Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates

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9780743466295: Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates

In the tradition of In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song, and A Civil Action, Suzanne O'Malley exposes the human mystery of the most horrifying crime in recent history and the legal drama surrounding it.

As a journalist, Suzanne O'Malley began covering the murders of Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary Yates hours after their mother, Andrea Yates, drowned them in their suburban Houston home in June 2001. Over twenty-four months, O'Malley interviewed or witnessed the sworn testimony of more than a hundred participants in this drama, including Yates herself; her husband, Rusty Yates; their families; attorneys; the personnel of the Harris County district attorney's and sheriff's offices; medical staff; friends; acquaintances; and expert witnesses.

O'Malley argues persuasively that under less extraordinary circumstances, a mentally ill woman would have been quietly offered a plea bargain and sent to an institution under court supervision. But on March 12, 2002, Andrea Yates was found guilty of the murders of three of her five children. She is currently serving a life sentence and will not be eligible for parole until 2041.

O'Malley's exclusive personal communications with Andrea Yates and her interviews with Rusty Yates allow her to offer fully realized portrayals of people at the center of this horrifying case.

In "Are You There Alone?" O'Malley makes a critical contribution to our understanding of mental health issues within the criminal justice system.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Suzanne O'Malley's investigative reports on the Yates trial appeared in the New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; and on Dateline NBC. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Salon.com, and Texas Monthly, and has been a producer and consultant for NBC and MSNBC. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in New York City and Houston. Visit www.suzanneomalley.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The Prophecy

A little before 10:00 AM -- 9:56, to be exact -- Russell "Rusty" Yates's cell phone rang in the sixth-floor Shuttle Vehicle Engineering Office he shared with three other National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees. It was his wife, Andrea, calling. Not even an hour had passed since he had left her at home with the kids. She'd been sitting at the kitchen table eating Corn Pops out of the box. He'd given her a 300-milligram morning dose of the antidepressant Effexor and, the previous night, a 45-milligram dose of the antidepressant Remeron with a 15-milligram dissolvable Remeron SolTab booster. His mother was due at the house to watch the kids at any minute. He had a 10:30 AM presentation to give to the Space Shuttle Program manager on the progress of the space vehicle's instrumentation systems upgrade.

"You need to come home," Andrea said, in a "firm, sober" voice Rusty had heard only once before -- and dreaded. Not long after the birth of their fourth son, Luke, two years earlier, she'd had a sort of nervous breakdown. That time, she had asked Rusty to come home from work; now she wasn't asking him, she was telling him.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"It's time," Andrea said.

"What do you mean?"

"It's time," she repeated, later recalling that she hadn't "said it well."

Rusty Yates didn't need to hear any more. When his wife's father had died three months before, she'd gotten sick again. And there was a new baby at home, 6-month-old Mary. He left his office, stopping only to tell a colleague he had a "family emergency." On the elevator he wished for the days before Andrea had become sick, when he didn't have to communicate with her through a filter of mental disease, wondering whether she was really well or might try to kill herself as she had twice before. Wondering whether he'd micromanaged life well enough to be there to stop her if she did.

He raced through the lobby and out the front doors of NASA Building One, dialing his mother on the way. Dora Yates had come from her home in Hermitage, Tennessee, to help out when Andrea became ill. A couple of weeks had stretched into a couple of months. Her daughter-in-law had been hospitalized twice, but she hadn't improved much. They were all running on fumes.

"Mom, are you there yet?" Rusty asked.

"No," Dora Yates answered. She hadn't left the Extended Stay America Hotel on NASA Road 1 yet.

"Hurry," he told her. "Something's wrong at the house."

He was ten minutes away. He sprinted across the employee parking lot to his SUV and dialed Andrea from behind the wheel. Thank God she answered.

"Is anybody hurt?" he asked.

"Yes," Andrea answered.

"Who?"

"The kids."

The kids? What did she mean? "Which ones?" Rusty asked.

"All of them" was her unfathomable answer.


At 9:48 AM on Wednesday, June 20, 2001, eight minutes before she called her husband, Andrea Yates had dialed 911. "I need a police officer," she said, her breath heaving unsteadily into the phone.

"What's the problem?" police telecommunicator Dorene Stubblefield asked with a whiff of attitude.

"I just need him to come," Yates said.

"I need to know why they are coming," Stubblefield persisted. "Is your husband there?"

"No."

"What's the problem?"

"I need him to come."

"I need to know why they are coming," Stubblefield repeated.

No answer. Nothing but Andrea Yates breathing irregularly, as if an intruder might be holding a gun to her head.

"Is he standing next to you?"

Yates fumbled the phone.

"Are you having a disturbance?" Stubblefield asked, thinking this might be a domestic problem. No answer. She had to determine whether she was sending officers into a dangerous situation. "Are you ill, or what?"

"Yes, I'm ill."

"What kind of medical problems?"

Valuable seconds ticked by. Who could explain this to a stranger on the phone?

"You need an ambulance?" Stubblefield suggested.

"No, I need a police officer," Yates said.

"Do you need an ambulance?" Stubblefield repeated.

"No...Yes, send an ambulance..." Yates's breath became even more labored. Then nothing but static.

"Hello?" Stubblefield asked, urgency finally mounting in her voice.

Still no answer. "Is someone burglarizing your house?" she asked.

"No."

"What is it?" asked Stubblefield, frustrated.

Silence.

"What kind of medical problems are you having?"

More time slipped away. At length, Yates once more asked Stubblefield for a police officer.

"Are you at 942 Beachcomber?"

"Yes."

"Are you there alone?"

"Yes," Yates said. Suddenly there was more static, then another long silence. Stubblefield wondered if she'd lost her. The sound of panicked breathing returned.

"Andrea Yates?"

"Yes."

"Is your husband there?"

"No. I'm sick."

"How are you sick?" Stubblefield asked. Yates's answer was unintelligible.

"Andrea Yates, is your husband there?"

"No."

"Why do you need a policeman, ma'am?"

"I just need him to be here."

"For what?"

"I just need him to come."

A long silence ensued, followed by static.

"You're sure you're alone?" By now Stubblefield knew something was wrong, but was Yates refusing to answer her questions or was someone stopping her from answering? After eight years on the job, Stubblefield thought she knew how to recognize a battered wife when she heard one.

"No," Yates said finally, she was not alone. "My kids are here." But her rasping breaths continued.

"How old are the children?"

"Seven, 5, 3, 2, and 6 months."

"You have five children?"

"Yes."

She might not know exactly what was wrong, but five children were enough to satisfy Stubblefield. "Okay. We'll send an officer."

"Thank you," Yates said politely and hung up.


Officer David Knapp was patrolling alone in his marked police car. He was a "uni" -- a uniformed police officer -- doing the 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM shift in south Houston. At 9:52 AM his radio announced a dispatch to Beachcomber Lane, a 911 call. He needed to do a "welfare check." Welfare checks made him glad he'd done crisis intervention training in his spare time. What was up this morning?

A wet, white female with long, dark hair met him at the front door to the single-level brick home. She was wide-eyed and breathing heavily.

"What do you need a police officer for, ma'am?" he asked.

"I just killed my kids," she said, looking him straight in the eye.

Okay, he hadn't been prepared for that. All he could think to ask was "Why?"

"I killed my kids," she repeated flatly.

"Where are they?"

"They're in the bed." Andrea Yates motioned Officer Knapp into the house, past the dog barking from her kennel in the family room, down the hallway lined with framed family photos and carpeted in beige plush, and into the master bedroom. A king-size mattress and box springs sat on the floor. The first thing Knapp noticed was a small child's arm sticking out from under the deep burgundy cotton sheets, the arm was porcelain white, and Knapp later learned it belonged to 2-year-old Luke Yates. There were "what appeared to be four lumps in the bed." When he pulled back the covers, he had "the impression the children were all in bed resting peacefully. It appeared the children were tucked in. Mary's head was lying on her older brother's arm."

Methodically, Knapp checked each of the children for signs of life. He noticed a frothy substance under three of the children's noses -- it was the sign that their lungs had "more or less burst." There was no way Knapp or Emergency Medical Services could revive them now. He was too late.

He wished the dog would stop barking.


Twenty-one years in the Houston Police Department specializing in narcotics and hostage negotiation had done little to erase Officer Frank Stumpo's New York City accent, or his hard-edged cop prose. Like Knapp, Stumpo had been called to the scene on a welfare check. He pulled up in his blue-and-white, approached with caution, knocked, and opened the door. He found Officer Knapp in the family room with Andrea Yates.

Stumpo retraced Knapp's steps down the hallway to the left. "I saw a sparsely furnished room with a mattress on the floor, and I saw a little head on the mattress," he said. "I thought it was a doll. The closer I got, the more [it] came into focus and when I got close enough, I realized it was the head of a child....I touched the child's head....It was warm to the touch." In the guest bathroom tub he discovered a fifth child, 7-year-old Noah, floating face down with no pulse. He wanted to hurl.

Andrea Yates sat on a blue love seat. Knapp sat beside her. He asked for her driver's license, which she gave him, and permission to use the telephone in the adjacent kitchen to call his supervisor.

For John Treadgold, it was a slow news day. Treadgold was a roaming cameraman for KPRC, Houston's NBC Television affiliate. Ten public safety radios cluttered the dash of his well-worn, white Ford Explorer. His radios were tuned to the ambulance chasers' "Top Ten" favorites: Houston's Fire Department; Emergency Medical Services; Police Department; Coast Guard; Sheriff's Department; Life Flight Helicopter; Pasadena, Texas, Fire and Police Departments; and area VHF and UHF Volunteer Fire Departments. He used his "go to" radio when he keyed in on a story. Camera gear crowded the back of his van. He stored his $20,000, broadcast-quality Beta Cam SP in a camera safe. The safe, along with tripods, light stands, weight bags, videotape, and other equipment were stowed behind a locked cage purchased at a police supply store.

One had to have an ear for filtering through the shrill radio static to catch one code word that might be tonight's lead story. That, and an unusual tolerance for noise. Treadgold was dodging the crisscross of downtown Houston streets, every one of them, it seemed, perpetually under construction. He'd spent enough time hanging outside the front doors of the old Criminal Courts building with his video camera weighing on his shoulder to notice a quotation etched in the sidewalk: "I think I'll like Houston if they ever get it finished." Oveta Culp Hobby, a matriarch of contemporary Houston, had said that in 1946. Houston still wasn't finished.

Somebody had a kitchen fire. An elderly Houstonian had died of natural causes. The police band droned on like the rest, requesting an officer to this address or that, a supervisor for...what was that? He spun the volume dial on the police radio. Automatically, his brain searched his audio memory for a sentence fragment. He couldn't have heard right. "Multiple pediatric DOAs?" That was something he'd never heard. The dispatcher must have said GOAs: Gone on Arrival. Crackling on another channel he recognized the ambulance number of a southeast Houston EMS unit in service for something major.

Treadgold called his assignment editor back at KPRC and asked her to check for a police computer dispatch record. There it was at10:00 AM. The editor double-checked the listing with Fire Dispatch. It was a respiratory problem, "unconscious," with a tag note indicating "possible children," the editor told him, intersection of Beachcomber and Sealark in Clear Lake. A twenty-minute drive southeast -- with no traffic. He headed for the Gulf Coast Freeway.


Nine minutes after Officer Knapp entered the house on Beachcomber, Sergeant David Svahn, a patrol supervisor with sixteen years on the force, arrived in answer to the "code one" call from his men. Knapp remained with Yates on the love seat, while Stumpo met his sergeant at the front door. "She killed her kids," he told him.

Svahn authorized Stumpo to arrest and handcuff Yates, then did a walk-through of the home that was now a crime scene. He saw a typical suburban residence with family photos on the refrigerator door, cereal bowls on the kitchen table, and toys on the floor. He noticed a child's wet gray-and-white sock lying on the hallway carpet. Outside, additional officers were already putting crime-scene tape around the house.

Svahn stationed himself in the entryway to the Yates house. He heard a scream outside and ran out the front door. An athletic man in his mid-thirties ducked under the yellow tape. He was "visibly upset and hollering some things," Svahn said. The man was Rusty Yates, Andrea's husband, the father of all five children.

"What did she do to my kids? What did she do to my kids?" Svahn remembered Rusty Yates pleading. "He said, his wife had called him at work and told him it was time to come home. His wife told him she had hurt all five of the kids and that she finally did it."

"I told him all five of his children had passed away," Svahn said. "He fell to the ground and pounded the ground and began screaming." Hell, after seeing the child in the bathtub floating in fecal matter, Svahn felt like doing the same thing. He could be another sixteen years on the force and never get used to a crime like this one. At length, Yates got up off the ground and, in his pain, grabbed a plastic yard chair and threw it at nothing in particular. Then he fell to the ground again and coiled into a fetal position, still screaming.

Rusty Yates wanted to see his kids. Wanted to hold them, talk to his wife, be told that this was a bad dream. Instead, Svahn explained that the Yates home was off-limits. Perhaps the backyard of the L-shaped corner lot would be a more private place to wait out the crime-scene investigation.

At the rear of the cedar-fenced house, through a slit in the curtain fashioned from a white pin-striped bedsheet, Rusty Yates could just see his wife sitting on the couch. He yelled through the glass, through the depth of the house, through the shell of his wife. "How could you do this? I don't understand," he yelled again and again. He was sinking to his knees. And then he was just sinking. For a second, Andrea's eyes re...

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