In 1989 and into 1990, Maria Isabella Amaya spent several months in the custody of a hospital trying to get her mental illness under control. What this mental illness was, hasn’t been officially released, but most rumors say it was extreme bipolar disorder coupled with borderline personality disorder. What we was officially released, after Maria Isabella Amaya murdered her four children and attempted to kill herself, was that her mental illness played a role in the murders.
May 31, 1990, Port Chester, NY police were called to a house where they found four children aged 3 1/2 years old to 11, brutally stabbed. Their mother, Maria Isabella Amaya had also suffered multiple stab wounds and several severe burns. The bodies were found by the children’s father. After finding them, he asked a neighbor to contact a doctor and told police that Maria had confessed to him that she had killed the children and tried to kill herself.
Halley William Jr. was just 11 years old. Jessica was 8. Christopher was 6. And little Edward was just 3 1/2 years old. The family had immigrated from El Salvador some years older (and some family friends reported they had left to escape the death squads. The family was described as quiet, hardworking, and loving. There were some complaints by neighbors that Maria didn’t discipline her children enough, but that was the only complaint.
Maria herself was described as personable and charming, although prone to “episodes” (whatever that means). She was also said to be a devoted mother who was very loving towards her family. And most described the children as polite, albeit high spirited. Neighbors said they often heard the couple arguing, but there were no signs they were abusing their children and no sign that their arguments ever got physical.
Mr. Amaya admitted they often argued about money, but said most couples argue when money is tight and he didn’t believe it was a contributing factor to the murders and neither of them were having an affair or had considered getting divorced. Most people, friends and neighbors included, said they had seen no warning signs that Maria was considering killing her children and herself. And while she was being treated for mental illness, no one suspected that her illness might lead to violence.
This is our first killer where mental illness played a part, but it won’t be the last and it highlights our constantly changing understanding of mental illness. When Maria Amaya was hospitalized for the first time, young Edward was only two years old and while we sort of understood postpartum depression in 1990, we didn’t understand that it could last years beyond the act of giving birth or that it could interact with other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder. That doesn’t excuse her actions, but it does make us understand a little better that if Maria Amaya had been better treated, this might have been prevented. But that would have required us to better understand both postpartum depression/postpartum psychosis and bipolar disorder, all of which in 1990 were still rather new mental illness diagnoses.