Attorneys painted opposite portraits of the father’s state of mind.
Hudson, Wis. – Jessica Schaffhausen is hyperventilating on the 911 recording, barely able to utter desperate words between her frantic, squeaky breaths:
“My ex-husband just called and said he killed my kids!” she yelled to the dispatcher amid sobs, repeating her River Falls home address. “Please send somebody over!”
The chilling audio engrossed a St. Croix County courtroom full of jurors and spectators Tuesday, as Aaron Schaffhausen’s insanity trial began.
Someone in the gallery gasped. Several jurors sat with their hands near their mouths. Aaron Schaffhausen stared straight ahead, occasionally shifting in his chair as the audio played for a half-hour.
The recording capped a morning of contrasting portrayals of Schaffhausen by the opposing attorneys. For the defense, Schaffhausen was a man so unglued that he couldn’t control his actions. The prosecution described him as calculating in carrying out a plan to hurt his ex-wife in the worst way possible.
Schaffhausen, who was living in North Dakota, had shown up unexpectedly that day. Though he had threatened Jessica and the kids and others before, he seemed to have calmed down, according to statements by attorneys. Jessica wanted her children to have an involved father and agreed to let him visit the children on that sunny, warm July day, attorneys said.
Jessica Schaffhausen stayed on the phone with the operator while she drove panicked from the Twin Cities toward River Falls that afternoon.
“Oh my God I’m so ... stupid,” she cries on the 911 recording.
The dispatcher asked if there were weapons in the house and if her ex-husband had given any other indications of violence.
“He just broke down crying and hung up,” Jessica said.
Aaron Schaffhausen admitted last week to killing the couple’s three children, 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia. His attorneys Tuesday began their task of trying to convince a jury that he shouldn’t be held responsible for the crimes because he had a mental disease or defect.
In opening statements, defense attorney John Kucinski portrayed Schaffhausen as depressed, despondent and increasingly obsessed after his divorce early last year. Kucinski said Schaffhausen’s family, including his ex-wife, had worried about him and urged him to get treatment.
But prosecutor Gary Freyberg portrayed Schaffhausen as extremely intelligent, angry and jealous. Schaffhausen knew exactly what he was doing before, during and after the crime, Freyberg told the jury: “He decided that the way to make Jessica suffer the longest and the harshest would be to kill the things she loved best.”
Both attorneys said Schaffhausen had made threats in the months before the murders, at one point telling Jessica on the phone that he wanted to come to River Falls, tie her up and make her choose which of the girls to kill so that she would understand the hurt and pain he was feeling.
They also said he called a cousin in the middle of the night and told her he had thoughts of cutting his girls’ throats and once drove half way to River Falls to do that but turned around. He made threats about killing Jessica to co-workers and friends in North Dakota, they said.
Kucinski said Schaffhausen described being in a dreamlike state while at the girls’ River Falls house that day.
“When he’s with Cecilia, something happens. He doesn’t recall what happened ... why it happened. All he recalls is he’s choking the little one,” Kucinski said. “The next thing he recalls, there’s a lot of blood, the girls’ throats are cut ... he describes it as if it’s kind of a dream. So he sees things happening. He sees himself pouring gas, in his mind he’s thinking of suicide.”
Without offering details, Kucinski said his client had an extremely rare and complex psychological condition.