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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Yates trial in Houston recalls memories of local tragedy

BY ROBIN ERB AND JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For Jim Stevenson, time mercifully has blurred the ghastly details of the day his young wife drowned their two children in 8 inches of bathtub water in their Northwood home.

Though he remembers Karen's slender figure cradling their lifeless infant on the bathroom floor, he cannot recall for certain where her dead sister lay.

Though he remembers wanting to hit the wall, wanting to scream, “How could you?” he doesn't remember if he did.

And though he remembers somewhere one of the police officers mentioning that natural gas was seeping through the home, Mr. Stevenson doesn't remember the smell himself.

“I don't know,” the now-retired carpenter said quietly, running his finger through a thinning gray beard. “I guess I wanted to move on. I don't want to remember all of it.”

But police and court records will forever document the 27-year-old local case that is chillingly similar to that of Andrea Yates, a Houston woman standing trial this month after pleading innocent by reason of insanity in the drowning deaths of her five young children.

The Yates case - at least for Mr. Stevenson - evoked more than revulsion and sympathy.

It dredged up a part of his life he has tried so hard to forget - including his first wife, who, like Mrs. Yates, would later claim that severe depression drove her to methodically take the lives of her own children.

“I had to believe that,” said Mr. Stevenson. “If I hadn't, I couldn't have been there for her.”

On the morning of Feb. 25, 1975, Mrs. Stevenson, a Clay High School graduate and mother of 4-year-old Holly and 5-month-old Sheila, filled the bathtub with 8 inches of water in the Stevensons' ranch home on Dillrose Drive.

She walked to her infant's crib, carried the baby to the tub, and held her under water until she stopped moving. Holly, though, struggled and kicked when her mother forced her into the water.

Mrs. Stevenson would say later that she removed the panicked child from the tub, held her, and tried to calm her. Everything, she assured, would be all right because Holly shortly “would be in heaven.”

She then drowned the still struggling child and laid her lifeless body next to her sister's on the floor.

In the kitchen she scribbled a suicide note: “Now my babies are in heven [sic]. I had to do it. I couldn't make them happy.... I couldn't stand to hear them cry or grow up unhappy.”

She blew out the pilot light on the stove; turned the burners on. She called her husband, then a carpenter at Libbey-Owens-Ford Co., and told him she'd killed the girls. And then Mrs. Stevenson, the slender, quiet-spoken, church-going mother, returned to the bathroom.

Mr. Stevenson arrived minutes later, racing through the living room and kitchen into the bathroom.

“I don't really remember what I did,” he said. “She just sat there, kind of chanting and rocking back and forth: `Now they're in heaven. Now they're in heaven.'”

“I remember wanting to hit something, wanting to scream at her, `How could you do this?'” he recalled yesterday from his home in Millbury, where a heart-shaped welcome sign adorns the front door. His wife of just over a year, Denise, sat at his side.

He paused and shook his head. “I just don't know.”

Patrolman Sid Lark was one of the first on the scene. He remembers the water still dripping from the ceiling - splashes, he assumed, from the 4-year-old's struggle.

In the emergency room at St. Charles Hospital, where both children were pronounced dead a short time later, investigators took Mrs. Stevenson's still sopping nightgown and pink and white robe as evidence.

Joe Inman, a Lucas County coroner's investigator, talked with Mrs. Stevenson. She told him she'd had a happy marriage but she had been “thinking about” killing the children for a week.

“I'm a lousy mother and wife,” she said.

“Why do you say that?” Mr. Inman responded.

“I have never cheated on my husband,” she replied. “I love him. But have you ever been cooped up in a house all day with two kids and have to change diapers all day and clean up after them?”

A Wood County grand jury later indicted her on two counts of aggravated murder. With the testimony of psychiatrists, Common Pleas Judge Gale Williamson found Mrs. Stevenson not guilty by reason of insanity, and she was committed to the Toledo Mental Health Center.

On Oct. 20, three months after her admission, she was released after it was determined she was no longer dangerous. She was ordered to pay the court costs of $97.90.

Those involved with the case long ago lost track of Mrs. Stevenson, who was placed on three years probation following her release. Even Mr. Stevenson, who divorced her three years after the murders, said his ex-wife had moved south. He said he's heard she was killed in a car crash.

Several attempts by The Blade to locate her were unsuccessful.

Now retired, Judge Williamson said he recalls thinking Mrs. Stevenson's commitment was a brief stay, but he was bound to follow the psychiatrist's recommendation.

“That's what bothered me at the time. I thought, `My gosh, if she was mentally ill enough to have killed her children ...,” he said.

Mr. Lark, who later became Northwood's police chief until 1993, said he was angry and shocked at the short time Mrs. Stevenson spent in a mental facility. He noted that he had small children of his own at the time.

“I have mixed feelings when I look at this [Yates] case. Does this woman deserve worse than Karen or did Karen deserve worse than what this woman is looking at?”

Gary Kuns, a Monclova Township trustee who was the prosecutor, said he never questioned Mrs. Stevenson's not going to prison.

The act - a mother taking the lives of the very children she should instinctively want to protect - is a defense in itself, he said.

“A killing like the Yates or the Stevenson cases, that is something that has to be the product of absolute craziness.”



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