4), pp352-368

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2017, Mar 07) The Andrea Yates Case: A Tragedy Born From Postpartum Mental Illness. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2017/03/andrea-yates-postpartum-mental-illness/

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