HUDSON, Wis. – Aaron Schaffhausen had regained some of his ex-wife’s trust in the weeks leading to the day he destroyed her world.
After bouts of obsessive phone calls and threats surrounding their messy divorce, Schaffhausen had seemed to be getting better, a calm and composed Jessica Schaffhausen testified at her ex-husband’s insanity trial Thursday: He told her that he had stopped drinking, she said, and that he joined an online dating service and that he was moving on and was in a better place.
Instead of profanity and anger-laden phone calls from the North Dakota town where he was working, she said he was friendly, even when hashing out issues left over from their marriage. They also talked about books, music and movies.
“It was some of the best conversations we’d probably had in over a year,” she said. Aaron once again talked about taking part in their daughters’ lives.
So when her ex-husband flustered her with a surprise visit to the Twin Cities in July and said he wanted to see the girls at their home in River Falls, Jessica Schaffhausen conceded. She wanted the girls to have a father, she said.
“They really missed him and really wanted to see him,” she said through tears. “They loved him so much.”
When Aaron called her again that afternoon as she was getting in her car to drive home from work, she knew that she had been fooled, she testified.
Schaffhausen delivered just one line, she said: “You can come home now, I killed the kids.”
Aaron Schaffhausen has pleaded guilty to killing 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia. His attorneys are trying to persuade a St. Croix County jury that Schaffhausen suffered from a mental disease or defect and should go to a mental institution instead of prison.
Attorneys kept Jessica Schaffhausen on the stand for most of the day Thursday, her second day of testimony. A petite woman with short cropped hair, Jessica Schaffhausen seemed to only glance at her ex-husband, who sat just feet away from her, flanked by his attorneys.
She cried only a few times, when talking about the day her daughters died. Asked if she needed a break, she replied: “No. I just want to get this over with.”
Jessica calmly recounted a frustrating 12-year marriage in which she said Aaron suffered bouts of depression, played video games excessively, didn’t help around the house and often showed little interest in participating in the family. “It was almost like he would like to have us and put us on a shelf, and then when he wanted to interact with us he would take us down and he would play with us,” she said.
She had contemplated divorcing him for two years but at one point made an effort to try to save the marriage before deciding on a divorce when he became more stable employment-wise in the second half of 2011.
Depression medication had helped him at one point, she said, but then she noticed that when he drank while using it, it made him “weird.”
“He would say just really off-the-wall things,” she said.
He became obsessive during the divorce, she said. He quit talking to their daughters, refusing to see them and sometimes hanging up when they answered the phone. Yet at times he called Jessica incessantly, using other people’s phones when she blocked his number, she said.
Early in March 2012, he told her of thoughts he’d been having “eight times a day” to drive to her River Falls home, tie her up and make her pick which of their daughters he’d kill while she watched, “because he wanted to hurt me as much as I had hurt him,” she testified.
She told him he needed to go to therapy, she testified, but he refused, saying therapy was useless. She filed a police report in River Falls and requested that authorities in North Dakota check on him.
“I just wanted somebody to go see him because I was scared and I wanted to know where he was,” she said. She wanted him contained so she could feel safe.
The next month, when he called unexpectedly saying he was in town and wanted to come and see the kids while they were sleeping, she refused, telling him it was creepy. Instead, she arranged for them to see him in a public place the next day, she said, and that visit went well.
Conversations in June 2012 were better, too, she said.
But on July 10, when he called her and said he’d killed the children, she reacted with disbelief.
“I started yelling at him that that wasn’t funny and he couldn’t say things like that,” she testified.
She called 911 and begged police to go to the house in River Falls: “I just wanted somebody to get there because they could have still been alive,” she said, choking back sobs.
‘Crazy’ and ‘psychotic’
When she got to the police station, she testified, she told police that she believed he had done it to hurt her. Using police reports and other material to refresh her memory, attorneys had Jessica testify about how she had used slang terms to call her ex-husband “crazy” and “psychotic” and “insane.”
She didn’t remember specifics about what she had told police, she testified: “I was trying to deal with the fact that I was living in a reality that I no longer had children.”
After Jessica left the witness stand Thursday afternoon, defense attorneys played a recorded phone call between River Falls police and Aaron Schaffhausen on the day he talked of tying Jessica up and killing one of their children.
Schaffhausen was heard assuring the police officer that he wasn’t going to harm anyone, but made some statements the officer found confusing, including: “until I can conjure dragons into this world, it’s not an issue.”
Former co-workers who hung out with Aaron Schaffhausen in North Dakota capped Thursday’s testimony, describing how he had talked about killing his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, and how he didn’t care if he saw his children again.
One friend described those conversations as verbal “outbursts,” saying Schaffhausen’s blood pressure seemed to rise when they talked about his divorce, but he would quickly return to normal when they dropped the subject.