A mysterious preacher and the children's killer

Observers believe man played role in life of woman who admitted she committed crime

Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada/March 14, 2002
By Doug Saunders

Houston -- An angry, mysterious preacher told Andrea Yates that she was evil, that her children were damned, and that only death could save her. In dozens of letters and personal meetings, he built a foundation of delusions in her mind.

As Ms. Yates awaits death or lifelong incarceration for the murder of her five children, little attention is being paid to preacher Michael Peter Woroniecki.

Nonetheless, he had a profound influence on her beliefs, words and actions.

In a rare interview this week, Mr. Woroniecki revealed that he became so close to Ms. Yates, her husband Russell and their children that he was virtually a family member. His distinctive phrases became part of the paranoid, damnation-obsessed vocabulary of Ms. Yates, a schizophrenic. A bus he once owned is still parked in Mr. Yates's driveway, after the family imitated the preacher by moving into it for several years.

Today, Mr. Woroniecki's family lives in another bus, roaming North America and racking up arrests for disturbing the peace.

Although no one has suggested Mr. Woroniecki told Ms. Yates to kill her children, some observers believe he may have played a role in Ms. Yates's descent from mental illness into homicidal psychosis. Her delusions certainly follow the angry, spiritual logic of Mr. Woroniecki's beliefs, outlined in dozens of letters he exchanged with Ms. Yates up until her first suicide attempt in 1999.

"I think he was a big influence on her. Before they met, Andrea said she wanted to work and continue nursing, and afterwards she took up this belief that women are weak and sinful and should stay at home," says Suzy Spencer, a Texas woman who is writing a biography of Ms. Yates and has obtained copies of the correspondence between the preacher and the housewife.

"God knows how wicked you are," he wrote to her. "You must accept the reality that your life is under the curse of sin and death . . . you are a daughter of Eve, you must become a daughter of the most high."

Mr. Woroniecki teaches that women who work or practise birth control are witches. He once wrote in a pamphlet that, "At birth, a woman inherits the contentious nature of Eve and a man is born with the passive nature of Adam."

Despite his elusive nature, Mr. Woroniecki is is a familiar figure at large public events. He has been spotted at Olympics and Super Bowls, at rock concerts and public memorials, usually standing in the midst of the crowd, surrounded by his six children, wearing a large sandwich board and preaching his version of the gospel.

Mr. Woroniecki turns down almost all interview requests. But last week, in a very rare conversation with the Grand Rapids Press, a newspaper in the small Michigan city where he grew up, he explained how he came to be like family to the Yateses.

In 1994, at Alabama's Auburn University, he met Mr. Yates, who was studying engineering after having left the U.S. Navy.

"I was preaching on the campus," Mr. Woroniecki said. "He was a typical college kid, had good grades. It was kind of cool because there was that understanding between us that there was hypocrisy in religion. That was the foundation for our relationship."

After Mr. Yates married Andrea, the two families became closely intertwined. She became a devout follower of the preacher, and they took care of one another's children.

"There wasn't any weird stuff going on," Mr. Woroniecki told the Press. "We really liked her and she liked us a lot. [Ms. Yates would] send us little care packages of cookies. Sometimes she'd send us a few bucks, 10 or 20 bucks. She'd put in little things for the kids."

The Yateses also bought one of the Woronieckis' old buses (they have lived in a total of three), and apparently adopted the family's peripatetic lifestyle.

But Mr. Yates had a falling-out with the preacher after his wife's mental illness became a serious problem: While practising the home schooling and "natural birth control" that Mr. Woroniecki had taught her, Ms. Yates began having delusions of Satanic possession that were apparently based on the preacher's writings.

During the murder trial, psychiatrist Lucy Puryear testified that Ms. Yates's delusions "are built around" text from Mr. Woroniecki's newsletter, the Perilous Times, to which Ms. Yates subscribed.

Mr. Yates testified that the preacher had taught him and his wife that children are lost forever to God, and therefore damned to eternal hellfire, if they are not "saved" by the time they are 13 or 14. Ms. Yates's lawyers argued that her belief in this teaching was the reason she drowned her children in a bathtub. But in his interview with the Press, Mr. Woroniecki denied that his teachings influenced Ms. Yates's troubled mind. Instead, he suggested that her husband's work came between them.

"The bottom line was they needed Jesus, and [Mr. Yates] was not willing to give up that pretense. He was in love with working for NASA more than he was in love with his wife. It just deteriorated over the years."

Mr. Woroniecki told the Press that he could not have influenced Ms. Yates to drown her children.

"As bold as I may seem, I'm just like any other guy. Just because I make a choice to yell Jesus and preach to people and tell them they're going to hell if they don't repent, that means I don't count?"

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