Aaron Schaffhausen never flinched as a police investigator described in horrifying detail Tuesday what he found when he climbed the stairs to three bedrooms to search for Schaffhausen's young daughters.
"I could see that the child was lifeless, no color, dried blood on the face," River Falls, Wis., detective John Wilson said of his first discovery on July 10. He found two other girls in the same condition. All three were tucked in their beds with blankets drawn to their necks, their eyes open.
During a 90-minute preliminary hearing in St. Croix Circuit Court, Schaffhausen sat still as a statue, his face devoid of expression. Schaffhausen, 34, appeared alert, mostly watching Judge Scott Needham. At least a dozen sheriff's deputies and police officers watched the room as he sat quietly in orange jail clothes with his wrists and ankles cuffed.
Schaffhausen, a divorcee who had been living in Minot, N.D., and working as a carpenter, was charged July 12 with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of Amara, 11; Sophie, 8; and Cecilia, 5. The two oldest girls' throats were slit. Cecilia was strangled and her throat was cut in two places, according to Tuesday's testimony.
In one of the bedrooms, Wilson said, he found a large pool of blood on the carpet and more blood spattered on the walls.
"It's most likely all three children were killed in that one bedroom," he told prosecutor Amber Hahn.
The two prosecutors, Gary Freyberg of the Wisconsin attorney general's office and Hahn of the St. Croix County district attorney's office, called three witnesses to convince Needham that Schaffhausen should be bound over for trial.
After hearing the testimony, Needham ruled that he found sufficient probable cause that Schaffhausen had committed the murders. The judge scheduled an August arraignment.
Girls were happy to see dad
Amara had just completed fifth grade and Sophie had finished second grade at Greenwood Elementary School in River Falls. Cecilia would have started kindergarten this fall.
Wilson said a utility knife was found at the house but he didn't know if it was the murder weapon.
Wilson and other River Falls police were dispatched to the house at 2790 Morningside Av. after a frantic Jessica Schaffhausen, the girls' mother, asked for officers to check on her daughters. In a phone call from Ramsey County, where she works, she told a police clerk that her former husband had just told her he had killed their children.
"Hysterical, hyperventilating, very much in distress" was how the clerk, Ailene Splittgerber, described the call she took from Jessica Schaffhausen at 3:30 p.m. that day. The crying mother begged police to hurry to her house, where Aaron Schaffhausen had come for a surprise visit.
"How much did she say?" asked defense attorney John Kuchinski.
"She stated that he had previously threatened to harm the children," said Splittgerber, who stayed on the phone with Jessica for about 40 minutes. That threat came in March, Splittgerber said.
The mother wasn't in the courtroom Tuesday. Some family members and friends attended the hearing but declined to comment.
The first witness was Fallon Moore, the baby sitter who had been at the house on July 10 when Jessica Schaffhausen agreed that her ex-husband could visit their daughters.
"They were very happy to see their father," Moore said of Schaffhausen's arrival about 1:30 p.m. "He seemed slightly gruff but not impolite."
Moore said she stayed at the house about 15 minutes longer, but on Jessica Schaffhausen's advice prepared to leave. She left the kitchen and went upstairs to say goodbye. She found all three girls with their father in Amara's bedroom.
"When you went up there did they all seem happy?" Kuchinski asked.
"Yes," said Moore, who testified that she saw no reason for concern.
According to criminal charges, the Schaffhausens had divorced in January.
In a news conference after Tuesday's ruling, District Attorney Eric Johnson said prosecutors intend to take the case to trial and won't accept a plea bargain from Aaron Schaffhausen. The girls' mother and other family members don't want to comment on the case, Freyberg said.
Still looking for laptop
"This is a real difficult time for them," said Freyberg, on loan to Johnson's office to help Hahn prosecute the case.
Needham said during Tuesday's hearings that Judge Howard Cameron is the sitting judge on the case and will preside over future proceedings.
River Falls police continue to search for a laptop computer Aaron Schaffhausen might have abandoned between the family's house and Baldwin, Wis., Chief Roger Leque said. The laptop is a Sony VAIO in a Targus laptop bag.
Police believe Schaffhausen might have disposed of the laptop before he surrendered to police about 4:45 p.m. July 10. Anyone who finds it can contact police at 715-425-0909.
Schaffhausen's bail has been set at $2 million. His next court appearance will be Aug. 28 at 4 p.m.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037