Houston Chronicle

June 27, 2001

Yates children remembered in services

Houston Chronicle

Russell Yates fought back tears Wednesday at the funeral of his five children, telling relatives and friends, "I'm going to miss my friends."

For almost 50 minutes Yates eulogized his children, telling stories about each and occasionally wiping away tears. Last week, his children were drowned in their Clear Lake home, their mother telling police she had killed them.

Andrea Pia Yates, 36, is in the Harris County Jail, charged with capital murder. The former registered nurse, who Russell Yates said had been suffering from postpartum depression, told police that she drowned her children one by one, then summoned officers and her husband, who was working nearby at Johnson Space Center.

Before a gag order was issued in the case, prosecutors said they had not decided whether they would seek the death penalty. Andrea Yates' attorney George Parnham earlier had suggested he might use an insanity plea as her defense.

While Russell Yates has remained supportive of his wife, she was not mentioned at length during the funeral. Members of both of their families attended the service, as did about 550 other people, at the Clear Lake Church of Christ.

During the eulogy, the 36-year-old NASA engineer moved to each of the open caskets as he shared stories about the children. After the family tales were told, Yates said goodbye to his children, then placed a favorite baby blanket in each casket and helped close them. The children were buried next to one another in the nearby Forest Park East Cemetery.

"I was telling my relatives stories (about the children) over dinner the other night, and that's what I'd like to do today," Yates said as he began the eulogy. "I can't possibly tell you everything there is to know about each one of them, but I can give you a glimpse of who they were."

He started with his eldest son, Noah Jacob, and ended with 6-month-old Mary Deborah. As Yates described each of them, a picture of a smiling child was projected overhead on a large screen.

The white caskets adorned with silver angels were arranged in a semicircle at the front of the church, each with a different-colored spray of flowers and a matching ribbon bearing the child's name. Behind the caskets were numerous floral arrangements.

Yates funeral
Buster Dean / Chronicle
Five hearses lead a funeral procession for the five Yates children out of Clear Lake, following funeral services Wednesday.
The boys were dressed in bright clothing while the baby girl wore a pale pink dress with a heart of roses embroidered on the front.

Mary's casket, with a pink spray of flowers, was in the center. Paul Abraham, 3, and John Samuel, 5, were to her left, Luke David, 2, and Noah, 7, to her right.

"All our kids really enjoyed each other. They were fun-loving and really happy kids," Russell Yates said. "I'm going to miss these kids. Every minute I had, I spent with those kids. They were my friends."

The children, he said, "were such a blessing to me. I just enjoyed them immensely."

Noah, his father said, was very intelligent and could sit and play for hours by himself. He also enjoyed playing with toys from fast-food restaurants -- but only for about 10 minutes.

"Then he'd take a screwdriver and take it apart," he said. Once, Yates said, Noah took a battery from one toy and installed it in a broken musical Christmas songbook.

"He did it all on his own," Yates said. Not allowed to use a soldering gun, Noah improvised with a hot-glue gun.

Noah, who was born Feb. 26, 1994, also knew how to bargain, Yates recalled. When he once asked to watch the movie Air Bud at 9:30 p.m., his father said no because it was bedtime. Noah, however, persisted and asked if his father would concede if he could answer a question about U.S. presidents.

"I picked a really hard question and asked when President Garfield was born," Yates recalled. "Before I could even finish the question, he answered, `1831,' and had a big smile on his face."

The children were home-schooled by their mother.

Yates said he knew his children would be different but was surprised at how much so. After the gentle Noah, Yates said, second son John was physical and enthusiastic from the beginning, "a rough-and-tumble kind of guy."

He told of a rattle that Noah would caress, gently moving the pieces. John, he said, came along and would just throw the rattle.

Roughhousing was a thrill for John.

Born Dec. 15, 1995, John had a contagious smile and a gap between his teeth, Yates said. John would make friends easily and always enjoyed having his siblings around.

His third child, Paul, was adored by his siblings, Yates said.

"Perfect, perfect Paul," Yates said. "He was just the perfect child."

Paul, born Sept. 13, 1997, liked to cuddle, and "he gave the best hugs. He was the best-liked of the kids. He was just good to his siblings."

Paul acquired the name "Bull Moose" after reading a story about a caboose that chose to live in a tree. The family found a T-shirt at a garage sale with "Bull Moose" on it, and Paul wore it just about every other day, Yates said, holding up the shirt.

The "little bulldozer" of the family, Yates said, was Luke. The youngest son, born Feb. 15, 1999, was forceful and took what he wanted, Yates said. He also had the hardest time dealing with set boundaries.

Once when taking the children to the older boys' T-ball game, Yates said, he instructed Luke and Paul to sit on the bleachers and watch the game. Paul did as told and sat in the sun for an hour and 15 minutes.

"Every time I'd check, Paul was perfectly still. Luke had his hand on the bleacher, and that's the closest he got," he said.

The independent youngster often would get up in the morning, find a bowl and a box of cereal and wait for someone to do the pouring.

The birth of Mary on Nov. 30 left him stunned, Yates said.

"I didn't know what to do. I hadn't been around girls very much," he said. He joked that he once told his wife that they would have a basketball team of boys and then talk about having girls.

Yates funeral
Smiley N. Pool / Chronicle
A flower arrangment with the names of the five Yates children sits near the grave after their funeral services Wednesday.
The baby, he said, had an open-mouthed grin and would lean forward and kiss him.

Her "princess" aura was exemplified when the children and Yates would go to the grocery store. Family rules called for the four boys to hold on to each corner of the cart while Mary sat in her car seat in the basket.

"It reminded me of them carrying a princess," the father said.

After telling stories about each child, Yates took their baby blankets and held them up for the congregation.

"I love you, and I'll miss you," he told Noah. "You're in good hands. You're in good hands now."

In Luke's coffin, Yates placed "Doom Doom," the name the child gave his blanket. "Rest in peace, Luke," he said.

A pink blanket, given by her paternal grandmother, was placed in Mary's casket. "Goodbye, Princess. I'm sorry we didn't get to know each other better. I'm sorry I didn't see you grow up. You're in good hands," he said.

To Paul, he said, "You're such a good boy. You're the best. You're the best."

Lastly, he said, "You had the biggest smile. I love you. I'll miss you. Goodbye, Johnny."

Throughout the service, mourners leaned on one another and wiped away tears. Yates often paused to brush away tears or briefly turned his back to the congregation to regain his composure.

Smiley N. Pool / Chronicle
Luci Kolavo and her 8-year-old daughter, Lorrie, place flowers on the graves of the five Yates children Wednesday after graveside services at Forest Park East Cemetery.
Yates ended his eulogy by reading several biblical verses he said have helped him cope with the loss of his children.

"If the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, that's exactly what he's done. He gave me all these children, and now he's taken them away. I trust in him," he said.

Before Yates approached his children's caskets, Byron Fike, minister of the Clear Lake Church of Christ, said the deaths of the children were a tragedy.

"Tragedy is an understatement. We have questions but no answers. We may not get the answers we want," he said. "As terrible as today is, it is not the end. There is a day coming when the dead will rise again."

In closing the church service, Fike, who had a prepared statement in the event Yates would not be able to talk about his children, praised the father for his presentation.

"We're here to minister to you, and here you are ministering to us. We hurt. You hurt because you've lost them. But they are not lost," he said. "They are safe in the arms of Jesus."

Yates had forbidden media cameras from recording the service but had requested it be videotaped by the funeral home.

After the service, a procession of cars was escorted to the cemetery, at 21707 Interstate 45 in Webster.

The graveside service drew about 100 people and lasted about five minutes. Fike said a prayer, then recited Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd ... ." The attendees closed the burial service by singing Jesus Loves the Little Children.

As mourners arrived to sign the church registry, they passed a display of five poster boards with assorted pictures of each child. They also were handed a program titled "In Loving Memory." Pictures of each of the children with their dates of birth and a June 20 date of death were on the cover. A church choir numbering about 30 sang hymns before the service and concluded it with a song.

In addition to the parents, the children are survived by their grandmothers, Dora Lee Yates of Hermitage, Tenn., and Jutta Karin Kennedy of Houston; an aunt, Michele Freeman of LaGrange, Ga.; and four uncles, Randall Yates of Clearwater, Fla.; Andrew Peter Kennedy and Brian Kennedy of Houston, and Patrick Kennedy of El Toro, Calif.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle