HUDSON, Wis. – Aaron Schaffhausen struggled with depression and homicidal thoughts while working a construction job in North Dakota early last year. His cousin, Liz Daleiden, suggested in a tearful middle-of-the-night phone call that he move closer to his family in Minnesota.
But she testified Friday that he replied with a chilling reason why he didn’t want do that: He was afraid he might harm his three daughters. He had once driven halfway to the girls’ western Wisconsin home intending to cut their throats, she said he told her.
Testimony capping the first week of Schaffhausen’s insanity trial portrayed a man who had changed dramatically in recent years, going from a friendly, calm and loving father to a man angry over his divorce who talked about killing his family.
Schaffhausen pleaded guilty last week to murdering his daughters, 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia, in their River Falls home in July. Defense attorneys are trying to persuade a St. Croix County jury that he had a mental disease or defect at the time and should go to a mental institution instead of prison.
A series of friends and relatives took the stand Friday.
Neighbors of the family in River Falls said Schaffhausen was friendly, helpful and someone they trusted with their children.
He had walked his girls to another house in the neighborhood and stayed to check out the parents and make sure they were safe, a neighbor testified. After they got to know each other, he helped them install hardwood flooring in their basement.
Another River Falls couple testified that they got along well with the Schaffhausens. Their children played together as the adults visited, had barbecues and played games. Aaron was “very loving, very engaged” with his daughters then, the wife testified.
But Daleiden testified that the Aaron Schaffhausen she grew up knowing had changed when she saw him in at a family picnic in July 2011. Instead of the “fun-loving, smart, sarcastic, witty” cousin he once was, he was suddenly quiet, she said. He wasn’t cracking jokes. He wasn’t himself.
He called her in March 2012 while living in North Dakota and told her he wasn’t doing well, she said. When she asked why he hadn’t seen his daughters, he told her they reminded him too much of the girls’ mother, his ex-wife Jessica.
She called him again later that month, concerned after he had posted some “nasty” comments on Facebook toward the man Jessica had been seeing, Daleiden said.
On the phone in the middle of the night, they talked for two or three hours, she said: Aaron was upset and cried a few times. She asked him if he felt suicidal and he said no, but that he felt homicidal and had stopped taking his medications because of it.
“He said I’m worried about hurting the girls … I’m afraid to be around the girls … I’m not myself. I don’t want to be like this,” Daleiden said.
She suggested he move closer to relatives in Minnesota, but he said he was afraid to be too close to the girls.
He told her he had driven halfway from Minot to River Falls, and when she asked him why: “He said, ‘I was gonna cut their throats,’ ” she testified.
Aaron then started “crying really hard and hung up,” she recounted through her own tears on the witness stand.
She called him right back, told him he needed to get himself some help and suggested he have himself committed.
Men who considered Schaffhausen a friend when they worked with him in early 2012 testified that they liked him, but that he was distraught over his divorce. Both when drinking and sober, he casually mentioned strange things about killing his family, they said.
Schaffhausen said things like: “I want to go kill my kids, then my ex-wife. After her I will go to the man’s house she is sleeping with, kill him, cut his head off, put it on a stake in my front yard and then I will sit back and have a beer,” co-worker and ex-roommate Jeremy Michels wrote in an e-mail to police after the killings, according to testimony.
Another time, Schaffhausen blurted out during a card game a thought about killing his family, Michels testified. And when Michels told him that was weird or crazy, Schaffhausen responded something like: “Is it really?” Michels testified.
Friend Jon Paul said Schaffhausen mentioned killing his daughters to get back at Jessica, saying the girls were all they had together and now that their marriage was done, they shouldn’t have them, either.
Schaffhausen had commented that he wanted to show Jessica “who he is and what he’s capable of doing” and that “she would have to live with it for the rest of her life,” according to prosecutors’ questioning when Paul was on the witness stand.
Another former roommate who said he was “really good friends“ with Schaffhausen described a kind man who helped the roommate’s family financially.
The man told police about threats after the murders, according to questions from prosecutors. But on the witness stand Friday, the man said he hadn’t been taking his medications before that police interview and repeatedly said he could not recall many of the details prosecutors asked about it. He said being under-medicated may have clouded his judgment during that interview.
When testimony in the case resumes Monday there will be tighter security at the courthouse, according to Sheriff John Shilts. Shilts said a potential threat inside the courthouse Friday morning resulted in one person being taken into custody, but added there was no known threat to the public. He gave no details.