By Susan Schindehette
July 09, 2001 12:00 PM

Their neighbors on Beachcomber Lane in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake, Texas, have only the most ordinary memories of the Yates family—the afternoons that Russell spent building bunk beds for his sons in his garage workshop; the time his wife, Andrea, sent over fresh-baked Christmas cookies; the way the whole family pitched in for landscaping chores in the tidy yard. “He would cut the grass, she would sweep, and the children would help and play with the dog,” recalls Rosaura Godoy, 32, who lives across the street. And every weekday morning Andrea, 37, and the couple’s young children would say goodbye to Russell, 36, a computer engineer at the nearby Johnson Space Center. “He would leave for work about 8:30 in the morning,” says Godoy, “and she’d always come out with the children behind her to give him a kiss on the cheek.”

But this familial tableau would prove tragically flawed. At 9:50 a.m. on June 20, police responding to an emergency 911 call arrived at the three—bedroom, two-bath brick home to find Andrea Pia Yates in a water-soaked blue-and-white top. “I just killed my children,” she told them. Earlier that morning, just before her mother-in-law was scheduled to arrive to help her care for the kids, Yates had filled a bathtub and, one by one, methodically drowned her sons Luke, 2, Paul, 3, John, 5, and 6-month-old daughter Mary. As the baby girl lay lifeless in the water, 7-year-old Noah walked in, saw what was happening and tried to run. Yates wrestled him back to the bathroom and drowned him as well, she later admitted to police. As the four youngest children died, she carried each to the master bedroom, placed them on the bed and covered them with a sheet.

News of the unfathomable crime left those who had known the Yateses struggling to make sense of it. “Something had to have snapped,” says Cheryl Johnson, 47, a next-door neighbor. “She was no monster.” Yet within days, hints began to emerge of troubles that had first surfaced at least as early as 1999. According to Rusty Yates, his wife had experienced a severe depression that began that year following the birth of her fourth child. Despite a marked improvement after treatment with antidepressants and the powerful antipsychotic drug Haldol, the depression had recurred and worsened earlier this year after the birth of her fifth child and the death of her father from Alzheimer’s.

That the killings seem unthinkable is, of course, indisputable. The Yates case is the single most horrific incident of infanticide in recent memory, and many believe it to be nothing less than a case of cold-blooded murder. But some 200 children are killed by their mothers each year in the U.S., including those whose actions arise from an overwhelming psychological crisis not long after they give birth. Most parents are familiar with the so-called “baby blues,” a temporary depression following the birth of a child that affects as many as 80 percent of new-mothers. But about one in 10 women experiences more severe postpartum depression, and roughly one in 1,000 experiences a sometimes devastating postpartum psychosis that may lead to delusions and hallucinations.

Even the milder forms of postpartum distress can be debilitating. In the early 1980s Princess Diana referred to what she called a postnatal depression following the birth of her son William—”tears, panic, all the rest of it,” she said—in her conversations with author Andrew Morton. And singer-actress Marie Osmond, 41 and the mother of seven, experienced her own postpartum crisis after her last child was born two years ago. “It’s probably one of the most terrible things I’ve ever been through in my life,” she says. “I never actually sat there and tried to figure out a form of suicide. But I did get so low that I understand why people would do it. I really felt that my children would be better off without me.”

Wanting to distance oneself from one’s children is a common PPD response. “I was shaking, crying constantly and dealing with a continual feeling of dread,” recalls Maryland ballet teacher Mary Noy, 36, who experienced a bout of depression in 1995, following the birth of her second child, and now volunteers for the national nonprofit organization Depression After Delivery. “I started thinking it was perfectly reasonable to put my new baby up for adoption. Looking back, it seems like a nightmare that happened to somebody else.”

With treatment—a combination of therapy, medication and the help of a support group—patients generally recover. “People need to understand that depression and mental illness is not a character defect,” says Dr. Wanda Jones, deputy assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It doesn’t mean that the woman is a bad mother, but that PPD is a biochemical disorder and it will get better with treatment.”

In Andrea’s case, sadly, it did not. Yet there was nothing in her early life that would have clearly foretold where she was heading. Born in Houston, the youngest of five children of the late Andrew Kennedy, an auto-shop teacher, and his wife, Jutta, now 72, a German-born former department store manager, Andrea loved to make her own clothes and sail with her father. She was also athletic, becoming captain of Houston’s Milby High School girls’ swim team, where she set several district records. A member of the National Honor Society, she graduated first in her class of 620 but signed a friend’s yearbook as “the struggling butterfly.”

Andrea “was always trying to be such a good girl. She was the most compassionate of my children. Always thinking of other people, never herself,” Jutta Kennedy told Newsweek after the killings. Yet despite their daughter’s accomplishments, her parents “had very high standards,” says Marlene Wark, 36, who has known her since the eighth grade. “If she brought home a B, her father asked why it was not an A. She internalized that and decided that was the way it was.” Nor did Andrea socialize much. “I don’t think she went to any dance in high school,” says Wark. “She’s not one to seek out social situations.”

In 1989, after graduating from Houston’s University of Texas Health Science Center with a nursing degree, Andrea met Rusty Yates, a former high school football player from the Nashville suburb of Hermitage who lived in the same apartment building. The older of two brothers, Yates was religious, attending Methodist Sunday school classes that “centered around the importance of the gospel and of being a Christian person,” says a former teacher, Lou Alverides, 61, who adds that Rusty’s faith sustained him when his father, Russell, died of a heart attack in 1981.

Rusty and Andrea lived together for a year before marrying, and by the time they were married, on April 17, 1993, when both were 28, they were eager for children. “We talked about a large family, and she was open to as few or as g many as they could get,” recalls Wark. “She said they were going to use natural planning.” Wark also remembers visiting Andrea in the hospital after the birth of her first child, in February 1994: “I brushed her hair and braided it for her and she was very happy, very strong.”

Early in the marriage Rusty made clear that he preferred that his wife not work outside the home, says former neighbor Sylvia Cole. “He was adamant that they were going to have six kids,” says Cole, 44. “She was really meek and easygoing, so I’m not sure if it was a joint decision.” But by June of 1999 it became all too obvious that the stresses in Andrea’s life were overwhelming her. While on a visit to her parents’ Houston home four months after the birth of son Luke, Andrea attempted suicide by taking an overdose of medication prescribed for her ailing father. Jutta Kennedy found her daughter “face down in bed,” says a neighbor. “Mrs. Kennedy kept trying to wake her, but she didn’t move.”

Andrea was hospitalized following the incident, and Rusty and the children moved temporarily into the Kennedy home. After Andrea’s release, “there was no concern on the hospital’s part that she was a risk to her children, so it was never assigned to a caseworker,” says Judy Hay, spokeswoman for Harris County Children’s Protective Services. “We would have expected a follow-up call if she’d refused treatment or if the hospital’s assessment had progressed to her being dangerous, but that was not the case.” Yet, given Andrea’s clear difficulty in coping with her life, why did the couple choose to have another child? “Both of us really went into our marriage, you know, saying we’ll just have as many kids as came along,” Rusty told reporters the day after the murders.

At the end of that summer the family moved into their new house on Beachcomber Lane. “The first couple of weeks they were over every day asking about trash pickup, where’s the nearest convenience store, those sorts of things,” says Steve Johnson, 50, an oil company consultant and their next-door neighbor. “They never had a cross word to the children,” adds his wife, Cheryl. “You never heard the children fighting.” But Andrea may have found herself under pressures she couldn’t control. “They had five kids. That’s a lot of people in a small space, and she was there 24-7, and home schooling. That’s a lot to handle,” says Mike Clay, 45, who lives three doors down from the Yateses.

Two months ago Rusty’s mother, Dora, 62, left her Nashville home and rented an apartment near her son to help care for the children. Yet recently, Andrea, who only weeks ago was taken off Haldol, seemed to have begun a further decline. “You could kind of tell by looking at her,” her brother Andrew told The Dallas Morning News. “I’d say, ‘How are you doing?’ And she’d say, ‘Okay.’ But I could sense that it wasn’t okay. My sister, she didn’t open up.” According to Euple Phillips, 69, a close friend of Dora Yates’s, Andrea recently provided at least one small sign that she might be gaining ground. “On the day before the children died,” says Phillips, “Andrea went into one of the rooms and began to straighten it to make room for the baby’s crib.”

Under suicide watch and facing a preliminary charge of capital murder in the deaths of her children, Andrea is now housed in the psychiatric wing of Harris County Jail awaiting her next hearing on July 24. Two days after the murders she was visited by Rusty, her mother and brother Pat. Her attorney George Parnham, who is pursuing an insanity defense, said the encounter between husband and wife was “as intense, as private and as heartrending as any meeting between two individuals that I have ever witnessed.”

In preparation for his children’s June 27 funeral, Rusty, who has moved out of the family home into his mother’s apartment, spent time overseeing a collage of photographs of his children that he planned to display for mourners. “I go through periods of crying, then periods of talking, then periods of resting to get my energy back,” he says. “I’m just exhausted.” Yet even in his grief, he makes a request to those who are observing his family’s tragedy at some safe distance. His wish: “Be kind to my wife.”

Susan Schindehette

Gabrielle Cosgriff, Bob Stewart and Fannie Weinstein in Houston, Melody Simmons in Washington, D.C., Don Sider in Miami, Beverly Keel in Nashville and Nina Biddle in London