"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.