Grieving in Public

Red flags go up around Russell Yates

When Russell Edison Yates took the microphone at the Clear Lake Church of Christ last week, he was the last major figure in the murder of his five children to speak publicly after a court-imposed gag order locked into place. His hour-long eulogy may have brought most of the audience to tears, but it did not bridge a strange disconnect between the media coverage and the opinions of those following the case.

Women, in particular, read signs of oppression and victimization into the virtually nonstop pregnancies over seven years of wife Andrea Pia Yates, increasing isolation with the children in her home and bouts of postpartum depression. The local media's funeral coverage portrayed the 36-year-old Rusty as the ultimate victim of his wife's self-confessed drowning of their kids. But off the record, veteran reporters saw red flags in the tall, athletic Yates's unusual desire to go on camera and talk, and talk, and talk, a classic detective's clue to feelings of guilt. The eulogy itself became an extension of that when Yates allowed -- even invited -- journalists to witness the event, including the spectacle of his sobbing at each open casket.

His verbal portraits of each child were heart-wrenching, but there were odd notes. Yates mentioned his difficulty in making eye contact with other people when he described "getting lost" gazing into the eyes of his two-year-old son, Luke. As an anecdote, he recounted telling his wife he "wanted a basketball team before we talk about a girl." For such a devout man, who gave each child a biblical name, it seemed strange that Yates never met the minister who conducted the service, Byron Fike, until after the murders. After Yates read a series of scriptures, Fike noted in amazement, "We should be ministering to you, but you are ministering to us."

The morning of the funeral, national CNN anchor Carol Lin tried to delicately probe the subject of Yates's penchant for public exposure with the network's Houston correspondent, who prudently declined to speculate on human behavior in times of grief. Talk show hosts such as Fox's Bill O'Reilly, more attuned to the wavelength of conversation at the proverbial office water fountain, immediately began focusing on the husband's role in the tragedy.

"It takes two to tango," opined media psychologist Jeffrey Gardere as O'Reilly and Dr. Joyce Brothers nodded in agreement. "She was not crazy by herself."

Before he was silenced by Judge Belinda Hill's gag order, Yates's attorney George Parnham observed without elaboration that there had been warning signs of Mrs. Yates's ability to harm herself and others. The fact that Yates had chosen to homeschool their oldest child, Noah, meant that family conditions were almost wholly without any outside monitoring, even after the mother's attempted suicide following the birth of her fourth child.

Harris County Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Judy Hay notes that schoolteachers are on the front line of reporting early signs of child abuse.

"Above all sources, including doctors, teachers' reports tend to be most accurate," says Hay. The self-enforced insular nature of the Yateses' world disarmed that early-warning system.

KPRC/Channel 2 first broke the story, but KTRK/Channel 13 made the worst reporting blunder, citing unnamed sources that the jailed woman was pregnant with a sixth child. KPRC trumped back with a report from another unnamed source denying the pregnancy, and reporter Phil Archer added that when Mrs. Yates was booked into jail, her scalp was full of lice and sores.

That is not an image easily reconciled with Yates's cozy home tales from the eulogy and the smiling snapshots from the funeral's mimeographed program.

As Andrea's brother Brian Kennedy told a Newsweek reporter who asked about his family's view of Rusty, "I'd like to say some things, but the truth will eventually come out."

For Andrea, the truth can't be any worse than is already known. For Rusty, it's a whole different story.

 
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