The young girl, her face framed in golden ringlets, approached the man seated at a nearby table in the quiet restaurant and smiled, holding the Barbie doll she'd recently received for Christmas. When he asked her age, she proudly held up four fingers.
"You're even prettier than Barbie," he told her. Her smile grew, then she was off, skipping away in a crowd of parents and grandparents.
Before reaching the door, she turned and waved goodbye. She was too far away to see the sadness that spread across Russell (Rusty) Yates' face. She had no idea who he was.
Until a mind-numbing tragedy in June 2001, few had ever heard of the lanky 38-year-old, whose adult life had revolved around his large family and his $80,000-a-year job as a computer engineer in NASA's space program.
Maybe, he says, he'd had his name in the paper a time or two back when he was playing high school football in Tennessee. But he never imagined a time would come when Rusty Yates would be part of the national consciousness, his life's story suddenly important to strangers. Nor was it conceivable that the day might arrive when, in the minds of many, he would be the justifiable target of bilious anger and ongoing criticism for the way he reacted to his horrific ordeal. Not until that morning when, shortly after he'd arrived at his Johnson Space Center office, his wife, more mentally ill than he realized, phoned to say that he needed to come home right away.
Just an hour earlier he'd watched as she gently applied medication to the chapped lips of one of their five children, then began preparing breakfast. He'd kissed her goodbye and reminded her that his mother, temporarily living nearby, would soon be arriving to help her care for the kids.
Shortly after he left, however, Andrea Pia Yates, 36 and dangerously psychotic, began methodically drowning each of their children, ages 6 months to 7 years, in the bathtub of their home in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake. First to die in the cold water his mother had drawn was 2-year-old Luke, then 3-year-old Paul and 5-year-old John. Next was the baby, Mary. Finally, 7-year-old Noah. Then, Andrea Yates telephoned police and, moments later, her husband.
By the time Rusty Yates arrived, investigators had already made the gruesome discovery: Four of the dead children had been carried to the master bedroom, their wet bodies placed on the bed and covered with a sheet. Noah, who had happened on his mother as she was drowning the infant, remained facedown in the bathtub.
Andrea, later described by law enforcement officials as being in a "zombie-like state" upon their arrival, readily admitted that she had murdered her children. Why? "Because," she said, "I'm a bad mother."
Quickly, the media swarmed. First the local reporters, then those from around the nation, the networks and news magazines, wire services and authors hurrying to the scene to determine if a book on the shocking horror was merited. What, they all hoped to learn, had turned a former high school swim star and retired nurse, a once-loving and friendly mom, into a mass murderer? What triggered such an incomprehensibly evil act? In this search for answers and blame, Rusty Yates' life, beliefs and personality came under intense scrutiny as well.
In Andrea Yates, they began piecing together a disturbing profile of a woman who had given up her career to care for and homeschool her children; a mother who had suffered bouts of depression that had led to hospitalizations, medication and two suicide attempts, but whose diagnosis had always suggested postpartum or acute depression, never indicating she would commit such violent acts; a tired and overwhelmed caretaker whose spiritual inclination had steadily edged toward fanatacism. Friends and neighbors told of watching her evolve from outgoing and cheerful to withdrawn and reclusive, healthy and vivacious to worn and unkempt. The Andrea Yates introduced to the American public was a sad, submissive, Scripture-quoting wife.
And what of her husband, the self-proclaimed adoring father and husband who, only a day after the bodies of his children were removed from his house, stood before members of the press to announce his love and support for the woman who had killed his children? He had shed tears that day, but the media focused on the generally controlled manner in which he had spoken of what he repeatedly referred to as "the tragedy." Whatever degree of shock and grief he was suffering clearly wasn't satisfactory.
By the time his wife went on trial, there was a steadily growing number who had reached the conclusion that he should also bear equal responsibility for the destruction of his family. Even before he attended the funeral services for his children and delivered a eulogy to each, one network talk-show host blamed him for the children's deaths. Some pundits suggested that it should be Rusty being tried, not Andrea.
A nationwide perception, fueled by 24-hour media coverage and sound bite psychologists, quickly formed: He was a loner with few close friends, a self-absorbed man who involved himself little in such mundane chores as diaper changing and meal preparation; saw nothing wrong with his wife giving birth with no pain-control measures; had, for a brief time, convinced her that the simple and untethered life of making their home in a cramped Greyhound bus was preferable to their four-bedroom house. It was reported that he baby-sat the kids one night a week only so Andrea could grocery shop alone and at her leisure; that he had dismissed the mental difficulties his wife was dealing with and continued to impregnate her, ignoring the building pressures while offering only marginal support. Other contentions, he says, were completely untrue: One published story stated that Andrea had again been pregnant at the time she killed her children. Another said lice had been found in her hair when she was booked into jail. Still another described the interior of the Yates home as "unkempt and filthy."
Yates acknowledges only that he desired the once-traditional domestic arrangement. By his own admission, he and his wife had always embraced the notion that "the man is the breadwinner, the woman the caretaker of the home."
This attitude did not set well with commentators. "[Yates'] bizarre, dominating actions played a role in the children's death," wrote Las Vegas Review-Journal lawyer-turned-columnist Barbara Robinson. "...The demeanor of Russell (Rusty) Yates--all-American, Eagle Scout--didn't persuade me. I couldn't understand how a man could repeatedly impregnate a mentally ill wife and force or allow her to home-school their children." She went on to lash out at his "sense of arrogance."
On a Web site he constructed in memory of his children (www.yateskids.org), electronic visitors often e-mail similar accusations and questions: Why had he left her alone with the children that day? How could he continue to support a woman who had committed such an evil deed? What was he thinking, having such a large family when his wife was so obviously ill?
Now, almost a year after a Harris County jury found his wife guilty of capital murder and she was sentenced to life in prison, after the cover stories in Time and Newsweek, the segments on 60 Minutes, the harsh criticism of women's rights advocates, Rusty Yates carries on. He reports to work daily, jogs three times a week, tinkers with a new Web site he's planning, visits his wife at the Skyview Psychiatric Unit in Rusk on alternate Saturdays, travels to participate in a Dallas support group once a month and continues to ponder a question of his own: "I keep looking around," he says, "and asking myself: Where do I go now?"
"He's still struggling," says Debbie Wayne, a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth-based Families of Murder Victims. Wayne--one of several in the support group best known for its Garden of Angels on the southern edge of Fort Worth, where crosses are erected in memory of young homicide victims--talks with Yates regularly. "Quite honestly," she says, "there were those in our group who had reservations at first about contacting him. But what we've learned is that he's not at all like he's been portrayed by the media.
"Frankly, there are a lot of people who could benefit from knowing him."
That, she adds, isn't likely to occur soon. "Since what happened to his family," Wayne says, "he is automatically defensive when he meets someone." During the past year, Rusty Yates admits, he has adopted a low profile, wary of the media and prying questions of strangers. Still, little he does goes unreported--in many instances erroneously, he says. "I've read that I'm planning to divorce Andrea. That's not something I've thought through," he says. When members of a singles group at the Clear Lake Church of Christ, which he now attends, invited him along for a night of bowling several months ago, a news report that he'd "joined a singles group" quickly appeared. "Our people know how lonely he is," says minister Byron Fike, "and did what any caring people would--they invited him to go with them. Nothing more, nothing less."
When, after living in the house where his children died for a year, he finally moved into a nearby apartment last August, reporters were quick to describe his new residence as "luxurious." Seated on a couch in his living room, unpacked boxes still stacked in the hallway and few photos or personal mementos adorning the walls or shelves, he briefly smiles and waves an arm at his surroundings. "Does this look like luxury to you?"
Nice and comfortable, yes. But, no, MTV's Cribs isn't likely to visit.
On this dreary, rainy day, the enigmatic Yates is, in a sense, striking back, not in an angry tone but in the measured, analytical way he's viewed life since his days as an honored science student at Auburn University. "The comments don't hurt as much anymore," he says, "because I think I've come to better understand what motivates them. People look at what happened to my family and it frightens them to think such a tragedy could occur. They look for simple answers, something they can deal with. He must not have been a caring father or a loving husband.
"Behind all anger," he suggests, "there is fear."
And with that he retreats to a time before the world knew his name, when he and the woman he's been married to for nine years were happy to watch their family grow; before the wife with "a good heart" fell victim to a "sick mind." He remembers those days when he coached his older sons' T-ball teams and Andrea read to their children, of family trips to museums and the park; of the normal parental concerns over things like Paul not beginning to talk as quickly as his older brothers had. "She was a great mother," he says, "and the children were healthy and happy."
There was never any form of abuse in their home, no money problems, no infidelity. "On the whole," he says, "we had an outstanding relationship. Some day, when Andrea is able to speak for herself, I'm sure she'll say the same thing.
"Even before we married, we talked a great deal about how many children we wanted to have. We agreed that we'd like to have a large family, as many kids as possible. On the other hand, if we had no children, we'd made up our minds to just enjoy life with each other." It was, they had agreed, up to God.
Religion played a major role in his family's life, but Yates insists they were not the "fanatics" the media would ultimately make them out to be. "We wanted to raise our children in a spiritual environment, so we had a simple little Bible study every third night of the week. We'd read stories to the children, say a prayer, and that was about it. Was it a positive influence on the kids? I'd say yes."
In time, however, Andrea's focus on her family's spiritual well-being consumed her. And, for that, Rusty now blames himself.
He was still in college, he recalls, when he first encountered a fire-and-brimstone preacher named Michael Peter Woroniecki. With his family in tow, the Florida-based, street-preaching fundamentalist traveled the country, visiting college campuses and distributing pamphlets that twisted Old Testament values into a jumble of doomsday prophecy. On several occasions he was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace, following shouting matches with disbelievers. In Woroniecki's view, the world was racked with evil, the curse of Satan in all to whom he spoke. The fate of women, he preached, was derived from the sin of Eve, and he believed they should serve a subservient role to man. Any mother who worked outside the home was, according to the Woroniecki doctrine, wicked. And one bad seed, he preached, led to generations of contamination; sinful parents could only spawn sinful and evil children.
Rusty says when he first met the evangelist on the Auburn campus in 1980, he viewed him as a "simple preacher who was doing nothing more than challenging the 'fat cat preachers' about their watered-down beliefs." Even as he and Andrea planned marriage, he told her of Woroniecki and his wife, Rachael, and urged her to join him on a trip to Florida to meet them.
It was one of several visits the Yateses would eventually make to counsel with the controversial couple. In time, they began making modest donations to the traveling ministry. It was, in fact, from Woroniecki that Rusty purchased the used Greyhound bus he and his family would, for a time, call home. Andrea regularly corresponded with Rachael Woroniecki.
"If I had it all to do over again," Yates says, "I would never have introduced Andrea to the Woronieckis."
Even before his wife killed their children, he says, he had become concerned over her growing obsession with the Woroniecki style of religion. At one point she had even written the evangelist, asking that he help convert her Catholic parents to his thinking. Rusty says he had begun to distance himself from the zealous preacher whom he'd decided was far too judgmental and hoped to convince Andrea to do the same. "But it's hard," he says, "to criticize your wife for reading the Bible too much."
Yet when Andrea Yates insisted to jail doctors that she was "possessed by the devil and had the sign of Satan marked on her scalp," that her children had been "damaged," it was clear that her faith and psychosis had morphed into a dark and disastrous mixture.
Austin author Suzy Spencer, who wrote a book (Breaking Point) on the case, suggests that because of Andrea's deteriorating mental condition she began taking the Woroniecki message too literally, that she viewed her increasing depression as a sign that she had been taken over by the devil. "From what I understand," she says, "the Woronieckis had a great ability to brainwash people. I also learned that when a person is psychotic, the last thing you talk with them about is religion."
"For a mother to concern herself over whether she is doing the right things for her children, to worry about the influence of the devil or if your kids are somehow damaged are, I think, the concerns of a lot of well-meaning people," Rusty says. "But when Andrea became delusional, living in her nightmare, hearing voices she never told me about, in her mind all these fears had already taken place."
Today, Rusty says, he is no longer in contact with the Woronieckis. Last March, Woroniecki suggested to NBC Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison that the Yateses had simply missed the substance of his teachings and that they should share accountability for the deaths of their children. "What was Rusty thinking in having another child when she'd already tried to commit suicide?" he asked Morrison. Then, reflecting on Andrea's crime, the evangelist said, "She's not the only person in history who has used the Bible to do outrageous things...the Bible says [in Isaiah 5:20], 'Woe to those who call good evil and evil good.'" In a letter to The Dallas Morning News, Woroniecki was even more blunt: "We enjoyed our relationship with Rusty and Andrea for many years as they tried to learn from our ways of following Jesus," he wrote, "but they obviously fell short of salvation."
In retrospect, all had seemed well with the Yateses until four months after the birth of Luke, the fourth of their children. It was then that Andrea began suffering from what doctors diagnosed only as postpartum depression, a condition suffered by 15 to 20 percent of new mothers. While the problem lingered, eventually making hospitalization necessary on several occasions, Rusty says that none of her physicians ever suggested that any form of psychosis might be involved. Finally, after experimenting with several anti-depressant medications and dosages, Andrea began to improve.
"If I'd known she was psychotic, we'd never have even considered having more kids," her husband insists. "But all the doctors ever told us was that there was a 50 percent chance that she might become depressed again after having another baby, that she might even require some treatment. But by then we knew that the medicine--a drug called Haldol--had worked." A high-potency neuroleptic/tranquilizer, Haldol is often prescribed for those suffering a variety of mental problems, from acute depression to schizophrenia, mood swings and aggressive behavior to dementia and psychotic thinking.
"Postpartum depression," he says, "we understood, was the worst-case scenario, and we thought we'd learned how to treat it if it occurred again. Andrea and I discussed it at length and felt everything would be OK if she got pregnant again. We loved kids."
It was four months after Mary's birth that her mother sank into a mental state from which she still has not recovered. Despite Rusty's insistence to doctors that she be given the same medication that had previously cured her, another anti-depressant was prescribed. "If she'd been given what I asked them to give her," he says, "I don't think the tragedy would have happened."
If she had been diagnosed as psychotic, he would have known she was a danger to their children and he'd have handled the problems of her illness differently, would have better understood the danger. "That day," he says, "I didn't sense that leaving her alone with the kids until my mother arrived was a problem. In retrospect, was it wrong for me to have left that morning? Probably so. But was it reasonable at the time to think it was OK to go on to work? She seemed functional, and I saw no reason that day to think she might harm the children.
"Should I blame myself for what happened to my children?" He pauses before answering his own question, then says, "No."
Is, then, Rusty Yates a still-grieving father-husband locked in a monumental defense of denial or a man unfairly demonized by an unsympathetic society determined to find sinister motives in every corner of his life? That people must even ask such questions, he says, is hurtful. "They don't know me. They don't know how we lived our life," he argues. "All I ever wanted from life was a beautiful family. And in one day it was all lost, and people began to point accusing fingers." Finally weary of what he refers to as the press' misrepresentations and half-truths, he says he has decided to be more defensive.
"I realize what a strong force the media can be," he says, "and for that reason I've talked to reporters. Early on, I did so in hopes that they could provide a positive force in Andrea's defense, that they could help explain that it was her illness that caused the tragedy. I hoped by talking with them I could help them see the difference between Andrea, the mother with a good heart, and the Andrea with a sick mind." Rarely, he says, did it work. One reporter, he recalls, pored through his wife's medical records and ignored written proof that he and Andrea had carefully followed doctor's orders. "We'd done everything right," Yates insists, "yet the reporter picked out a phrase here and there to make the case we were irresponsible parents. I know for a fact that friends and neighbors were interviewed and said positive things about our lifestyle, but none of that ever appeared in print."
When a recent Newsweek article quoted him as saying, "I've given all I want to give," Yates was certain that most readers would assume he was addressing his support of his imprisoned wife and angrily phoned the reporter. "I had made that comment," he says, "about payment for court documents to be used in her appeal, not about any personal feelings I have for Andrea."
Those feelings, he admits, remain tangled and unresolved.
A cursory glance at Rusty Yates' life today gives the impression that it is returning to some degree of normalcy. He works and attends church with people who are aware of his shattered past but are friendly and accepting. His in-laws, openly critical of him in several interviews immediately following Andrea's arrest, now hear from Rusty only if there are prison-visit schedules to be worked out or he learns news about his wife's physical and mental condition. "I've minimized my contact with them," he says. "When we do talk, it is only about how Andrea's doing." He admits that some of the things they've said publicly about him have been hurtful. "Not only to me," he says, "but Andrea as well." That said, he is quick to note that he did recently receive a birthday card from his mother-in-law.
Andrea's mother, Karin Kennedy, declined an interview when contacted by the Dallas Observer.
Still, he says, the feelings directed toward him remain polarized. "One of the things that now seems to most bother people is my continued support of Andrea," he says. "They somehow equate it with my not caring about what happened to my children." He notes that an estimated 20 percent of those who send e-mails to the children's Web site continue to blame him for a laundry list of parental shortcomings. "I've reached a point where I pay less attention to what I call the 'go grab a rope' crowd and focus on those who are more inclined to take a constructive approach."
Not long ago he made a weekend drive to Austin to join a couple of hundred others in a public demonstration for a moratorium on the death penalty, which he adamantly opposed even before threats that his wife might face it. While visiting family in Tennessee during the Christmas holidays, he received a late-night call alerting him that a Dallas family he'd met was having difficulties coping with a loss. Yates left immediately, driving straight through from Nashville to lend whatever moral support he could.
In addition to the acquaintances he's made during his visits to the support group, there are a few friends he occasionally meets for lunch, and a buddy he plays a round of golf with now and then.
"It's unfortunate that so many people have formed their opinion of Rusty without ever knowing him," says Carolyn Barker, whose granddaughter, Amy Robinson, was abducted and murdered in 1998. She recalls the day when the five wooden crosses, memorializing the slain Yates children, were erected in the Garden of Angels. "I've been out there hundreds of times," Barker says, "but that was the first time I ever cried. I watched as he sat by each of those crosses, and saw a gentle man who dearly loved his children."
The Rusty Yates she's come to know, she says, is far different from what she expected. And, despite a lengthy list of philosophical differences ("I'm for the death penalty, and he's against it," Barker says), a mutual respect has developed. Outspoken, she continues to believe Yates is in denial. "I keep telling him he's not going to be able to really move ahead with his life until he accepts some responsibility for what happened to his family," she explains. "But we don't really argue; we debate."
Rusty grins when asked about his relationship with the 60-year-old grandmother. "There's not much we agree on," he acknowledges, "but she's been a great friend." So, he adds, have many in the support group. It was among them, miles removed from Houston, that he first encountered the genuine kindness of strangers.
Today, he says, when he makes his monthly visit to the Garden it is rare not to find flowers and toys left by people he's never met at the base of his children's crosses.
Still, when all the talk and debate are over, the somber visits done, there remains that inevitable return home, first to the house where insanity and death forever changed his life, now to the apartment just a mile and a half away. "I stayed in the house for a year," he explains, "to better come to grips with the loss of my family." Methodically, he went through the children's possession--toys, clothing, drawings--sorting those he wished to keep and those he would eventually donate anonymously to charitable organizations. During long, solitary hours of poring over photographs, home videos and notes scrawled in childlike penmanship, he also set aside those things that he believes Andrea might one day want.
Now, with the cleaning-out process almost completed, he plans to soon place the house on the market. That even that decision made the local news causes him to shake his head. "First, I was the bad guy for staying in the house where my children died," he says. "Then there were those who questioned how I could move out and into this 'high-dollar' apartment." He shrugs. "Either way, I lose."
He knows it's unlikely he'll be seen any other way. "I guess," he says, "that I'd like for the view of others to be the same perception I have of myself. I was a really good father to my kids. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. And I was a very good husband."
He knows, however, that even if his critics grant him amnesty for his past behavior, they are baffled by his continued support of the woman who murdered his children.
That, he says, is the primary purpose of the new Web site he spends much of his time working on. "What I hope to accomplish with it is to help people come to some understanding of her illness. First, I want to help others to detect the warning signs and seek proper treatment; second, I want to try and set the record about our life straight." It will, he says, also afford him an opportunity to speak out against a judicial system that, he believes, chose to try his wife to appease a "lynch mob-minded constituency" rather than acknowledge the mental condition that led to her horrendous act.
Every other Saturday, as he makes the three-hour drive to visit his wife, Rusty Yates is never certain who he will see. "She's not stable yet," he admits. "They [prison physicians] are still in the process of adjusting her medication." Each visit, he says, is bittersweet.
As his two-hour stay begins, he is allowed to briefly hug and kiss his wife. They then sit and talk, sometimes of their lost children, sometimes of the slow-moving process of preparing her appeal, at other times of nothing more personal than her occasional work in the prison laundry.
"She's sad," Rusty says, "and I'm sad for her."
There have been times, he says, when Andrea was not very coherent and suffered from blurred vision brought on by high doses of medication. Occasionally, he says, the Andrea who has greeted him in the visiting room is much like the woman he once knew. At such times she's confided things of which he was never aware.
"Andrea was always one of those people who seemed happy to just go with the flow of things. I now know that wasn't always what she wanted to do, what would have really made her happy. Looking back, I should have recognized that and been more sensitive to it," he says.
Often, their sensitivities seem to have reversed. "There have been visits when I've cried--like one day when we were talking about Luke--but she didn't. She just couldn't. The medication she was on made it impossible for her to cry."
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Recently, the receipt of a rambling 20-page letter from his wife concerned Rusty so much that he phoned the prison physician to make certain she was taking her medication.
It is on the long, lonely drives home that he often finds himself pondering his uncertain future. What if Andrea should one day win her appeal and be released from the prison where she is now sentenced to stay until she is at least 77 years old? What if she was, instead, removed to a mental hospital and one day judged well enough to return home?
"We've talked a little about that," he admits, but with no resolution. He ponders the matter for several silent seconds, then it is the "logical" Rusty Yates who continues: "It's impossible to conceive of a more horrible thing than what Andrea did. She's hurt me more than I thought it possible for anyone to," he says, "and that's a tough thing to deal with. It's like the old adage of putting your finger to the flame. If you do, you aren't likely ever to again. It's that instinct that causes me to feel that I never want to go through what's happened again."
It's apparently as far as he wants to go with the subject. But in a whisper, he adds, "When you're dealing with your heart, there is rarely an easy answer."