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SCHAFFHAUSEN TRIAL: Prosecution says killings used for revenge

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  • SCHAFFHAUSEN TRIAL: Jurors hear emotional 911 call

    SCHAFFHAUSEN TRIAL: Jurors hear emotional 911 call

    Tuesday, April 2 2013 10:07 PM EDT2013-04-03 02:07:41 GMT
    Testimony began Tuesday in the murder trial of Aaron Schaffhausen in River Falls, and on the very first day, jurors heard an emotional 911 call made by the mother of the slain children.
    Testimony began Tuesday in the murder trial of Aaron Schaffhausen in River Falls, and on the very first day, jurors heard an emotional 911 call made by the mother of the slain children.
HUDSON, Wis. -


Defense attorney John Kucinski opened the day by discussing Aaron Schaffhausen's depression, explaining that grew increasingly obsessive in the months leading to the murders of his three children last July. 

Kucinski said the medication used to treat his client's depression only made the problem worse after Schaffhausen and his ex-wife had divorced in January.

"Jessica would describe him as a catatonic person -- sitting around, not doing anything," Kucinski said.

When Schaffhausen quit taking his medication cold turkey, things got even worse, Kucinski claimed.

According to Kucinski, Schaffhausen called his ex-wife often, sometimes with threats to hurt their daughters. In fact, Kucinski told jurors that the murders of his three daughters was a thought Schaffhausen couldn't escape.

"Another call to Liz, tells her, 'I'm thinking of slitting the girls' throats,' that he once drove halfway to River Falls with that plan," Kucinski said.

Although the defense claims that repeatedly telling others about his desire to kill his children was a manfiestation of untreated mental illness spiraling out of control, prosecutors began their opening statements by saying, "that man knew exactly what he was doing."

Prosecutors content that Schaffhausen acted out of jealousy and anger, describing the murders as an attempt at revenge and accusing Schaffhausen of viewing his daughters "as objects."

"He killed because he wanted to kill," Gary Freyberg said. "He had a goal to accomplish by killing."

Freyberg argued that it wasn't mental illness but rather possessive, bitter anger that led Schaffhausen to tell many people about his plans.

"Told Mr. Paul, his boss, about wanting to go back to Wisconsin and kill his children to get back at Jessica," Freyberg said.


On Tuesday, jurors also listened to the frantic 911 call made by Jessica Schaffhausen in which the dispatch operator asked of there was a history of mental illness, to which she replied, "yes."

On the call, Jessica Schaffhausen also told dispatchers that her ex-husband had stopped taking his medication in March or April.

Yet, while there is no argument about established mental health issues, jurors still must decide of Schaffhausen was an angry man who carefully plotted revenge or was a truly ill man who couldn't control himself when he killed his daughters in July.

"When he's with Cecilia, something happens," Kucinski said. "He doesn't know why it happens. All he knows is he's choking Cecilia, the little one."


Schaffhausen conceded guilt on three counts of first-degree intentional homicide and one of attempted arson, but maintained that he's not responsible for his actions due to mental illness.

Trial evidence is expected to include testimony from the girls' mother, Jessica Schaffhausen, and a recording of the 40-minute 911 call she made to police in River Falls, a community of about 15,000 people about 30 miles east of the Twin Cities.

Schaffhausen's defense attorney will try to prove that his client is mentally ill; however, prosecutors allege that Schaffhausen was enraged by jealousy and killed 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia to get revenge against his ex-wife because he was still bitter about their divorce and thought she had begun seeing a new man.

"Our office, as well as the attorney general's office, has put a lot of time into this case, a lot of resources, and I believe we're both prepared," District Attorney Eric Johnson said.

For Schaffhausen, the stakes are likely the difference between spending the rest of his life in prison if he's judged sane and being committed to a psychiatric institution from which he might someday be released.

Winning with an insanity defense is usually an uphill battle, though the legal test in Wisconsin is somewhat easier than in other states. Wisconsin requires at least 10 of the 12 jurors to find the evidence shows a defendant suffered from a "mental disease or defect" so great at the time that he or she "lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law."

Few details have emerged publicly on Schaffhausen's mental state since the girls were killed. He's been evaluated by experts for the prosecution, the defense and the court. Much of that information remains under seal. In a February filing, prosecutors said the defense had not spelled out Schaffhausen's mental defect or how it affected his actions.

Kucinski offered a hint in pretrial proceedings last week, however, when he said the prosecution expert concluded that Schaffhausen suffers from a "major depressive order." He did not elaborate.


The evidence, according to a criminal complaint, includes a chilling statement Schaffhausen made to his ex-wife right after the killings: "You can come home now because I killed the kids."

Police found a horrifying scene at the Schaffhausen family home in the western Wisconsin city of River Falls last July: three girls dead in their beds, their throats slashed with white T-shirts tied around their necks. In the basement, gasoline was sloshed in a possible attempt to burn down their mother's house.

"All were found with their throats cut widely and deeply," prosecutors said in court filings. They said the "vast majority" of the blood at the scene was found in Cecilia's room, indicating he killed them there, and then tied the shirts around his girls' necks in an attempt to keep their blood off his own clothes as he carried the other children to their bedrooms. Only Cecilia showed signs of strangulation, they wrote.

Schaffhausen's public defender, John Kucinski, spent months refusing to concede his client killed the girls. He fought hard in pretrial proceedings to exclude as much damaging evidence as possible, often unsuccessfully, ahead of last week's plea change.

Even though the focus has shifted to Schaffhausen's mental state, the lead prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Gary Freyberg, said he'll present much of the same evidence he had planned to use to prove guilt because he said it shows Schaffhausen understood what he was doing.

Aaron and Jessica Schaffhausen divorced in January 2011. Court papers indicate their marriage had been rocky for several years, and her mother told police the last straw was when Jessica discovered he was lying about having gone back to school. Her mother told police he either flunked out or dropped out, and kept it secret for several months, until it was too late to get a refund. Jessica and the girls stayed in the house in River Falls. Aaron took a construction job in Minot, N.D.

According to the complaint, Aaron Schaffhausen texted his ex-wife July 10, 2012, to ask for an unscheduled visit with the girls. She consented but said he had to be gone before she got home because she didn't want to see him. The girls' babysitter told investigators the children were excited when he arrived. The babysitter left, and two hours later, Schaffhausen called his wife to say he'd killed their children.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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