When a mother kills her children, it’s condemned as the most heinous crime a person can commit — a cold-blooded act of violence against the most vulnerable victims. But is it always so clear cut? In 2001, the case of Andrea Yates made the world ask that question — and to find the answer, they would have to reckon with the ways that religion, patriarchy, and mental illness can destroy a woman.
She was born Andrea Kennedy on July 2, 1962, the youngest of five children in a Catholic family. Friends and classmates remember her as being very active in extracurricular activities and charity work. She was smart, too — a member of the National Honor Society, she graduated valedictorian of her class at Milby High School in Houston, Texas.
But what they might not have known was that this driven perfectionist also struggled with depression and bulimia. But in her desperate need to appear flawless, she never allowed anyone to know what was going on inside her mind.
After graduation, she went on to earn a degree in nursing, then went to work as a registered nurse at a cancer center. It was around this time that she met Russell “Rusty” Yates. Very soon after meeting, they moved in together. Rusty said that she was extremely uncomfortable with her body — dressing and undressing in the closet — and did not enjoy sex. While some might chalk this up to a strict patriarchal upbringing, it stands out as a red flag for a number of mental disorders.
Rusty was a devout follower of the itinerant street preacher Michael Woroniecki. Woroniecki would travel around the country with his wife and kids preaching, mostly on college campuses, his fire-and-brimstone message. The religion he espoused was a stark fundamentalist Christianity with particularly regressive rules for women, whom he preached were naturally evil “witches” because they came from Eve. Women were not to educate themselves, work outside the home, or use birth control. Wives were expected to submit themselves to their husbands in all matters. Children, as well, were expected to be seen and not heard, and disobedience of any kind was to be punished with spankings or whippings. Mothers who didn’t beat their children, he taught, were condemning them to hell.
Rusty introduced Andrea to Woroniecki’s teachings, and then to Woroneicki himself. Perhaps his strict fundamentalist teachings didn’t seem so foreign to her, since she had grown up in a Catholic household.
Nevertheless, they lived together for two years before getting married, and in February 1994, she gave birth to their first child, Noah. Andrea, now a devout follower of Woroniecki, quit her job and studies to stay home and be a full-time mom. Later, Andrea would admit that after Noah’s birth, she began to have disturbing visions of knives and stabbings, and she even thought she heard the voice of Satan speaking to her. However, she told no one of these troubling visions.
During that time, the Yateses and the Woronieckis became quite close, even considering each other family, and the women often watched each other’s children.
Soon after Noah was born, they had to move from their four-bedroom home in Houston to a small trailer in Seminole, Florida, for a temporary job Rusty had taken. There, thanks to their anti-contraceptive beliefs, Andrea gave birth to two more sons: John in December 1995 and then Paul in September 1997.
During this time, the Yateses kept in contact with Worniecki and his wife through their newsletter, videos, and letters. In their letters, the Woronieckis would often “diagnose” Andrea as being evil. “God knows how wicked you are,” he wrote. “You must accept the reality that your life is under the curse of sin and death . . .” Andrea was subjected to a near-constant stream of hateful messages like this from a man she believed spoke for God.
Shortly after Paul’s birth, the Yateses moved back to Houston — this time, they purchased their home from Woroniecki: a used Greyhound bus that had been converted to a motorhome. There, in that 350-square-foot bus, Andrea was consumed with caring for a newborn, a toddler, and a preschooler. Besides the work of cooking for the family, feeding the older two, nursing the newborn, and cleaning up after everyone, she was constantly changing and washing cloth diapers (disposable diapers were not allowed by Woroniecki) and homeschooling the oldest. On top of that, she was caring for her aging father, who had Alzheimer’s. When friends or family members would question Rusty, or try to point out it was too much stress to put on his wife, he would shrug it off as being Andrea’s job.
Meanwhile the Woronieckis continued condemning Andrea for not disciplining her children more. Apparently their normal childhood behaviors were seen as “disrespectful” and “not what God wants,” and the Woronieckis insisted that by not forcing the children to be more obedient by whipping them, Andrea was damning their souls to hell.
In February 1999, their fourth child, Luke, was born. Four months later, Andrea called Rusty at work, begging for help. He arrived home to see her nearly catatonic, chewing her fingers.
His solution was to take her and the kids for a walk on the beach. He claimed she seemed better after that, but the next day she tried to overdose on her father’s trazodone. Rusty took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and put on the antidepressant Zoloft. However, she had to be released after a short time as her insurance would not cover further inpatient services.
After she was sent home, she began seeing a new doctor, who put her on the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. But at home, she was back under the spell of Woroniecki, who preached that drugs and medical care were of the devil. Andrea promptly flushed all of her Zyprexa down the toilet.
Her mental health spiraled downwards: she was pulling her hair out and leaving bald spots, picking her skin until it bled, and not eating. She began hearing voices telling her to get a knife. One day Rusty came home from work to find Andrea holding a knife to her own throat. He again rushed her to the hospital.
The hospital recommended electroshock therapy, which the couple refused. So the hospital sent her home with a combination of drugs, including the anti-psychotic Haldol, in conjunction with weekly visits to a psychiatrist.
Thankfully, family members managed to convince Rusty that Andrea and the kids needed to get out of that bus. He purchased a three-bedroom, two-bath home in nearby Clear Lake, Texas. Now that she was out of that cramped bus, under a doctor’s close supervision, and taking the appropriate medication, she seemed to recover.
Doctors warned the couple not to have another child, since women who suffer from postpartum depression and psychosis are at a much higher risk with each birth, and the episodes tend to worsen.
However, now that Andrea was seemingly back to normal again, the couple decided to have another child. Rusty called Andrea’s severe postpartum depression, psychosis, and suicide attempts “like having the flu,” and that if she relapsed, they could just put her back on her meds and everything would be fine. The couple either didn’t know or didn’t care that going off psychiatric drugs can itself trigger severe reactions, and later, make it harder to treat the underlying issue.
So in 2000, Andrea stopped taking both her psychiatric drugs and her birth control. In November, their fifth child, Mary, was born.
The following March, Andrea’s father passed away. His death hit her hard, and she began showing symptoms of severe depression: lethargy, picking bald spots on her scalp, not drinking liquids. Over the next few months, she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and clinics and subjected to an ever-changing mixture of psychiatric drugs. Rusty was warned by doctors not to leave Andrea alone.
But Rusty still would not face the severity of Andrea’s problems. He arranged for his mother to come to the house to help Andrea regularly, but would leave her alone for short periods of time in order to “make her more independent” and, of course, so she wouldn’t become dependent on him and his mother for her “maternal responsibilities.”
One day in May, his mother arrived at their home to find Andrea filling the bathtub at 4:30 in the afternoon. When questioned, she gave vague answers. This scared Rusty’s mother, so Andrea was sent back to the hospital, where she admitted she had thought about drowning herself and her children.
June 18, 2001, Rusty took her back to her doctor because she was not getting any better. He reports that the doctor was frustrated that none of the drugs seemed to be working, so he told Andrea, “You need to think happy thoughts!”
Two days later — June 20, 2001 — Rusty left for work around 9. His mother was scheduled to come to the home around 10, leaving Andrea alone with the children for an hour.
As soon as Rusty left, Andrea filled the bathtub. She took John, who was 5, into the bathroom where she held him under the water until he was dead. Then she carried him into the master bedroom and carefully laid his body on the bed.
She then brought in Paul, age 3, and repeated the process. Luke, age 2, was next.
She then drowned 6-month-old Mary, but while she was still floating in the tub, Noah, age 7, came in and asked what was wrong with Mary. He tried to run away, but Andrea caught him, then drowned him, too. She left him floating in the tub, but took Mary and laid her in John’s arms on the bed.
She then called 911, insisting they come to the house, but would not answer why.
As soon as she got off the phone with 911, she called Rusty and told him to come home right away. He seemed to intuit what had happened, because he asked her, “How many?” and she answered, “All of them.”
When the police arrived, her first words were, “I just killed my kids.” Her hair and clothes were still wet.
At the station, the court-appointed psychiatrists described Andrea as “the sickest person” they had ever seen. She was nearly catatonic, emaciated, filthy, her scalp checkered with bald spots.
Under questioning, she readily confessed to drowning all five of her children. Her reasoning was a delusion built entirely from Woroniecki’s teachings: she said she had killed her children so that they would go to heaven; if she hadn’t “sent them to God” now, they would surely keep “stumbling” and would go to hell.
She said she knew she was already evil — that the Devil was literally inside of her — and damned to hell. So killing them, in her delusion, wouldn’t make any difference to her eternal soul, but would save her children’s.
On July 30, 2001, she was indicted on two counts of capital murder. The prosecution held off charging her for the other three murders as a kind of fall-back: if they failed to get a conviction, they could then bring the other three charges without violating her right not to be tried for the same crime twice (i.e., “double jeopardy”).
Andrea pled not guilty by reason of insanity, an extremely risky strategy. Nationally, only about 1 percent of criminal defendants take this plea, and of those, only about a quarter of them are successful. In addition, Texas has some of the strictest qualifications for an insanity defense. Known as the M’Naghten Rule, defendants must prove both that they have a mental disease or defect and that they could not tell right from wrong at the time of the crime.
Andrea Yates’ trial began on February 18, 2002. While it was clear that she indeed had a mental disease, her ability to tell right from wrong was at the heart of the trial. The efforts she took in planning the crime, such as waiting until Rusty was gone and locking up the family dog, were used to prove she knew what she was doing was wrong.
It also didn’t help that by the time of the trial, Andrea had been under psychiatric care and seemed more normal: she was lucid in a way she hadn’t been when she committed the crime, and her appearance was clean and well-groomed. As much as it hurt her case, the court psychiatrists could not have ethically withheld treatment.
In March 2002, a jury deliberated only three and a half hours before rejecting the insanity defense and finding her guilty. Although the prosecution had sought the death penalty, the jury rejected it. Instead she was sentenced her to life imprisonment with eligibility for parole in 40 years.
While in prison, she was placed on suicide watch, and later, hospitalized for refusing to eat.
Her attorney filed an appeal, and in 2005, the Texas First Court of Appeals reversed her capital murder conviction.
That same year, Rusty divorced her.
In 2006, her retrial began. She again pled not guilty by reason of insanity, and on July 26, 2006, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered into the custody of a state mental hospital.
She now resides in the low-security Kerrville State Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, where she receives treatment and counseling. In her free time, she makes cards and aprons that are sold anonymously, with the proceeds sent to a fund to help low-income women access mental health services. Every year, her case is brought up for review, but every year, she waives it. It seems Andrea Yates doesn’t want to be released.
Public opinion was, and still is, split into those who see her as a cold-hearted baby killer and those who see her as a victim of her mental illness — and, possibly, manipulation by a maniacal cult leader. Thankfully, in the end, it doesn’t matter — Andrea Yates will most likely never leave the walls of Kerrville State Hospital alive.