July 1, 2001, 1:01AM
Nightmare overtakes a man's charmed life
Russell Yates had everything going for him, friends sayBy DALE LEZON
A charismatic high school hero, a summa cum laude graduate of a top university, a NASA computer expert and an apparent loving husband and father, Russell "Rusty" Yates must have once thought he led a charmed life.
At 36, he seemed to have reached the bright future his childhood friends imagined for him long ago in Tennessee.
But his seemingly well-planned life was derailed about 10 a.m. June 20, when his reportedly severely depressed wife summoned police to the family's modest Clear Lake home and told an officer she had drowned their five children in the bathtub. The damp, still warm bodies of John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months, were found lying on a bed covered in a sheet. Noah, 7, was dead in the tub.
One day later, at an impromptu press conference in the front yard, the nation first glimpsed Russell Yates. People saw a calm, controlled man bringing order to his family's nightmare. In a steady voice, he blamed the killings on his wife's postpartum depression, his blue eyes staring vacantly into television news cameras.
Yates' demeanor was jarring to some. They said they didn't understand how he could contain his emotions.
Such self-control, however, should not be unexpected, said psychological experts contacted by the Houston Chronicle.
They said Yates was possibly in shock, the first stage of grief when people function mechanically as they attend to funeral arrangements and other matters.
People grieving over traumatic losses move through several stages -- including anger and depression -- until, hopefully, they are able to accept their loss.
"His grief will unfold over time in a thousand ways that he can't imagine and that others can't imagine," said Jennifer Taylor, a clinical psychologist with McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School.
Last week, Jutta Kennedy, Andrea Yates' mother, said she and her family did not want to talk about their relationship with Russell Yates.
Former high school classmates recall a charismatic teen-ager who was driven to succeed. Growing up in suburban Nashville, he seemed destined for success.
Fellow students at DuPont High School in Hermitage, a small suburb, said they adored him. His classmates filled the school alumni association's Web site chat room over the last few days with condolences and prayers for his family.
Yates was a starting tackle on the football team and a talented tennis player. He also played first base on a summer-league baseball team for years. As a junior and senior he acted in school plays.
"He was elected Mr. DuPont," said Billy Fellman, one of Yates' best friends in high school. "He was like `the man' "
Friends said he was reserved but had a wry sense of humor. Often at pep rallies, he'd stand in front of the cheering crowd and recite Latin phrases.
"He was hilarious," Fellman said. "He was so funny. He had a dry wit."
Ken Humphrey recalled that despite his popularity, Yates was quiet and reserved. He joined the debate club and several other clubs and "stood out in everything he did," said Humphrey, a Marine Corps recruiter in Knoxville, Tenn.
"He kept an even keel," Humphrey said. "I never remember anything ever rattling his cage."
Academically, Yates was at or near the top of his high school senior class, friends said.
In a brief interview, Yates said he graduated in 1982, earning a Naval ROTC scholarship to Auburn University. School records show he left the ROTC program in the winter of 1984 after serving in June and July the previous year aboard a Navy destroyer.
Yates said he realized Navy life was not for him and worked his way through college in the university's co-operative program with the Johnson Space Center. The program allowed students to work a portion of each academic year at the center to earn money for tuition.
Employment records at Johnson confirm Yates began working there in 1985. He currently earns $80,000 a year as a NASA computer engineer in the space shuttle program.
Yates graduated Summa Cum Laude from Auburn in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in science and math.
Though his old friends say Yates did not seem fervently religious, high school classmate Fellman recalled that Yates was a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a national evangelical organization devoted to Christian worship. He and other members met every morning before school to read scriptures.
His mother, Dora Yates, said the family attended United Methodist Church of Hermitage regularly.
During his eulogy for his children Wednesday, Yates said he found spiritual comfort in the Bible as a teen-ager after his father died. His father died when Yates was 16.
During the memorial service, Yates shared several of his favorite scriptures. He has said he has deep religious feelings.
Margarita Humason said she rented Yates a room in her Clear Lake home while he worked in Houston as a co-op student and for a time after he graduated. She said Yates often discussed the Bible and Jesus with her.
He read the Bible in his room and occasionally attended a nearby church, but he did not appear fanatically religious, she said.
Her husband, John Humason, said Yates was a "very nice guy."
He taught their adopted daughter math, helping her each night with her homework, said Humason, who added that Yates was polite, neat and helped with yard work. Often, when they left for months at a time on vacations, Yates lived in the house as a caretaker, Humason said.
"When you were doing something, Rusty, you'd want him right there with you because he'd say, `No, do it like this.' It would be better."
Yates' brother Randall Yates, who lives in Clearwater, Fla., rented a room at the Humason house in 1987 and 1988, Humason said.
Yates met Andrea Pia Kennedy in 1989. They married in 1993 and moved to their Clear Lake home about two years ago after selling a house in Friendswood in 1998.
They apparently lived with Andrea Yates' parents in Houston before they purchased the new home. In 1999, after the birth of their fourth child and before they moved to Clear Lake, Andrea Yates attempted suicide.
The Yateses' neighbors said they never suspected depression haunted the outwardly happy couple. They often saw the family walking with their four sons and pushing Mary in a stroller along the quiet neighborhood streets, waving to passers-by and chatting casually with other homeowners.
The family was friendly, but not social, rarely inviting neighbors to their home. They had no close friends in the neighborhood, acquaintances said.
At his children's memorial service, Yates told mourners he didn't have time to visit because he spent all his time with his family and that his children had become his friends. Neighbors said they regularly saw him playing basketball with the couple's sons at a goal erected in the family's driveway.
Some neighbors said they fear the children's deaths will forever mar their friendly neighborhood, a dark reminder that even the most "normal" families may need help.
They struggle to understand why they never recognized the family's hardships. Some said they would become more open with neighbors and socialize with them regularly, hoping to sense problems they might help solve.
The Yateses, though a large family, seemed no different from others, they said.
"They are just normal people like everybody else," said James Bossom, who lives with his family just a few hundred feet from the Yates home.
One crucial difference remains: Andrea Yates is charged with capital murder and sits in the Harris County Jail. She turns 37 on Monday.
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle