Hardened detectives listened in horror as Texas mother Andrea Pia Yates told them how she methodically drowned her five children, one by one, in the bathtub. When her eldest, seven-year-old Noah, realised what was going on and bolted, she chased him around the house, then dragged him back to the bathroom and held him under water until he died, too.
Mrs Yates, the 36-year-old stay-at-home mother with a history of mental illness and post-partum depression, described Wednesday's horrifying events in "a zombie-like fashion" on her videotaped confession, said police.
Two-year-old Luke was the first to go, then Paul, three, and John, five. After drowning them, Mrs Yates laid them out on a bed and wrapped each in a sheet. As she was putting down the limp corpse of her six-month-old baby girl, Noah came into the bedroom and asked: "What's wrong with Mary?" He ran before his mother could answer. The chase was brief.
"This is the most horrendous thing I have seen," the public prosecutor, Joe Owmby, said yesterday after a preliminary court hearing. So far, Mrs Yates has been charged only with the murder of the two oldest children, but the charges are likely to be extended following her confession and other corroborating evidence. The Harris County medical examiner said all five deaths were caused by asphyxiation by drowning.
"We'll be reviewing police files, meeting with investigators, and making decisions on what exactly to charge," Mr Owmby said. "We'll be preparing, as always, for an eventual trial, whether there is one or not." Although the facts of the case seem to be a matter of little dispute, the reasons for Mrs Yates' behaviour remain unclear.
Her husband Russell, a computer engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, has said she had suffered from severe post-partum depression following the births of the last two children and had even been prescribed Haldol, an anti- psychotic drug usually administered to counter deeply delusional symptoms such as hearing voices. Health care officials also say Mrs Yates attempted suicide two years ago.
She had also been on three different anti-depressant drugs, suggesting her symptoms were too severe for any one of them to give her the necessary relief.
Mr Yates said the death of her father in March severely exacerbated her problems, sending her into a deep depression from which she had only partially recovered by the time of the killings.
Yesterday, psychologists and mental illness experts wondered why a woman with such a medical history would be left at home to look after five children by herself. On top of the daily burden of child care, she also took on responsibility for home-schooling them.
Mr Yates showed no regret for his domestic arrangements. "I thought it was going pretty well," he told reporters outside the family home in Clear Lake, a suburb of Houston.
"I'm not saying it was not stressful. It was manageable. She couldn't do it while she was depressed, but ordinarily she could."
Asked to account for his wife's homicidal spree, Mr Yates suggested she had undergone some kind of psychotic episode. Holding a smiling photograph of her, he said: "I know the woman here is not the woman who killed my children." He told reporters he still loved his wife. "There are two tragedies," he said. "One is my children and the other is my wife."
One expert in child-killing, Chicago physician and author Larry Milner, suggested at least one other explanation. "It seems to me either a full-blown psychosis or it was a revenge killing to get back at the husband," Professor Milner told the Houston Chronicle.
After killing the children, Mrs Yates called the police and asked them to come to the house. She then phoned her husband and asked him to come home immediately. Mr Yates asked his wife if anyone was hurt. "Yes ... the children," he said she told him. "All of them."
A neighbour said Mr Yates came to a party last weekend with three of the children. Asked where his wife was, he said she didn't get out much because of her depression.
Mrs Yates, who is being held without bail, could face the death penalty if criminal charges are pressed. She has little money so she was given a court-appointed lawyer yesterday, Bob Scott. He is seeking a gag order that would prevent all lawyers in the case speaking to the media.Reuse content