Lost in the message? / Cleric says he's not to blame for Yates' demons

The Houstan Chronicle/April 6, 2002

Shortly after Satan's first appearance at Andrea Pia Yates' capital murder trial, many observers began blaming the tragedy on a traveling evangelist the Yates family once admired.

Television networks flashed images of the proselytizing preacher in a devil costume to accompany their coverage of the trial - linking Michael Woroniecki to Yates' confession that she killed her children to save their souls.

Even a crime novelist and a psychiatrist pointed to Woroniecki's preaching on damnation and hell as a possible explanation for the inexplicable - Yates' drowning of her five children in a bath-tub June 20.

But the connection between Yates' delusions and Woroniecki's teachings is nothing more than a media-created fiction, say the two men at the center of the story.

"That's just crazy," said Rusty Yates, Andrea's husband.

"That's crap," said Woroniecki. "Never once did I say that Andrea was a bad mother or even suggest it or hint at it. That (she was possessed by Satan) would have never come out of my mouth. I don't believe that."

Rusty Yates agrees, saying his wife suffered for years from untreated depression, schizophrenia and delusional thinking.

"It's a delusion she probably wouldn't have had had she not met the Woronieckis," Yates said. "But certainly they didn't cause the delusion. The illness caused the delusion ... In almost every case (like hers), there's a religious theme. I'm not sure why that is. But certainly they didn't all correspond with the Woronieckis."

A jury rejected Andrea Yates' insanity defense last month and convicted her of capital murder, sentencing her to life in prison.

By all accounts, Woroniecki is zealous in his pursuit of salvation. But his influence on Andrea Yates is as open to debate as is his brand of religion.

Detractors liken Woroniecki to a cult leader, brainwashing those who seek his advice. Supporters claim his spiritual guidance is almost divine.

During a recent interview at a campground north of Conroe, Woroniecki said his relationship with the Yates family had been "twisted" and "slanted" by news accounts characterizing his family as a "bunch of crazy whackos."

Although Rusty Yates has been portrayed as a man obsessed with desire for a family like Woroniecki's, he said his devotion to the preacher was never that profound. The Woronieckis say it was Andrea Yates who was more in tune with their teachings.

On the surface, though, the similarities between the two families are striking.

Michael and Rachel Woroniecki's six children were given biblical names - Sarah, 21; Ruth, 19; Elizabeth, 17; Abraham, 15; Joshua, 13; and David, 12 - and are home schooled. The family lives in a converted Greyhound bus, denouncing organized religion but remaining devout.

Rusty and Andrea Yates' five children also had biblical names - Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months - and were home schooled. The family once lived in a converted bus they bought from the Woronieckis. Although they didn't attend church, they conducted weekly Bible studies at home.

It may be that it was Andrea Yates who longed for her family to emulate the Woronieckis. After her arrest she told jail psychiatrists she killed her children because they weren't "righteous" and weren't developing properly.

The Woroniecki children certainly appear admirable. They emerged recently from the converted bus they call home, smiling and confident with a social grace beyond their years.

The children travel with their parents across the United States and other countries. Their manners are impeccable, they are knowledgeable of current affairs and some are bilingual. They are as passionate about their beliefs as their parents, warning of hell's impending fires for those who don't know Jesus.

"When we go on these TV shows like Dateline or MSNBC or Good Morning America ... they've got all this set up like we're these certain kind of people," Woroniecki said. "How in the world do you respond to that? That's just so unfair... .

"Of course, people say negative things about us," he said. "We talk about sin. We talk about judgment. We talk about hypocrites. We confront people that are hypocrites. We talk about hell. People are offended when they're told they're going to hell."

A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Woroniecki says he played football and lived a "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle at Central Michigan University until repeated injuries convinced him of the need to turn to God. He then earned a master's of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in California and devoted his life to his traveling ministry. His family takes odd jobs to support themselves, sometimes relying financially on supporters. Andrea Yates often sent them care packages and money.

The Woronieckis visit college campuses, the Super Bowl, the Olympics and other national gatherings to pass out pamphlets and preach their version of Christianity. Their demonstrations sometimes land them in jail for disorderly conduct or lacking proper permits.

Rusty Yates met the Woronieckis at Auburn University in the mid-1980s and later introduced Andrea to them.

The families crossed paths only a few times. Because of the Woronieckis' travels, the two families kept in touch through letters that often included spiritual advice. In the end, it was mostly Andrea Yates who turned to the Woronieckis for guidance.

"Most of our relationship with Rusty and Andrea was conducted when we were on the other side of the country through sporadic letters," Woroniecki said. "We weren't living next door. We weren't telling them, 'If you don't come and live with us or don't come and follow us you're going to hell' ... I mean, what a bunch of baloney."

Woroniecki denounces churches, saying they are designed to suit people with a hectic schedule. He said he discourages followers who try to get a bus and follow his family around.

"That's what everyone thinks," Rachel Woroniecki said. "They think they can imitate us... . We can't help it if people try to copy the things that we do as an outcome of our life and then things don't go right because they don't come to Jesus."

The Woronieckis say they try to teach people to live according to the Bible and to seek redemption because everyone is on the path to hell.

But not everyone can be saved in the Woronieckis' eyes, said a former follower turned critic.

David De La Isla, a 36-year-old Houstonian, said he followed Woroniecki for 12 years. He says he once quit his job and contemplated suicide as a result of Woroniecki's teachings.

"He preaches very, very well," De La Isla said. "He tells you that you are going to learn how to come to Jesus. But you never make it ... I never met one person, except his family, who can make it."

De La Isla said Woroniecki is a manipulator who judges others.

"I'm a smart person," he said. "I'm not an idiot, and I was sucked into that system for 12 years. He didn't come up to me in a Satan mask. His children are very well-behaved, and you think, 'Wow, this must be a great man because he has great kids.'

"Despite his image, he is a cult figure and he contributed to my mental deterioration. And that's what he did with Andrea Yates."

De La Isla never met Yates, but met Woroniecki once after seeing him preach at Texas A&M University.

But De La Isla has more than 50 letters and pamphlets from Woroniecki, most of which condemn him.

"Following him is more like taking a correspondence course," De La Isla said. "You write letters. You describe where you are with God, and he evaluates it and writes you back. He tells you you are satanic, diluted and under Satan's influence. But no matter what you do, he still tells you 'You have fallen short.' "

Current follower Kristine Vanags, 35, sees it differently. The Houston computer analysist says Woroniecki has helped her spiritually, assisting her in "getting to know Jesus."

Vanags met the family four years ago through her boyfriend. She visits with them a few times a year, but mostly communicates with them by mail.

She said Woroniecki provides a valuable service on her road to salvation, comparing him to someone who flags down traffic to warn of a damaged bridge ahead.

Vanags said she once quit her job and was going to follow the Woronieckis around the country, but Woroniecki stopped her. And she said the Woronieckis never pressured her to follow their beliefs.

Rusty Yates' opinion of Woroniecki lies somewhere between those of De La Isla and Vanags.

He said the Woronieckis influenced his family to some degree, mostly in that both families lived a simple life, followed the teachings of the Bible and raised their children to do the same.

But Yates said he and Andrea decided to home school their children after they met a family at a Hitchcock RV park who did.

"I wouldn't characterize us as blindly trying to copy their lifestyle," Rusty Yates said. "We saw them as an example, but not a blueprint, not across the board."

Yates said his relationship with Woroniecki was more like learning from a book. He was free to accept what he wanted and reject that which he didn't.

And he said he has come to disagree with some of Woroniecki's doctrine.

"They tend to basically condemn everyone," Yates said. "They tell everyone they are going to hell ... . They tend to make anybody insecure about their standing before God ... . If you asked him how many people are right before God, he'd say 'Eight.' "

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