Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Dangerous Parent

The most lethal threat to children is the father or mother who destroys them for self-serving purposes. The archetype of this scenario is the god Saturn, who consumed all of his offspring to ensure that they would never get in his way.

Andrea Pia Yates (CORBIS)
Andrea Pia Yates

Andrea Pia Yates, 36, lived in Houston, Texas, and had five children. On June 20, 2001, she killed them all. One by one, she drowned three of her sons, ages 2, 3, and 5, in the bathtub and then placed them on a bed and covered them with a sheet. Next was six-month-old Mary, the youngest. While Yates was involved in this horrendous deed, her eldest son Noah, 7, happened to wander in to see what was going on. He ran from the bathroom but Yates chased him down, dragged him back to the tub, and drowned him right next to Mary. She left him there floating in the tub, where police who were called to the home found him.

This was no sudden act; Yates admitted that she'd been considering it for several months. The children, she believed, were not developing normally and she was a bad mother. Autopsies indicated from recent bruises that the four boys had struggled. Yates was charged with knowingly and intentionally causing the deaths of the children with a deadly weapon.

At her hearing, her psychologist, Dr. Gerald Harris, claimed that she wanted to be executed so that she and Satan would be destroyed. While she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, her competency even to be tried came under question. She claimed that Satan was coming to her in prison and conversing with her.

Mothers are responsible for most child abuse in America that ends in death. The Third National Incidence of Child Abuse and Neglect report numbers as high as 78%. Often they claim to be victims of a range of disorders from postpartum depression to post traumatic stress to outright psychosis, and they're supported by a wealth of mental health agencies and social groups. Some go so far as to say that society is responsible. Yates had voiced her depressive symptoms, according to Cheryl Mayer, who promotes understanding of such incidents. No one took notice of the potential for danger. It was up to the doctors involved to know about the many cases like this and to take steps to supervise the depression. When they didn't, they were culpable, not Yates. "Women sometimes experience serious hormonal shifts which can lead to radical mood swings," said Dr. Tina Tessina to Time. "There is often a very serious disconnect between what women feel after they've given birth (depressed, tired, in pain) and what women are told they're supposed to feel as new mothers (elated, joyful, selfless)." According to her, it could have been building for a long time without being obvious, while Dallas psychologist Ann Dunnewold indicated that such depressions can evolve into hallucinatory psychosis.

That means that five children are dead and no one is clearly responsible. Yet not all mothers who kill can blame hormonal mood shifts.


On October 17, 1994, Tom Findlay wrote a letter to Susan Smith to tell her that he was not interested in continuing their relationship because he did not want to be responsible for another man's children. He pointed out other problems as well, but Smith fixated on that single item: If only she had no children, he would be with her.

Michael & Alex Smith (AP)
Michael & Alex Smith

Still in a daze a week later on October 25, she picked up her two sons and drove around in her Mazda Protégé for over an hour. She ended up at John D. Long Lake outside Union, South Carolina, and parked on the gravel boat ramp. Michael, 3, and Alex, age fourteen months, were asleep in the back. Smith put the car into neutral and felt it start to roll toward the water.

According to her, she could no longer bear her life and she wanted her sons to go to Heaven, but others believe that she simply couldn't bear the thought of being abandoned by the man she loveda married man. She'd already lost her father and her husband. She had no choice but to end it.

But then she put on the brake and got out of the car. She wanted to die but had to kill her sons first, to be sure they were dead. She hesitated and then reached into the car to release the emergency brake. The Mazda, lights still on, rolled forward into the water. Alex and Michael were securely strapped in. It would all be over in moments.

Smith watched as the car floated and filled with water. Finally it went under and she ran to a nearby house, screaming that a black man had accosted her at a traffic light and taken her car with her sons inside. She played the hysterical mother, fooling the woman in the house and soon deceiving the entire nation as she televised a plea to get her sons back. Her shocked and estranged husband, David, stood by her side.

Susan Smith, mugshot
Susan Smith, mugshot

Yet her story didn't add up to investigators and her voluntary lie detector test results were confused. It appeared that she knew where her sons were and knew that they were dead. Dives were made into the lake, with no results, only because they had miscalculated where the car might be. No one imagined that Smith had simply allowed it to roll in slowly.

Finally she confessed: she had killed both of her children, and nine days after the fact, they were found in the upside down car, still strapped in and hanging from the seat. One diver saw a small hand against the window glass.


Cheryl Downs
Cheryl Downs

Yet Smith was not the first mother to do something so heinous to her own children. Nearly a decade earlier, on May 19, 1983, Diane Downs drove into an emergency room in Springfield, Oregon, claiming that a shaggy-haired stranger had reached into her car and shot her three children. Eight-year-old Cheryl died from her wounds, but the doctors managed to save seven-year-old Christie and three-year-old Danny.

Danny Downs
Danny Downs

Not only did Downs stoically accept that her children were so seriously injured, but when told that Danny would live, she was reported to have said, "Do you mean the bullet missed his heart? Gee whiz!" Then when Downs went in to see Christie, the nurses noted the child's extreme fear in her mother's presence.

Christie Downs
Christie Downs

A look into Downs' past showed patterns of rocky relationships with men and a lover who recently had left her. Problems with her story, including a wound in her arm that appeared to be self-inflicted, finally yielded the truth: To make her life easier, she had decided to be rid of her children. It was she herself who had shot them and Christie shakily testified to this at Downs' murder trial.

Forensic psychologist Dr. Barbara Kirwin has examined several cases in which a mother has killed her childoften an infant. She has seen experts attempt to develop an insanity defense, and has often been unconvinced. In the case of Stephanie Wernick, which she documents in The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent, she was convinced the girl was a manipulator who was used to getting her way and could not tolerate inconvenience. The baby had been an "inconvenience" and she'd found a way to be rid of it. Yet she'd also played the right role for the defense to come up with temporary insanity. "Although she would be histrionically tearful at times," Kirwin reported, "she never once expressed regret for her actions or grief for the deceased infant." Kirwin's final evaluation was that the girl was a budding psychopath, concerned only for her own life. What she did was not "normal," but that did not make her mentally ill or insane. "She did something truly evil. What do we make of that?" Psychologists can barely even name an act evil, let alone devise the tools to deal with it, and this is partly why evil gets mitigated down to a less heinous act and allowed to go unpunished.

And it's not just mothers who do these things.


In St. Charles, Missouri, in February 1992, Brian Stewart, 31, performed an act that still defies belief. In order to avoid paying $267 per month for child support, he got access to his infant son and because he was a medical worker, was able to inject the boy with HIV-infected blood. The boy had many illnesses over the next six years, went deaf, and was eventually found to have AIDS. His mother recalled that Stewart had told her that the boy wouldn't live very long, so she reported this to the police.

Stewart was charged and eventually convicted of first-degree assault. While there may be no legal language to talk about evil, the judge did not hesitate to resort to theology. "I believe that when God finally calls you," he said, "you're going to burn in hell from here to eternity." In 1999, Stewart was sentenced to life in prison.

Then there was the situation with Kenneth and Adelle Dudley, both carnival workers. They were arrested in Lawrenceville, Kentucky in 1961 for killing their seven-year-old daughter through malnutrition, exposure, and neglect. Under questioning, it came out that this couple once had ten children, and they'd allowed six of them to starve to death in the same manner. As each child died, they had dumped the bodies in lakes or abandoned mines in various places around the South.

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