HUDSON, Wis. – Aaron Schaffhausen sat stoic and motionless as a judge on Monday handed him the maximum sentence for killing his three daughters.
The 35-year-old construction worker didn’t appear to flinch as he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without the hope of ever getting out.
In a symbolic gesture, St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Howard Cameron also ordered that Schaffhausen serve his three mandatory life-in-prison sentences one after another — not at the same time.
“In this situation I have to send a message to [Schaffhausen’s ex-wife] Jessica and to the public that each child is so important, the sentences have to be consecutive to each other,” Cameron said.
Schaffhausen admitted killing 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia Schaffhausen in the River Falls, Wis., home the girls shared with their mother on July 10, 2012.
Prosecutors said he did it to hurt his ex-wife. Defense attorneys argued he was legally insane at the time and should be sent to a mental institution instead of prison, a claim a jury rejected at his trial in April.
Though Schaffhausen faced three mandatory life prison sentences, the judge could have made him eligible for release to extended supervision in as early as 20 years.
After the sentencing, Jessica Schaffhausen said in an interview that she felt “huge relief” that she wouldn’t have to plan her life around the possibility of her ex-husband getting out of prison someday and fearing he might hurt her or her loved ones again.
“I can just forget about Aaron from here on out,” she said, wearing a pendant containing some of the her daughters’ ashes. “I’m hoping even society will pretty much forget about him very quickly.”
During Monday’s three-hour hearing, family members spoke emotionally about the effects of the killings and what they felt should happen to Schaffhausen.
‘Their last memory’
The girls’ aunt, Mary Elizabeth Stotz, called Schaffhausen a “coward” who took advantage of his daughters’ unconditional love to murder them, then hid behind a mental illness.
“Their last memory is what an evil killer their dad was,” she said forcefully. “Aaron should rot in hell. … Let the darkness of his actions haunt him forever.”
On the defense side, Schaffhausen’s aunt, Patricia Fix, tearfully spoke of how she used to baby-sit Amara.
She said her nephew should face the full consequences for what he did, but “I will promise you he’s not a coward … send him for life, but stop saying he’s a coward.”
Fix said society doesn’t want to address mental illness and recalled how Schaffhausen had told several people of the dark thoughts he was having before the murders.
“He desperately needed intervention and none came,” she said.
Schaffhausen’s mother, Sue Allen, addressed her son directly in court, telling him to forgive himself and forgive those who didn’t help him. “You are a good man who did a horrible thing for whatever reasons,” she said. “I love you, Aaron.”
‘Mental disease or defect’
While jurors ultimately rejected Schaffhausen’s insanity defense, they did agree after his trial that Schaffhausen suffered from a “mental disease or defect” as defined under Wisconsin law. But they found that it did not cause him to lack substantial capacity to appreciate that what he did was wrong, or make him unable to control his actions.
Schaffhausen killed the girls during an unannounced visit from Minot, N.D., where he was working construction. The girls were excited to see him when he came to the door. He killed them after the baby sitter left.
In announcing his sentence, Judge Cameron considered the gravity of the crimes, the protection of the public, Schaffhausen’s character, deterrence and other factors.
“The hardest thing for me to go through when you read the police reports is the girls ran to him with joy,” Cameron said. Though he said Schaffhausen had a mental illness, “I don’t think it’s a mitigating factor.”
In addition to the life sentences, Howard sentenced Schaffhausen to 12 ½ years of confinement for attempted arson.
Defense attorney John Kucinski said after Monday’s hearing that they will appeal, partly on the grounds that jurors didn’t get to see an expert’s mental health report that they had asked for during deliberations.
Kucinski said Schaffhausen is sad about his daughter’s deaths but didn’t speak in court because they felt people wouldn’t be satisfied with whatever he said.
He argued that society doesn’t want to believe that people who are employed and likable can be so mentally sick.
Jessica Schaffhausen said afterward that she’s thankful for the outpouring of support and urged people to take threats that friends, relatives or co-workers make seriously by reporting them to police or intended targets.
Now, she said, she will concentrate fully on her daughters’ memories.
‘Here for a reason’
The community is holding several events to raise money to build an accessible playground in their honor.
“I’m here for a reason,” Jessica Schaffhausen said. “I just try to behave in a way that I think they would be proud of.”
“Really appreciate kids when you have them,” she added.