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Amara, Sophie and Cecilia Schaffhausen excitedly rushed to the door when their father dropped in unexpectedly Tuesday afternoon, months after their parents divorced and he moved to Minot, N.D.
Jessica Schaffhausen thought her ex-husband, Aaron, was working a construction job in North Dakota, but he'd been fired last week when he didn't show up for work. He had threatened to kill Jessica just a few months earlier, but on Tuesday he text-messaged her with a request: He was back in St. Paul and wanted to spend the day with his girls at the family home in River Falls, Wis. She agreed, but insisted that he leave the house before she returned home at 3:30 p.m.
The girls pulled him upstairs to show him their things. Their baby sitter told investigators she followed later, hugged the girls goodbye and left them in Amara's bedroom with their father.
At 3:30 p.m., Jessica Schaffhausen answered her phone and heard her ex-husband's voice: "You can come home now, because I killed the kids."
Police found each girl in her own bed, a blanket drawn up to her neck, dried blood on her face.
According to murder charges filed Thursday against Aaron Schaffhausen, he had slashed the throats of Amara, 11, and Sophie, 8. Cecilia, 5, had been strangled and her throat was slashed.
"I've been prosecuting for 30 years ... and this is, by far, the worst case I've seen," said St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson. "It's impossible to keep emotions out of it."
Johnson declined to say how police think Schaffhausen, 34, was able to kill all three girls, although investigators reported there was a large amount of blood in one bedroom. Toxicology results are pending.
The first officers to enter the home in the 2700 block of Morningside Drive on Tuesday afternoon also reported that a gas fireplace was turned on and gasoline had been poured in the basement. Authorities have not speculated publicly on the motive for that, or Schaffhausen's reasons for allegedly killing his daughters.
According to the three first-degree intentional homicide charges filed in St. Croix County District Court, Jessica Schaffhausen told authorities that Aaron Schaffhausen sent her a text message around 11:45 a.m. and then called shortly after noon. She gave him permission to see the girls.
By 1:30 p.m., the baby sitter had text-messaged Jessica Schaffhausen, saying Aaron Schaffhausen was at the home and asking whether she should stay or leave. Jessica Schaffhausen told her she could go.
The baby sitter left at 1:40 p.m. Less than two hours later, Jessica Schaffhausen phoned police to report the horrifying call from her ex-husband.
By 4:45 p.m., he was in police custody, having driven his blue Chevy to the River Falls police station, parked in a spot reserved for emergency vehicles and surrendered. The charges report he remained silent while being questioned and was wearing shorts that appeared to be splattered with blood.
Aaron Schaffhausen was equally closed-mouthed when he made his first court appearance Thursday via a video feed from the county jail in Hudson, a common procedure in Wisconsin. His public defender, John Kucinski, answered on his behalf until Judge Howard W. Cameron Jr. and Johnson asked Schaffhausen to speak for himself.
"He wants me to respond," Kucinski said.
After more prodding, Schaffhausen gave short, quiet answers to the judge's questions. His bail was set at $2 million, and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 24.
Johnson requested that the girls' bodies be released so the family could proceed with funerals, but Kucinski objected for evidentiary reasons. Johnson said he believes Kucinski was simply being thorough and considering other evidence that could be collected before burial.
Authorities and court records portray a rocky relationship between Aaron and Jessica Schaffhausen in recent years.
The couple were divorced in January and shared legal custody of the girls, who lived with their mother. Divorce records show he took on the couple's $196,500 debt and began paying $1,353 in monthly child support.
Police responded to a domestic disturbance report at the house in 2009, and a harassment report filed in March alleged that Aaron Schaffhaussen threatened to kill his ex-wife.
River Falls police "were notified by Jessica Schaffhausen that Aaron has been harassing her and made threats to kill her," according to a Minot police report.
Minot officers spoke to Aaron Schaffhausen on March 7. "He states he has no intention to go back to Wisconsin, everything is fine at this time."
There is no record of a restraining order, and aside from a speeding ticket and a 2004 drunken driving case from Dakota County, Aaron Schaffhausen had no criminal record in Wisconsin, Minnesota or North Dakota.
Aaron Schaffhausen was working as a carpenter for Solid Construction Solutions, a St. Paul firm that employed him on projects in western North Dakota, which is undergoing a construction boom related to a large increase in oil drilling
"He was terminated on July 5th after not showing up for work that day," Scott Sample, the firm's sales manager, wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
Two days later, the girls, who had been visiting their maternal grandparents in Illinois, returned to River Falls and their mother's home.
On Thursday, Jessica Schaffhausen thanked the River Falls community for their support in the wake of the deaths.
In a written statement issued through city officials, she said "Our family deeply appreciates the outpouring of support and love shown to honor the girls' memory."
Staff writer Larry Oakes contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib#