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June 22, 2001

We were a 'good family,' dad says

Houston man still loves wife after she admits drowning five children

National Post news services
National Post

Photo Courtesy Yates Family, Reuters
The Yates boys, from left, Luke, Paul, John and Noah in a family photo taken in November, 2000.

Russell Yates

Mary Yates

HOUSTON - Fighting back tears, Russell Yates said yesterday he had a "good family" and still loved his wife, a day after she confessed to drowning their five children.

"Andrea, if you see this, I love you," said Mr. Yates, who spoke to a phalanx of newspaper reporters and television cameras on the front yard of their one-storey suburban home where the children were killed on Wednesday.

"There are two tragedies ... One is my children and the other is my wife."

Andrea Yates, 36, is scheduled to appear in a Houston court today to face capital murder charges that could carry the death penalty if she is convicted.

Mr. Yates, a NASA computer engineer at nearby Johnson Space Center, said his wife had a history of postpartum depression and had tried to kill herself two years ago, after the birth of their fourth child.

She had since recovered, but suffered a relapse recently after the birth of their first daughter and the death of her father.

"One side of me blames her because she did it, but the other side says she didn't because that wasn't her," Mr. Yates said. "She wasn't in her right frame of mind. She loved our kids. Anybody that knew her knew that."

Mrs. Yates telephoned police on Wednesday morning to request an officer, without saying why.

John Cannon, a Houston police spokesman, said she was breathing heavily during the call, and was wet when she answered the door.

"At that time she said to the officer, 'I killed my children,' " Mr. Cannon said.

She led the officer to a bedroom at the back of the house, where beneath a sheet on the bed lay the bodies of four of her still-wet children -- 6-month-old Mary; Luke, 2; Paul, 3; and John, 5. Police found the body of her oldest child -- 7-year-old Noah -- in a bathtub.

"It is just rather unimaginable," Mr. Cannon said. "It's difficult to deal with when you are talking about five little kids who were killed, probably systematically."

Mrs. Yates had also phoned her husband soon after he arrived at work on Wednesday morning, asking him to come home. He said he was "afraid of her tone" and called his mother, who had been helping his wife with the children.

"I was thinking my oldest son was with her, but he wasn't," he said yesterday, near a tree that has been turned into a memorial site decorated with flowers and a large stuffed polar bear. "He was here."

Mr. Yates said he called his wife back, and she again told him he should come home.

"I said, 'Is anyone hurt?' She said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Who?' She said, 'The children. All of them,' " Mr. Yates said. "My heart just sank."

Mr. Yates raced home to find the police already on the scene.

He said his wife of eight years suffered separate episodes of severe postpartum depression, which caused her to become so withdrawn and incapacitated that his mother, Dora Yates, would come over to help care for the children.

Judy Hay, a spokeswoman for Children's Protective Services, said records indicate the woman attempted suicide on June 18, 1999. Five days later, Children's Protective Services was called because mental-health officials worried the children did not have proper care.

"We found them at their grandparents with their father," Ms. Hay said. "It was never assigned because there was no abuse or neglect."

Most new mothers experience some sort of "baby blues" after giving birth, experts say, but only about 15% of them suffer from postpartum depression.

Of that 15%, one or two out of every thousand mothers kill their child, said Dr. Ann Dunnewold, a Richardson psychologist and past president of Postpartum Support International.

"It's such a tragedy," Dr. Dunnewold told the Dallas Morning News.

She said mothers who kill their children are rare. Women suffering from postpartum psychosis typically suffer from hallucinations or delusions, or significant confusion.

"This confusion is above and beyond the variety of what day is it, or that sort of thing. It's more, 'my baby is Jesus' or 'my baby is the devil' or 'my baby can fly' -- that sort of thing," she said.

Doctors used a cocktail of drugs to help Mrs. Yates during both bouts of depression. Her husband said she was taking medication that included Haldol, which is usually prescribed for psychosis.

When she was well, Mrs. Yates home-schooled the children and lavished attention on them, Mr. Yates said. For Valentine's Day, she made them heart-shaped booklets with coupons that were good for a hug or a game.

The kids, he said, were normal, happy and healthy. They loved games and sports, particularly T-ball and basketball, which they played on a hoop in the driveway.

A home video shows the three oldest boys playing last weekend at a birthday party across the street from their home. Patricia Salas, who held the party for her one-year-old grandson, told the Houston Chronicle it was the first time her family had met the Yateses.

"They've lived here for about [two] years," she said. "We would wave at them and say hi, but we really didn't know them."

Mr. Yates told a neighbour at that party his wife had stayed at home "because she was having depression from having kids."

He said yesterday he would not support the death penalty for his wife. "She obviously wasn't herself ... She was a kind and gentle person," he said. "I'm primarily concerned right now with just tending to my kids, making sure they get a good burial and are treated good."

Mr. Yates said he wanted everyone to know his family had been a strong one that was ripped apart by a sinister illness that, in the end, knew no bounds.

"Just ask anybody that's seen us, seen us in the store or seen us in the restaurant ... [we were a] good family," he said, choking back tears.

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