A cousin, friends and co-workers testify how Aaron Schaffhausen talked often of violence in the months before killing his daughters.
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.