Houston Chronicle

July 3, 2001, 10:06PM

Yates' mother mystified by children's drownings

Her daughter was always devoted, delighted with her children, she says

By CLAUDIA FELDMAN
Houston Chronicle

The mother of accused child killer Andrea Yates remembers when she learned that her depressed, suicidal daughter was pregnant with baby No. 5.

"I was surprised," Jutta Kennedy said Tuesday, as if straining for the mildest comment possible. "We visited Andrea in the hospital, after she had Mary, and Andrea would look at the baby and tell her, `Now we have to try for a little sister for you.'

Exhaustion and grief make Kennedy shudder.

"How can we really know what she wanted?"

Today Yates is in the psychiatric section of the Harris County Jail, charged with capital murder. She was arrested June 20 after she told police she killed her five children. Officers found four of the five in a back bedroom, wrapped in a sheet, dead of asphyxia from drowning. Her oldest child, Noah, 7, was still floating lifeless in the bathtub.

Kennedy says she knew her daughter was deeply depressed after the birth of Luke, baby No. 4, and she tried to offer the young family as much help and support as she could.

But she was struggling to care for her husband, who himself was suffering from a stroke, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease; she had health problems of her own, and perhaps most worrisome, she didn't want to cross the line between helping and meddling.

It didn't occur to anyone in the family that the children were at risk, Kennedy said. "If anything, we were afraid she would try suicide. We never thought she would harm the children."

Yates did attempt suicide in 1999, after the birth of Luke, and in the spring, after the death of her father.

Kennedy, 72, is alternately under siege and horribly alone. The phone rings incessantly. Reporters still are knocking on her door, despite the handwritten sign, "The family is in mourning. We are not able to grant any interviews today. Thanks, for understanding."

Inside, Kennedy, who was widowed about three months ago, seems imprisoned herself. She is rescued, occasionally, by visiting children, the occasional neighbor, her German shepherd watchdog.

She knows the entire nation is studying her family and waiting to assign blame. Kennedy wonders, however, how strangers could diagnose her family's ills when she herself is mystified.

"We don't know what really happened. I think it was postpartum depression. ... I think Andrea should be in a mental hospital, not jail."

The matriarch of the family is afraid to say more.

Harris County prosecutors may seek the death penalty in Yates' case. To Kennedy, the thought is as incomprehensible as the loss of the grandchildren.

Andrea was her baby, the youngest of five. She was beautiful, she was vibrant, she was smart and talented, too.

Kennedy points to homemade curtains as one small example of Andrea's gifts. "She made everything in this house," she says.

As a senior at Milby High School, Andrea was captain of the swim team and valedictorian of her class. There was never any question whether she was going to college; her mom says everyone assumed she would. She took part-time jobs to help pay the bills at the University of Houston, then the University of Texas School of Nursing at Houston.

"She was a good nurse," Kennedy says. "All the nurses she worked with have written to me. They told me, `There never was a better person. She was the best. It wasn't Andrea who did this.' "

Kennedy doesn't remember her daughter dating in high school. The first young man Andrea brought home was Russell Yates.

"She must have fallen in love," Kennedy says, momentarily distracted. "I thought he was fine, very smart."

Kennedy says little else about her son-in-law, except that final decisions about mental health care rest with husbands, not mothers.

While Kennedy was proud of her daughter's career, she thought it perfectly reasonable that Yates stopped working when the children came.

The first three, Noah, John and Paul, brought Yates only joy, Kennedy says. "She was so happy with them. The children were her life."

When little Luke arrived in 1999, Kennedy says, Yates loved him, too. But that, according to Kennedy, is when postpartum depression set in.

Yates, she says, would wander around the house clutching the baby, speaking to no one.

"I wasn't able to reach her, no," Kennedy says. "I was very surprised because she was always the strongest one in our family. Her problem was that she always wanted to help everybody else. She was so overextended she couldn't do her own job of raising the children."

After the suicide attempt with her father's Alzheimer's medication, Russell Yates had his wife hospitalized, Kennedy says.

"She wasn't completely better after that," Kennedy says, "but gradually, she did improve. Doctors kept adjusting the medication -- they kept trying. And Russell was supportive, yes, yes, yes."

The shock to the Kennedy family came when Yates became pregnant a fifth time, spoke of a sixth child, then spiraled back into the blackest of depressions. "At the end," Kennedy says, "she was just in a world of her own."

One more shock, for Kennedy, has been talk that Yates struggled with depression since high school and that four of her five children also cope with depression.

"I wasn't even aware," Kennedy says. "One of the kids had told me, but I didn't know about the others. I guess they didn't want to burden me, knowing what I was going through with my husband."

Andrew Kennedy died in March at 83. He and Andrea had been devoted to each other, and during his last few years, she had helped bathe him and change his diapers.

"His death ... made things worse for Andrea," Kennedy says.

It was then that Yates held a knife to her throat and contemplated cutting. Family members -- her husband and one of her brothers -- stopped her.

Kennedy has visited Yates in jail at least once. She was supposed to go again Sunday, she says, but could not because of an interview with CNN.

She plans to visit today, the Fourth of July, but she is not sure her daughter will talk to her or anybody else.

"I'm sure she must realize what she has done," she says.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle