Police interview of River Falls suspect challenged

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2012 - 11:19 PM

The questioning of Aaron Schaffhausen, accused of killing his 3 daughters, is under scrutiny over Miranda rights.

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Aaron Schaffhausen appeared in court Monday morning in Hudson, Wis.

Photo: Pam Louwagie, Star Tribune

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HUDSON, WIS. - After he walked into the River Falls Police Department on the day his three daughters died, Aaron Schaffhausen apparently sat, barely moving and barely speaking for hours as investigators questioned him, according to testimony given Monday at a hearing in his triple-murder case.

For the first two hours of the July 10 interrogation that lasted three hours and 20 minutes, the 35-year-old didn't say a word, only occasionally shaking his head no or nodding yes, once to refuse a medical assessment and later to acknowledge photos of his daughters that had been brought into the small interview room where he sat in handcuffs.

Schaffhausen responded so little, including after several readings of his Miranda rights, that River Falls Officer Charles Golden stopped questioning him four or five times, once seeking advice by phone from a local prosecutor as to whether he could continue the interrogation, the officer testified.

That question is now at the center of debate as Schaffhausen's attorney tries to suppress the entire taped interview, claiming his client never waived his Miranda rights and the interview should have ceased.

Schaffhausen, a carpenter who lived in Minot, N.D., is accused of killing daughters Amara, 11, Sophie, 8, and Cecilia, 5, at their River Falls home while his ex-wife was at work. He is charged with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide and arson after authorities also found a gas fireplace turned on and gasoline poured in the basement. He is scheduled for trial in April.

Clad in orange jail garb, he sat quietly through the hearing Monday, whispering a few times with a defense investigator as his attorney questioned witnesses.

In his testimony, Golden described how Schaffhausen began to sob just a few minutes into the interview when Golden read a Miranda statement telling Schaffhausen he had a right to an attorney. Schaffhausen cried again about an hour and a half later, Golden testified, when Golden said something to the effect of "only a father would cover his children up in bed, cover them up in blankets so they could be in peace."

Authorities had found the girls tucked into their beds, their throats cut. Prosecutors alleged in a criminal complaint that Jessica Schaffhausen told police she got a call from her ex-husband telling her he had killed the children.

At one point during the interrogation, Golden asked Schaffhausen if there was anyone else Golden needed to be looking for regarding who may have taken his children's lives. Schaffhausen shook his head no, Golden testified.

About two hours into the interview, Schaffhausen told Golden he couldn't feel his hands, Golden testified. So Golden and another officer began to move Schaffhausen's cuffed hands from behind his back to his front, with Golden asking first if Schaffhausen was going to hurt him, but Schaffhausen shook his head no.

Nearly three hours into the interview, Schaffhausen said he wanted an attorney, Golden recalled. At one point, Golden testified that Schaffhausen said something like, "For not being able to ask any questions without an attorney, you sure are asking a lot."

Golden said Schaffhausen later said "I need help" and when asked again if he wanted an attorney, he said yes.

The River Falls officer testified that Schaffhausen responded nonverbally during the interview approximately 15 times and verbally about 23 times.

St. Croix County Assistant District Attorney Amber Hahn asked Golden: "Did the defendant ever make any statement that he wished to remain silent? ... that he wanted you to stop questioning?"

"No," Golden said. "No."

In his cross-examination, defense attorney John Kucinski indicated that, according to the tape of the interview, Schaffhausen sat in a chair, staring straight ahead, a "vast majority" of the time. He said that Schaffhausen did not respond to more than 50 questions.

Golden acknowledged that he asked a Pierce County prosecutor by phone if it was legal for him to continue speaking to Schaffhausen if he wasn't responding.

Kucinski had Golden read aloud several passages from a transcript of the interview, specifically parts that focused on Miranda rights, including once when Golden asked if Schaffhausen "would just indicate one way or another if you understand them, otherwise I, you know, I can't continue to talk to you," and "You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to and I, I respect that."

"Did you ever tell Mr. Schaffhausen that the only way that he could invoke his right to remain silent was to actually talk to you?" Kucinski asked.

"No," Golden replied.

During breaks and after Monday's hearing, Kucinski said his client hadn't said much more than the testimony indicated in court. "I'm not too sure they can convict him of anything," he said.

Prosecutor Gary Freyberg noted after the hearing that the Miranda warning was read several times during the interrogation.

Also Monday, River Falls police officer Matthew Kennett testified that he spotted Schaffhausen exiting his car outside the police station that day and approached him to ask his address. Schaffhausen reached into his pocket and Kennett grabbed his arm as Schaffhausen pulled out his wallet and said simply, "Let's go," before they walked toward the police station, Kennett said.

Monday's hearing in St. Croix County Circuit Court touched on numerous issues, including the idea that Schaffhausen is familiar with Miranda rights from hearing them twice as a juvenile. Two Coon Rapids police officers testified about unspecified reports involving Schaffhausen in 1991 and 1992, when he lived in that city with his parents.

Prosecutors also called University of Wisconsin-River Falls chemistry Prof. Jamie Schneider to the stand, she taught chemistry to Schaffhausen in 2009. Schneider also testified that Schaffhausen later worked as a student researcher for her and that they knew each other casually through their children's day care.

Schaffhausen told her in January 2011 that he was upset about his divorce and concerned about losing his girls. He told her that his ex-wife had another man in her life and he was concerned that she would move the girls to Illinois.

She described her former student as a planner who was "organized" and "meticulous." Asked if he was delusional, she said that he wasn't.

Circuit Judge Howard Cameron said he would rule on the motion to suppress the statement by mid-January.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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