Biography of Andrea Yates, Murderer of Her Five Children

Andrea Yates

Brett Coomer-Pool / Getty Images

Andrea Yates (born Andrea Kennedy; July 2, 1964) was suffering from extreme postpartum depression when she drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. She was convicted of murder at her first trial in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison, but a second trial found her not guilty by reason of insanity. A psychiatrist who testified at her first trial said Yates was “among the five sickest patients" she had ever seen.

Fast Facts: Andrea Yates

  • Known For: Drowned her five children in a bathtub
  • Born: July 2, 1964 in Houston, Texas
  • Parents: Jutta Karin Koehler, Andrew Emmett Kennedy
  • Spouse: Rusty Yates
  • Children: Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary

Early Life

Andrea Kennedy was born on July 2, 1964, in Houston, Texas, the youngest of five children of Jutta Karin Koehler, a German immigrant, and Andrew Emmett Kennedy, whose parents were born in Ireland. She graduated from Milby High School in Houston in 1982. She was the class valedictorian, captain of the swim team, and an officer in the National Honor Society.

She completed a two-year pre-nursing program at the University of Houston and graduated in 1986 from the University of Texas School of Nursing in Houston. She worked as a registered nurse at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center from 1986 until 1994.

Meets Rusty Yates

She and Rusty Yates, both 25, met at their apartment complex in Houston. Andrea, who was usually reserved, initiated the conversation. She hadn't dated until she turned 23, and before meeting Rusty she was recovering from a broken relationship. They eventually moved in together and spent much of their time in religious study and prayer. At their marriage on April 17, 1993, they told their guests that they planned on having as many children as nature provided.

In their eight years of marriage, the Yateses had four boys and one girl. Andrea stopped jogging and swimming when she became pregnant with her second child. Friends said she had become reclusive. Her isolation appeared to increase after they decided to homeschool their five children: Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary.

Rusty took a job in Florida in 1996, and the family moved into a 38-foot travel trailer in Seminole, Florida. In 1997 they returned to Houston and lived in their trailer because Rusty wanted to "live light." The next year, Rusty purchased a 350-square-foot renovated bus as their permanent home. At this point, they had four children, and living conditions were cramped.

Michael Woroniecki

Rusty purchased their bus from Michael Woroniecki, a traveling minister whose religious views influenced Rusty and Andrea. Rusty agreed with only some of Woroniecki's ideas, but Andrea embraced even the most extreme.

He preached that a woman's role was derived from the sin of Eve and that bad mothers who are bound for hell create bad children who also go to hell. Andrea was so totally captivated by Woroniecki that Rusty's and Andrea's families were concerned.

Suicide Attempts

On June 16, 1999, Andrea called Rusty and begged him to come home. He found her shaking involuntarily and chewing on her fingers. The next day, she was hospitalized after she tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills. She was transferred to the Methodist Hospital psychiatric unit and diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. The medical staff described Andrea as evasive in discussing her problems. On June 24 she was prescribed an antidepressant and released.

Once home, Andrea didn't take the medication. She began to self-mutilate and refused to feed her children because she felt they were eating too much. She thought there were video cameras in the ceilings and said that the characters on television were talking to her and the children. She told Rusty about the hallucinations, yet neither of them informed Andrea's psychiatrist, Dr. Eileen Starbranch, who later told the court at Yates' first trial that she ranked her “among the five sickest patients" she had ever seen. On July 20, Andrea put a knife to her neck and begged her husband to let her die.

Risks of More Babies

Andrea was again hospitalized and stayed in a catatonic state for 10 days. After being treated with injections of drugs that included Haldol, an antipsychotic, her condition improved. Rusty was optimistic about drug therapy because Andrea appeared more like she was when they met. Starbranch warned the Yateses that having another baby might bring on more psychotic behavior. Andrea was placed on outpatient care and prescribed Haldol.

Andrea's family urged Rusty to buy a home instead of returning Andrea to the cramped space of the bus. He purchased a nice home in a peaceful neighborhood. Once in her new home, Andrea's condition improved to the point that she returned to past activities such as swimming, cooking, and some socializing. She also interacted well with her children. She expressed to Rusty that she had strong hopes for the future but still viewed her life on the bus as her failure.

Mental Illness Continues

In March 2000, Andrea, at Rusty's urging, became pregnant and stopped taking the Haldol. On Nov. 30, 2000, Mary was born. Andrea was coping but on March 12 her father died, and her mental state regressed. She stopped talking, refused liquids, mutilated herself, and would not feed Mary. She also frantically read the Bible.

At the end of March, Andrea was admitted to a different hospital. Her new psychiatrist treated her briefly with Haldol but discontinued it, saying that she did not seem psychotic. Andrea was released only to return again in May. She was released again after 10 days and in her last follow-up visit, her psychiatrist told her to think positive thoughts and to see a psychologist.

Tragedy

On June 20, 2001, Rusty left for work and before his mother arrived to help, Andrea began to put into action the thoughts that had consumed her for two years. She filled the tub with water and, beginning with Paul, systematically drowned the three youngest boys, then placed them on her bed and covered them. Mary was left floating in the tub.

The last child alive, her firstborn, 7-year-old son Noah, asked his mother what was wrong with Mary, then turned and ran away. Andrea caught him and as he screamed, she dragged him and forced him into the tub next to Mary's floating body. He fought desperately, coming up for air twice, but Andrea held him down until he was dead. Leaving Noah in the tub, she brought Mary to the bed and laid her in the arms of her brothers.

Conviction

During Andrea's confession, she explained her actions by saying that she wasn't a good mother, the children were "not developing correctly," and she needed to be punished.

Her controversial 2002 trial lasted three weeks. The jury found Andrea guilty of capital murder, but rather than recommending the death penalty, they voted for life in prison. Andrea would have been eligible for parole in 2041, at the age of 77.

Retrial Ordered

In January 2005 a Houston appeals court granted Yates a new trial, ruling that a prosecution expert's false testimony about the television program "Law & Order" required a retrial. The expert, Dr. Park Dietz, a psychiatrist, had testified that Yates was psychotic at the time of the murders but knew right from wrong, meaning she wasn't insane under Texas' definition of legal insanity. 

On cross-examination, Dietz, a consultant on "Law & Order," a program Yates "was known to watch," said the show had aired an episode regarding "a woman with postpartum depression who drowned her children in the bathtub and was found insane, and it was aired shortly before the crime occurred," according to The New York Times. There was no such episode, a falsehood discovered after the jury convicted Yates.

After learning about the false testimony during the sentencing hearing, the jury had rejected the death penalty and sentenced Yates to life in prison.

On July 26, 2006, at the second trial, a Houston jury of six men and six women found Yates not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. She was sent to Kerrville State Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, for an indefinite stay and has consistently waived a review of her status, the only way she could be released. 

Legacy

The case ignited a national debate about mental illness, postpartum depression, and the legal definition of insanity in Texas. One of Yates' lawyers called the verdict in the second trial a “watershed event in the treatment of mental illness.”

True crime author Suzy Spencer’s "Breaking Point," which dealt with the Andrea Yates case, was initially published just after the murders and was updated in 2015. Spencer said in an interview that Yates' attorneys claimed after the second trial that a public better educated about postpartum depression was one reason the new jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity.

Sources