Ann Yesler: a forgotten victim of intimate partner violence

2019-05-18 17:56:55

Ann Yesler was stabbed to death in her Auckland home in 2005. Her husband claimed he had no intention, or recollection, of killing her. This is their story, told publicly for the first time, by Katie Kenny for The Homicide Report.

William Yesler kissed his wife, Ann, before leaving for work at the usual time of 8.30am. It was Wednesday, January 19, 2005. He ran some errands before pulling up outside the roller door of his adult video shop in New Lynn, Auckland, where he worked six days a week.

The couple had bought the shop in 1999, after William Yesler struggled to find a job using his accounting degree and previous experience in the timber and hardware industry. While he enjoyed running the business and interacting with most of his customers, some caused him grief. Such as the shoplifter who punched him in the eye. Or the man who came in one day, picked up an explicit box cover, and started masturbating.

When asked what he did for a living, the 63-year-old would hang his head and mumble something about "marketing".

When he opened the shop at 10am that day, he was already in a bad mood, made worse by a developing headache. He didn't want to be there but felt like he had no choice. The couple was under financial stress; DVD was replacing VHS, and the switch meant increased costs.

Ann Yesler had struggled to find well-paid work since losing her job teaching English to foreign students at the end of 2003. She had gone from earning $30 an hour to $11 an hour as a part-time teacher aide at the nearby Colwill School. The following year, she applied for receptionist positions at a strip club and a brothel.

When she told her husband, he tried to keep from saying anything. He walked into the kitchen where he picked up a large knife and pointed it at his breastbone. He asked his wife to help him "finish the job". She told him to stop being so dramatic and to finish his dinner, instead.

Later, on trial in the High Court in Auckland for his wife's murder, he tried to explain how the thought of her working in a brothel made him feel "low". It was the "worst thing that could happen," he said. It bothered him so much.

Police officers, psychiatrists, lawyers, friends and family, all said this was an unusual case. The Yeslers seemed relatively normal, even boring. Not the type to get sucked into crippling credit card debts, the sex industry, and homicide. But not only was it unusual, people said — the crime had no narrative. It simply didn't make sense.

Stuff's Homicide Report lays bare the country's problem with family violence. Compiled by a team of journalists the database covers 1068 men, women, and children, killed from January 2004–March 31, 2019. Almost 400 cases involve family violence. Half of all women victims were killed by a male partner or ex-partner.

Ann Christine Sandelin was born in Christchurch's Lewisham Hospital on October 7, 1946. She moved overseas in her 20s and ended up working as a nurse in the United States. She married and had one child, a son. The marriage ended several years before she met William Stanley Yesler.

Born in 1942, in New Jersey, he had a conservative upbringing. His parents believed women should stay home while men went to work. Following in his father's footsteps, William Yesler joined the army in 1963. During basic training, he damaged his hearing on the rifle range. The injury would worsen as he aged and he would need hearing aids by the time he was 60, a doctor told him.

He served in Korea for just over a year until 1966, before entering the family building supply and lumber business. He married his first wife in 1970 and they had two children. (He's estranged from them now.)

After managing the company for almost two decades, William Yesler sold it in 1986. He made enough to retire — at least temporarily.

While skiing in Pennsylvania one day in 1991, from a distance he spotted what looked like two teenagers skiing down Montage Mountain. When he later rode the chairlift with them, he realised one was a 13-year-old boy and the other his 44-year-old mother, Sandelin. The American joined them for the rest of the day.

Sandelin and Yesler appeared to have a lot in common. They were well educated and outdoorsy. William Yesler divorced his first wife in July, 1992. The new couple married in Sarasota, Florida, in November the same year.

They spent their days boating, swimming, and playing tennis. They went on scuba diving holidays and ski trips.

But William Yesler's divorce turned out to be a costly process. The couple moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, in the late 1990s to be closer to Ann Yesler's sister and father, but also to escape credit card debts.

When asked about this by then-Crown prosecutor Christine Gordon (now a judge of the High Court), William Yesler said they intended to "pay back everything that was due" and return to the United States. But in the months leading up to his wife's death, their debts were still growing.

"Ann never let me forget that I made a mess of my finances in the United States," he told a psychiatrist during a pre-trial assessment. That was the only "major problem" they faced in their 14-year relationship, he said. Otherwise, they were as close as two people could be.

The shop had been busy all morning. William Yesler took two Nurofen for his headache, which was getting worse. His wife called at lunchtime, as she usually did. She tried to cheer him up.

Ann Yesler then returned a plate to a neighbour and stopped by to chat with another. She called her sister, Jane Sandelin, who lived on Waiheke Island. The two were close and talked most days.

She made sure she was home by 5pm in time to receive her husband's fax — a record of the day's business she would enter into the home computer (there wasn't a computer in the shop). He would finalise the figures when he got home. She would prepare dinner.

Around 6:30pm, William Yesler turned into the driveway. He parked, and entered the house through the garage door. He removed his contacts in the bathroom, patted the dogs in the hallway, then greeted his wife in the living room. She was watching TV, sipping a glass of wine with a plate of cheese and crackers beside her.

"Hello, dear," she said. He kissed her.

After putting away his briefcase and taking out his hearing aids, William Yesler poured himself a whiskey and joined his wife. She told him she was applying for a job as a housemaid, which surprised and disturbed him. She was too educated for that sort of work, he thought.

After watching the weather report, he got up to turn on the barbecue. He often grilled the meat for dinner after they'd eaten their salad. Usually, they'd watch "Triangle News" at 7pm while the barbecue warmed. Tonight, however, his wife suggested a BBC documentary she had recorded the previous evening, about prostitution in the United Kingdom.

Given the busy day he had had, and how bad he was feeling, William Yesler wasn't keen but agreed anyway. On the screen, a woman in her mid-50s explained the nature of her work and how she had a thriving business doing oral sex only.

Ann Yesler turned to her husband and said — perhaps jokingly, though we can't be sure — there was still hope at her age. "It's only oral sex, that can't be too bad."

This moment would later be known as the "trigger" or "psychological blow" that ultimately led to William Yesler killing his wife. The defence argued it caused him, already compromised by life stresses and in the throes of developing a full-blown depressive disorder, to act in ways he couldn't control or later recall.

But first, he got up to fetch the chicken for the barbecue. As he left the room he hesitated, and said: "I've had enough of the sex business today. I don't want to see any more of that video."

"That's fine," she replied.

Before laying the chicken breasts on the barbecue, he noticed they were too thick to cook properly. He tapped the window to get his wife's attention.

"What's the matter?"

He asked if she could slice the chicken. She said she'd cook it in the pan, instead, and told him to come inside and relax.

His head was pounding. He climbed the stairs. In court, he wouldn't be able to remember what he did up there but assumed it was paperwork. As he walked downstairs again, things around him appeared "unreal", dark and gloomy, he said. "Everything was maroon, like looking through a stained-glass window."

When he came to, he was kneeling on the carpet behind the sofa, pointing a knife at his chest. The knife was sticky with blood. He looked to his left and saw his wife, cut and bleeding, on the floor. She was dead.

During the trial, William Yesler admitted previous violence. In the 1970s, he had various "blind rages" at work, which were attributed to an overdose of medication he was on at the time. (Prednisone which at high doses can cause psychosis.)

One day, shortly after the birth of his first daughter, he was travelling in the car with his then-wife. Although she was dieting at the time, she opened a jar of cashew nuts and — in his words — "started to gorge on them". Angry that she'd given up on her diet so soon, he grabbed the jar and threw it. He said he aimed for the window, but the jar hit her on the head and bloodied her nose.

Another time, celebrating Mother's Day with his wife's family, he got into an argument with his father-in-law. He told the man his next meal "would be through a straw," before grabbing his wife by the arm and steering her and their children out the door.

A wholesaler in Auckland who supplied videos and other sex products for William Yesler's shop said he became "a bit hysterical" after hearing about stock price increases, and looked like he was about to lash out. William Yesler disputed that in court, but other colleagues described him as easily irritated, especially when he didn't get his way.

Family violence takes many forms. Most people associate it with physical abuse, but it can also be psychological, financial, or sexual. In his sentencing notes, Justice Graham Lang said the case was a "one-off offence involving violence in a domestic situation".

That's unlikely, says Holly Carrington at Shine, a national domestic abuse charity.

"I think judges assume they understand the issue well because they see it in the courtroom all the time," she says. "But domestic violence happens behind closed doors, so they're just as susceptible as the next guy when it comes to believing myths and misconceptions."

She points to a line in the judge's notes: "The fact that the chicken was too thick may also have been a factor that aggravated the situation."

She laughs, but it's a sad laugh. "This line right here shows me judges don't know any more than anyone else about the issue.

"It seems like the judge was grasping at straws to excuse [Yesler's] behaviour."

While there might not have been physical violence between the couple, Carrington says it's likely there was a pattern of power and control. Common signs include a partner attempting to isolate the other by sabotaging any socialising, particularly with others of the opposite sex.

"Domestic violence is often complicated and hard to understand, whether you're a friend or family member, police officer or judge. You can't make assumptions about a person's behaviour on what you've seen, without knowing the history and patterns of behaviours leading up to that."

During her cross-examination of the accused, Crown prosecutor Gordon suggested Ann Yesler said something that angered her husband, who then grabbed a knife to "shut her up for good".

"That's a very cruel thing to say," he responded. "And, as far as I'm concerned, totally fiction." He admitted while suicide had crossed his mind, "killing my wife had never, and I repeat never, entered my mind in my life".

Sir Peter Williams QC — perhaps New Zealand's best-known defence lawyer — represented William Yesler. He put forward an unusual defence, known as automatism; representing a loss of control and lack of intent when committing a criminal offence. It's been used to acquit people who committed crimes while sleepwalking, in diabetic shock, or during an epileptic fit.

There's insane and non-insane automatism. Insane automatism is, as the name suggests, caused by mental illness. Non-insane is brought on by an external factor — a physical or psychological blow that seriously disturbs a person's personality. If the defence of the former is accepted, the accused will be found not guilty by reason of insanity. If the latter is accepted, they will be entitled to an absolute acquittal — they will walk.

The person using the defence has to show their actions were involuntary. It's a hard one to get over the line, says Wellington lawyer and former senior law lecturer at Victoria University, John Miller, who's previously put it forward without success.

"It's treated with a great deal of scepticism," he says. "The prospect of someone walking away after doing something serious, how would that look on the front page of the paper? So everyone is very cautious of it."

There's a saying: "The last refuge of a scoundrel is automatism." (A play on Samuel Johnson's famous pronouncement in 1775: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.")

The defence raises social and political issues, but also scientific ones. Some psychiatrists will explain it as a neurological condition, while others aren't convinced such a degree of dissociation is even possible.

Five psychiatrists gave evidence at the trial. Dr Rui Mendel took the view there was sufficient evidence to raise the probability of automatism. He could not find any other explanation for the accused's actions. He went so far as to say it was "not a possibility" William Yesler had conscious awareness at the time he killed his wife.

Years later, his opinion hasn't changed. From his Auckland practice, he explains someone acting as an automaton is, essentially, "possessed". "There's a short circuit in the brain, and the patient isn't aware of his actions," he says. "So what he does is completely out of his control."

It's like having a seizure, he says — a complex partial seizure (meaning part of the brain is seizing and the rest isn't). The treatment? Anticonvulsants.

Diagnosis relies on clinical assessment. There are no tell-tale signs, tests or scans, that can prove an episode. "When you take a history, you find trigger patterns," Mendel says.

William Yesler showed many of the traits of an obsessive compulsive personality, Mendel argued in court. That is, a personality characterised by feelings of excessive doubt and caution. He was preoccupied with details, order, rules, and lists. He was pedantic and, at times, stubborn.

The idea of his wife joining the sex industry was "all too consuming in line of his [obsessive compulsive] personality and from his perception, it was a catastrophe." At the time, he was also "extremely stressed," had a headache, and "his brain couldn't cope and he entered a dissociative state as a result of unbearable internal conflict."

Mendel also put forward the thesis of an "unconscious symbolic activity." On an unconscious level, he proposed, Yesler's killing was based on a desire to save his wife from the evil that had consumed her.

"In a symbolic way, he killed 'the prostitute' to save 'the wife'."

Psychiatrists called by the Crown disagreed. Especially Dr Rees Tapsell, a forensic psychiatrist, now Waikato District Health Board's director of clinical services for mental health and addiction.

"There are many and varied views about automatism," he tells Stuff. Some psychiatrists believe a psychological blow can cause a person to go into something like a postictal state (an altered state of consciousness after an epileptic seizure). Tapsell doesn't. "Many psychiatrists and psychologists don't fundamentally believe in the ability to dissociate to that extent."

The problem with the defence of automatism, he says, is the idea the accused didn't intend to do what they did. So, the question remains: What did they intend to do?

"It can be confusing for people looking from the outside, when [an accused's] behaviours are particularly well-organised. They have the psychological blow, they go into the kitchen, they get the biggest and sharpest knife, chase someone outside and stab them. I've seen cases where the behaviours are that complicated and seemingly purposeful."

His personal view is psychiatrists shouldn't be involved in the game of trying to use "psychobabble, psychological interpretations, stuff you just can't prove". But as always, the onus is on the Crown to disprove the defence beyond reasonable doubt.

"There aren't many things in psychiatry or psychology that one can say certainly, beyond a reasonable doubt, that occurred for this reason," he says.

During the trial, Tapsell said there are many overlaps between the traits of someone with an obsessive compulsive personality and narcissism. A narcissist has a grandiose sense of themselves, and often high — and unrealistic — expectations of others and life in general. They can appear haughty or rude. They have a very strong sense their perception of events is correct and they struggle to accept others' views.

"I note that [the accused] remains preoccupied with his own distress — his inability to kill himself and his desire to be killed by others. Rather than expressing sadness, distress, or remorse for [Ann Yesler's] death."

It's possible, the psychiatrist continued, the accused found it increasingly difficult to tolerate his business failure, their ensuing decline in living conditions, and the fact his wife appeared to blame him for those things. His feelings of worthlessness would have been compounded by the thought of his wife becoming a sex worker to ease their financial worries.

"I believe the combination of these factors would have been received by him as a major narcissistic blow."

The facts support an alternative hypothesis, he said: William Yesler impulsively decided to kill his wife and then himself. On realising the enormity of what he'd done, "he may well have experienced a degree of dissociation such as he may well have not have been able to recall subsequent events."

The personality traits put forward by the psychiatrists could explain why William Yesler reacted the way he did to his wife's comments on the evening of January 19, 2005, Lang wrote in his reasons for judgement. The reaction wasn't "ordinary" to the kind of "stresses and disappointments that can be expected in life".

"They come nowhere near the category of [previous cases] where emotional shock without physical injury may give rise to a dissociative state."

An unqualified acquittal was not an option, given the accused could have more violent episodes, making him an ongoing danger to the public. The defence of non-insane automatism was not to be left to the jury, Lang ruled, but the defences of insane automatism and provocation would be.

On April 13, 2006, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, on the basis the Crown had failed to prove murderous intent.

While the jury didn't accept William Yesler was acting in an automatic state when he killed his wife, they found his level of consciousness was clouded, affecting his ability to appreciate the consequences of his actions.

The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment. There's no minimum sentence. Lang took a holistic approach. He told William Yesler: "Whilst you may have appreciated, albeit dimly, what you were doing, you had no real insight into the consequences of your actions.

"Had you any such insight, I have no doubt that you would never have inflicted those wounds. Although these factors do not excuse your actions in killing your wife, they go some way towards explaining them."

The accused was entitled to credit for a previously "blameless life". Lang also gave weight to Jane Sandelin's "charitable and sensitive" view of the offending.

Sandelin had told the court she hadn't spent much one-on-one time with her brother-in-law — he was very quiet, while the sisters were chatty — but described him as a generous and loving husband. She believed he lost his whole life when he killed his wife, and saw no need for a "prolonged incarceration".

William Yesler was sentenced to four years, six months' imprisonment, with no minimum term. He got out after two.

"Manslaughter can range from anything, it depends how egregious the situation is," Miller says, when asked if the sentence surprised him. He pauses. "It's slightly surprising. ... You would be thinking, nowadays, a man killing a woman would result in a higher sentence."

Around 7.30pm, a nearby patrol car picked up a message over the radio requiring someone to go to an address on Colwill Road, Massey. The two police officers were at the scene within minutes.

William Yesler answered the door, clutching a knife in his left hand. He was the one who had called. But now he didn't speak other than to cry: "Just kill me, I want to die, just kill me."

Inside the house the TV was on, but whatever had been playing was paused and muted. As one officer moved from the lounge into the kitchen area, he saw a woman lying on her side in foetal position. Her shoulder was bleeding. Blood had stained her purple T-shirt and pooled on the tiled floor. She didn't have a pulse.

He then noticed something sizzling on the stove. He peered in the frying pan and saw two pieces of chicken. They were white — cooked, but not burnt. He turned off the gas.

The officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Senior Sergeant Stan Brown, has been a police officer for 40 years. He's been in charge of many homicide cases but remembers this one well. During several phone conversations, uses the word "odd" to describe the case.

He remembers walking into the house and thinking it felt cold for a family home. There was plenty of furniture and colour — a pink chair in the hallway, the dogs (a chihuahua and hairless Chinese crested) — but not a lot of "feeling and love," he says.

At the station that evening, William Yesler refused to comply with police. He didn't say much — not even his wife's name. When asked if he wanted anything to eat, he responded: "Poison."

He eventually said he was deaf and asked for his hearing aids, which an officer retrieved for him. He asked for a lawyer, who advised him not to have a medical examination, make a statement, or give DNA. So he didn't.

On January 26, a psychiatrist interviewed the accused and found he wasn't fit to enter a plea, owing to "impaired mental health". He would be OK in a few days, he said.

During the trial, Williams, the defence lawyer, asked the officer in charge of the suspect at the time of his arrest if she agreed with the doctor's assessment. She declined to comment, saying her dealings with William Yesler ended after she placed him in the police charge room on January 19.

Williams pressed her: "You're an intelligent young lady. The doctor said [Yesler] had difficulty in concentrating, don't you think that is consistent with the sort of responses you were getting?"

"You're asking for my opinion of Yesler on that evening?"


"In my opinion, he was pretending not to understand the questions I was asking," she said. He had shouted at her and pretended he was "impaired".

"And no," she added, "I didn't think for one moment that he was mentally impaired."

Does Brown agree? Yes, it did seem like Yesler was putting on "a persona," he says. "I think he was play-acting. I don't think he was being truthful. It was too, too timely when he couldn't remember things, shall we say.

"Was it an act, or was he going in and out [of consciousness]? We're only lay people. That's what the experts are for."

Police often interview 70 or 80 people as part of a homicide inquiry but for this case they only spoke to about 30. The Yeslers had a small social circle.

She was the bubbly one, colleagues and neighbours say. She was chatty and outgoing, while he was withdrawn. The couple rarely invited people to their house. Ann Yesler would often visit her neighbours but most of them didn't know her husband's name. One addressed a Christmas present: "To Ann and Husband."

Some knew he'd served in the army and had hearing issues. They assumed he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

A former colleague says Ann Yesler liked wearing colourful clothing. "I think she might have even had a purple coffin."

Colwill School principal Rob Taylor, Ann Yesler's employer at the time she died, also recalls she dressed well. She was loud, Taylor adds. A bit of a know-it-all, actually.

He and other colleagues attended parts of the trial. William Yesler appeared confused as he stood in the dock, Taylor says. "He struggled to hear and understand what was going on.

"I felt kind of sorry for him."

For a woman who by all accounts lived so passionately, Ann Yesler was difficult to research. On January 21, 2005, The Western Leader published 130 words about a homicide inquiry after a woman's body was found at a house in Massey. The victim wasn't named and the subsequent court proceedings weren't covered by the media.

Sandelin declined to comment for this story, saying she felt coverage of the case would hurt William Yesler. She still believes he wasn't culpable for her sister's death.

Ann Yesler's son, who lives overseas, also declined to be interviewed. He had never visited the couple in New Zealand.

William Yesler was released on parole on January 22, 2007. His parole order finished on his sentence end date: July 22, 2009. He then returned to the United States.

In the years since, he has been employed and hasn't put a foot wrong — as one contact put it. His current friends don't know about his criminal past. He didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.


Women's Refuge (For women and children) - 0800 733 843.

Shine (For men and women) - free call 0508-744-633 between 9am and 11pm.

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for mental health support from a trained counsellor

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email, or find online chat and other support options here.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

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