Andrea Yates, a suburban Houston mother of five, horrified the nation on June 20, 2001, when she dialed 911 and said, “I killed my children.”
While her husband Rusty, a NASA engineer, was at work, Andrea filled the family bathtub with water and systematically drowned their children, ages six months to seven years. As her eldest child lay lifeless in the bathtub and the bodies of her four youngest rested in her bed, Andrea, a devoted Christian wife and former nurse, called the police to confess her sin.
The investigations by the prosecutors, by the defense, and by the press delved deeper into Andrea’s mind and history, revealing a disturbing web of suicidal tendencies, depression, and psychoses. While her husband struggled between his overwhelming grief and his loyalty to his incarcerated wife, an outraged nation asked one question after another: How could anyone do this? What would drive a mother to kill her children?
Drawing from hundreds of hours of interviews, court testimony, and medical records, including new access to psychiatric and legal files, Breaking Point traces the story of an all-American family struggling with the darkness of a mental illness that twisted a loving mother into a killer obsessed with hellfire.
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About the Author
AudioFile Earphones Award winner Coleen Marlo has earned numerous Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Awards and won an Audie Award for her narration of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga.
Read an Excerpt
"Guarded. People in the Bay Area are guarded," one former resident explained. "That's why nobody talks openly about anyone else's business. They keep their stuff to themselves." She was a woman who grew up in League City, one of the many towns adjoining Clear Lake and comprising what was called the Bay Area — Friendswood, Kemah, Webster, Seabrook, Nassau Bay, even Dickinson.
They were once poor, tiny communities made up of uneducated but smart rice farmers and shrimpers who worked the salt waters of Galveston Bay. The former resident called them "river rats," hardworking men and women with a penchant for alcohol and gambling. They weren't the types who appreciated outsiders.
But in the 1960s, about the time Andrea and Rusty Yates were born, and when Lyndon Baines Johnson was President, outsiders flooded the Bay Area — MIT-educated engineers from Washington, D.C., and Virginia. They were the men of NASA.
Oil and gas land once owned by Humble Oil, which became Exxon, was quickly turned into a space center. Houses sprouted up where oil rigs should have stood — 3,000 homes in Clear Lake alone.
Sons and daughters of shrimpers and farmers were going to school with the sons and daughters of rocket scientists and astronauts. On the surface, everyone got along. Beneath the surface, folks were "guarded."
Despite the fact that the frugal engineers were always looking for a bargain, million-dollar homes went up near former gambling restaurants. A Shell Oil access road became busy El Dorado Boulevard. And suddenly, there were 18,000 homes in Clear Lake, not just 3,000.
The Bay Area became a bastion of engineers with flattops, slide rules, and pocket protectors. Over the decades, they metamorphosed into family-oriented Republicans who proudly referred to themselves as "geeks." Suddenly, status became important. Women stayed home and cared for the children, while their husbands worked 100-hour weeks at NASA.
They were not the kinds of citizens who brought crime to an area. With the exception of "the killing fields" in League City, there was a murder perhaps every ten years. Bay Area residents were "good, moral people" in a community that thought nothing about giving when there was a flood, a tornado, or a hurricane, said another long-time citizen. They especially came together, she said, when there were children in need.
But she, too, admitted to a guardedness about the community. Again, the finger was pointed at NASA. NASA, by its very nature, by its very work, required and demanded secrecy.
Plus, she said, NASA engineers got so preoccupied with their jobs that they didn't think about anything else. The woman knew; she taught the children of NASA.
John Treadgold steered his dented, white Ford Explorer around downtown Houston. To any speeding motorist, he looked like a typical commuter. But on closer look, something was different about Treadgold's Explorer. The back seat was stashed with equipment. The front passenger seat was loaded with ten radios propped up on a makeshift cabinet so that their dials faced Treadgold's easy reach. Noise ratcheted from their speakers.
Just a week earlier, those speakers had been screaming as the city drowned in twenty-eight inches of floodwaters from Tropical Storm Allison. Treadgold was a KPRC-TV roaming cameraman who had worked fourteen-hour days covering the killer storm, listening to the police, sheriff, and fire reports on his ten radios, rushing to the scene for film footage.
The area John Treadgold currently circled had been transformed from streets into deadly, raging rivers. He, and all the other media workers in the area, desperately yearned for a quiet news week. The day was steaming with heat, humidity, and radio noise that could almost lull an exhausted man to rest.
"Send a supervisor over for these pediatric DOAs."
John Treadgold's body snapped. He shot for the dial and spun up the radio's volume. Are my ears playing tricks on me? He hadn't heard any calls about DOAs. But there was a follow-up report tweetering on a back channel, meaning an ambulance driver had called to say he was in service or had "something" important.
Treadgold heard the unit's number, which told him the unit was on the east side of Houston. He phoned his station, the local NBC affiliate, and asked the assignment desk editor to look up the call on the computer. The time was approximately 10 A.M. on Wednesday, June 20, 2001.
"It's a respiratory problem, unconscious," the editor reported. "But later on they put on a note that says 'possible children.'" She gave Treadgold the intersection that marked the call's location.
Treadgold thought about where he was: downtown Houston. He thought about where that intersection was: Clear Lake, twenty to thirty minutes away on the outer edges of Houston, not far from where there had been more major flooding and loss of homes during Tropical Storm Allison. "Well, it's a weird call," he replied. "They said DOA."
His editor called the fire station. "Do you have a DOA?"
"We've looked at our computer, and there's no DOA listed."
"Well, they may have meant GOA," Treadgold said, as he still listened carefully to the ten radios, hoping for an explanation of gone on arrival — no one had waited for the ambulance to arrive. "Well, there's nothing else going on. I'm going to go ahead and go down there and see what's happening."
He drove to Clear Lake, arrived at the intersection that had been earmarked by the station's computer check, and saw nothing. He studied the neighborhood — a quiet, comfortable, middle-class community with mostly well-maintained yards. Men jogged down the sidewalks. Neighbors washed flood mud from their driveways.
He reached for the radio, ready to report that there was no story, when he edged around a corner and spotted cop cars and ambulances. He cruised closer and saw a police officer, two paramedics, and a tall, thin man with closely cropped dark hair, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. John Treadgold knew from the looks on their faces that Wednesday, June 20, 2001, wasn't going to be a slow news day after all.
He drove past the house, around the block, and returned. Two police supervisors and one paramedic supervisor stood outside the house. Treadgold parked his vehicle and got out. Immediately, a police sergeant walked over to him.
"We're not going to make any statements," the sergeant said. "The medical examiner's been called. Homicide's been called. They'll talk to you."
"I heard the call was about children." Treadgold looked into the sergeant's face. It quivered.
"I'll tell you that it's children and there's a multiple amount. And we'd appreciate it if you don't come in the yard." He added that any further information would have to be provided by a Houston Police Department media or homicide spokesperson.
John Treadgold called KPRC. "It's ninety-nine percent confirmed that there's at least two children dead here. There's nobody else here," he continued, and began to set up his camera equipment across the street from the house. As he did, a man and a woman approached him.
"What's the deal?" they asked.
He replied that he wasn't sure.
"That man in the white shirt, his name is Rusty Yates," the woman said. "He just came home from work and went running over to the house."
Treadgold aimed his camera at the house and Yates, still standing outside, his forehead pressed against the brick wall as a gray-haired woman gently rubbed his back.
"Do you know this family?" he asked.
"Yeah, he brought all of his kids over last week for my boy's birthday."
At least one of those kids is not alive anymore, Treadgold thought. "What about his wife?"
Yates tried to peer through a window as a police officer stood blocking the front door.
"She didn't come. She hardly ever comes out. He brings the kids out."
The cameraman nodded as he wondered why Rusty Yates was standing outside. "But does she live there?"
"Oh, yes. She lives there. You see her in the yard, but she hardly ever leaves the yard."
"What's her name?"
The neighbor didn't know.
Teams of homicide investigators drove up and got out of their vehicles.
I don't remember the last time I saw three teams of homicide officers come to a story, Treadgold thought.
"What are all these detectives?"
"I believe somebody is dead in the house," Treadgold answered.
"Oh," replied the neighbor. "I hope it's not one of the kids."
Inside the house, the woman with the long, dark, wet hair sat on her love seat, her hands calmly folded over her lap. HPD Officer Frank Stumpo looked at her. She looked at him, then looked away.
Rusty Yates moved to the back door. "How could you do this?" he screamed. "I don't understand." He dropped to his knees and peered through a small opening between the window coverings.
The woman sat silently on the love seat. Briefly, she made eye contact with Yates.
"How could you do this?" he yelled. "I don't understand." He yelled it over and over again.
Officer Stumpo closed the window covering tight. "Do you realize what you have done?" he asked the woman.
"Yes, I do," she answered.
Treadgold motioned to a big, blue bus parked behind a wooden fence in the Yates' back yard. "What's the deal with that bus over there?"
"They plan to use that for an RV. The neighbor on the other side is kinda upset about that bus because, you know, Rusty had to extend his driveway for it and now that bus is parked there."
A police officer peered over the fence.
Treadgold swung his camera to focus on the officer.
The cop wiggled the gate. The gate opened, and the officer walked out, followed by the woman with long, dark, stringy hair, and a second officer. The woman wore eyeglasses, gold loop earrings, and handcuffs.
Treadgold zoomed in on her. To him, she looked peaceful as she followed the first officer to the car.
The neighbor lady not-so-calmly ran over to Treadgold. "That's the wife," she said. "Where are they taking her?"
"Well, it looks like she's being hauled in for questioning —" Treadgold moved his camera's focus to a flat bundle of clothing one of the officers carried — "at the very least, since she's got handcuffs on."
"You don't think she did it, do you?"
He thought about the way the police had walked out with her, neither one touching her, neither one gripping her arms like they usually did with murderers. "Are you sure that's the wife?"
"Well, she doesn't look like she's crying or anything."
The officer opened the car door for her, and, unsmiling, the woman gazed over the heads of the gathering crowd, then looked down at the police car.
Treadgold checked his watch. He'd been there at least an hour, and not a single other TV film crew had arrived on the scene. What is the deal? He phoned the KPRC newsroom. "This is pretty weird. They've just arrested the wife."
The newsroom replied that they'd called the police and hadn't gotten any answers, but a news truck was on its way to do a live broadcast at noon.
Not much later, the station called him. "Have you heard any more?"
All he could update them on was that the officer had placed the flat bundle of clothing into a paper bag. Treadgold asked the station whether they knew the wife was involved.
They didn't, but they said an HPD spokesperson was on his way and would talk to Treadgold. The station was sending a helicopter to do a breaking news insert.
"Well, you know, the other stations can track our helicopter. And right now we're the only ones here."
The NBC affiliate decided not to turn on the chopper's camera until it was directly over the murder scene.
At 11:30 A.M., Wednesday, June 20, 2001, KPRC's live news truck had arrived, and the station broadcast an update stating there was breaking news in the Clear Lake area. Children had been found dead in their home, and details would come at noon.
Fifteen minutes before KPRC's noontime broadcast, John Cannon, a police spokesman, came out of the Spanish-style house and stood before John Treadgold's camera. "When our responding officer arrived, he was met at the door by the woman who then was breathing heavily. You could tell she was disturbed. And at that time, she said to the officer, 'I killed my children.' And the officer said, 'Where are they?' And she led the officer to the bedroom where there were four bodies and ... there was one body in the bathtub."
The officer then went outside and called in the crime, grief-stricken himself. "And that's the end of everything we can say right now," Cannon finished.
Treadgold had heard Cannon say that the mother had drowned the children.
"I just can't believe this," said the neighbor lady, who eavesdropped. "All those kids were over here. I've even got videotape of them all jumping around."
Treadgold looked at her. At five minutes to noon, he phoned the station. "Look, this is really big. There's five children dead. The police came in and found them all dead in the bed. The mother's been arrested."
"We're sending everybody we've got down there," his news producer said.
Rusty Yates was asked into his own house, where the cops questioned him about his children's clothing. He was inside for only ten minutes, then he was instructed to go back out.
"News 2 Houston's Phil Archer is the only reporter live on the scene," Treadgold heard as the studio's broadcast filtered through his earpiece and he focused his camera on reporter Phil Archer.
"Police were called to this house around ten o'clock this morning. It was a routine call — a welfare check. What they found here was anything but routine — five children dead inside. The oldest one just seven years old."
As the tape of Cannon's statement aired over Treadgold's earpiece, the reality of the crime hit him. He watched his video of the mother being led out in handcuffs. A quiet, pleasant neighborhood on a peaceful, summer day — the last thing he had expected to hear was that a mother had drowned her five children, especially that mother.
He'd seen too many murderers in his twenty-five years as a police beat reporter. The killers' faces were always contorted with anger or laughter. Always, there was extreme emotion. At most, the dispassionate woman John Treadgold had watched looked like an accessory to murder, not a murderer.
"She is on her way now to a homicide division where [police] want to talk to her to take a statement about this," said Archer. The husband, he added, "is inside the house talking to police or, at least, they are trying to talk to him. They are saying he was initially too distraught to be able to sit down and talk to them coherently." The children, he added in closing, were six months to seven years, four boys and one girl.
Patricia Salas, the neighbor, went inside her house and got the videotape of her son's birthday party. Three little boys — now dead — happily swung at and missed a piñata. The news crew copied the tape for future newscasts, as helicopters from the competing stations swarmed in the sky.
Not far away, the police sergeant whose face had quivered with shock as he gave the initial statement stood by. The first responding officer, he said, had immediately checked the children for breathing, then called the paramedics to confirm the DOAs. That officer, said the sergeant, was so shaken up that he was being pulled from the scene and going for counseling.
Treadgold didn't want to think about it anymore. The day had been surreal. He had kids of his own. Kids were muscular and slippery when wet. He just couldn't see how that skinny woman could have grabbed hold of a slippery child and held him under bathtub water long enough to die. He had to block it out of his mind.
"This is such a big homicide case," said the sergeant, "we really cannot make any other comments."CHAPTER 2
While the first officer on the scene was headed for a meeting with Dr. Gregory Riede, Director of Psychological Services for HPD, Rusty Yates stood outside his home with his mother, as well as a psychologist and a security officer, both of whom were from NASA, Yates' employer.
The grinding roar of hovering helicopters filled the air.
John Cannon, the police spokesperson, stood before a multitude of cameras, his suit stifling in the heat, his thinning hair exposed to the sun. "Shortly before ten o'clock this morning we were called out to this residence from the woman of the home, who said that she needed a police unit to come by her house to check on the children that she was caring for."
Reporters jammed their tape recorders toward Cannon's mouth. He didn't flinch.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Breaking Point"
Copyright © 2015 Suzy Spencer.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Compency hearing long and repetive. A sad story where everyone is blamed besides
It's unreal to discover how this tragedy did not have to happen
Don't feel bad for her she choose to go off of her meds. I also suffer from depression and panic attacks. However I have never once ever thought of harming my children. Mental Defect is no excuse for murdering your children. EVER!!!!!
I also believed Andrea Yates should get the death penalty before reading this book. After I finished I had a different view of this woman. It just breaks my heart to know that these precious children may still be alive if the system did not fail her. It is such a tragedy and it makes me cry. My heart goes out to Andrea and her family and especially to these beautiful angels whose lives were lost at such a tender age. Hopefully this book can be a wake up call for others to take depression more seriously and to help those with this devastating illness get the help they need. This was a woman who seemed like the perfect mother but lived with these demons for so long but could not get the intervention she so desperately needed from the medical community. Please do not let these beautiful children's deaths be in vain. I would recommend everyone to read this book. It gives much more insight than what the media has reported.
Before I read this book, I wanted to see Andrea Yates get the Death Penalty. Anyone who could kill their own children the way she did, didn't deserve anything less. But as I read this book, I came to see the Andrea Yates I never knew about. The mental problems, the problems with doctors. When I was done reading this book, I had other thoughts about her. This is a tastefully written book. It tells the story that the trial couldn't. A story of feelings and concerns that if she would have gotten the help that she needed,would her children be alive today? This is a 'must read' book for anyone who likes to read true crime.
It makes me sick to think how she killed her own children. She dont deserve to live and I am sick of people blaming their stupidy on depression or whatever sickness they might have. That is no excuse and anyone who sides with her or her family should be ashamed of themselves! Take your children somewhere safe until you feel you are well dont kill them! Everyone has ups and downs in their lives but we learn to deal with it. If she was this sick she shouldnt have been having kids to add to her stress.
Sorry, I do not feel any differently about Andrea Yates now than I did before I read the book. I read this book hoping it would change my mind but all it did was make me angrier at both of the Yates and solidify my convictions. The system did not fail her. As this book makes abundantly clear over and over, she and her husband knew the risks of her quitting her medication and they chose to assume those risks. She knew what she had been like before she was on the medication and she quit. As her husband said, they took the 'chance' because 'If you were told you could have a new Mercedes but you would have a terrible cold for about two weeks, what would you choose?' Come on -- THEY KNEW what would happen, those poor children didn't. She and her husband had the right to assume the risk of her stopping her medication for themselves; they did NOT have the right to assume that risk for those children. They are both selfish, selfish people. Personally, I think he is as guilty as she is and should have been prosecuted for negligent homicide.