Reporting Holly Wagner
RIVER FALLS, Wis. (WCCO/AP) – Formal criminal charges are pending against the father of three girls found dead Tuesday in their home in River Falls, Wis., police said.
Authorities won’t say how 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia Schaffhausen died on Tuesday, but said their father, 34-year-old Aaron Schaffhausen, is the suspect. He is currently in custody and being held at the St. Croix County Jail on suspicion of first-degree intentional homicide, city administrator Scot Simpson said Wednesday.
Police said they expect Aaron Schaffhausen to be arraigned Thursday afternoon. It is unclear whether he had an attorney.
On Tuesday morning, Aaron Schaffhausen called his ex-wife, Jessica Schaffhausen, out of the blue, asking to see the girls, who were with a babysitter. Later, Jessica Schaffhausen got another call, one in which Aaron Schaffhausen threatened to harm the girls, police said. Jessica Schaffhausen then called 911 and rushed home.
Investigators did not know where she had been during the day.
The bodies of the three girls are currently being examined by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Chief Roger Leque, of River Falls Police, described the killings as the worst he’d seen in his 34 years of experience in the city.
There was a strong smell of gas in the house and the gas fireplace was on when officers got to the home on the 2700 block of Morningside Avenue shortly after 3:30 p.m., Leque said. Officers also smelled what Leque described as a flammable liquid in the basement. It’s unclear what role, if any, the liquid may have played in the deaths. No one was in the house when officers found the girls.
Leque did not elaborate when asked if there were signs of a struggle, saying authorities were still processing the crime scene.
Greg Lee, director of operations for St. Croix Valley Natural Gas, said his company handles gas service to the area. He said company officials were in contact with police and firefighters but were told they weren’t needed. The company has no reports of any gas leaks or anything else out of the ordinary in the area.
“We don’t know if it was gasoline or natural gas,” Lee said. “We know nothing.”
Not long after the girls were found, Aaron Schaffhausen — who has no prior criminal record in Wisconsin — turned himself in to authorities. Leque described his demeanor as “non-talkative.”
Online court records show the couple divorced in January, and Aaron Schaffhausen had been living in Minot, N.D. The couple filed for divorce jointly. They were awarded joint legal custody of the girls, although Jessica Schaffhausen had primary physical custody and had control over health care, education and other decisions.
River Falls Police records reported there had been a domestic incident in August 2009. Police also reported a harassment incident this past March where Aaron Schaffhausen had allegedly threatened to harm at least one of the children.
A vigil is planned Wednesday night for the three young sisters.
A Community In Mourning
The family’s neighbors are beside themselves. Neighbor Emily Kuhn said she can’t imagine losing three children and that her heart breaks for the girls’ mother.
“I’m praying for her,” she said. “I hope she finds of closure.”
Julie Matzke said her 7-year-old daughter was in Girl Scouts with one of the sisters. She created a Facebook page in the girls’ honor. Matzke has also set up a vigil at Glen Park in River Falls at 7 p.m.
Neighbor Heather Johnson said the girls played with her 8-year-old son, Blake Patrow. They rode bikes and skateboards and played at a neighborhood park. Blake also was in Sophie’s elementary school class.
Blake loved playing with Amara, because she was more of a tomboy and loved to skateboard and play soccer, Johnson said.
But Sophie was always around too, Johnson said, and apparently had a “little crush” on her son. Johnson said last summer, when the girls were away at their grandparents’ house, Sophie wrote Blake a letter saying she missed him.
Sophie also participated in martial arts and Girl Scouts, Johnson said.
She said Blake seems to be doing OK, but has been clingy and doesn’t want to sleep alone after learning his friends are gone.
“He doesn’t like that he’s not going to see his friends anymore,” she said.
Theresa DeRusha, another neighbor, has two boys, ages 1 and 4. She was headed to the library with them on Wednesday, saying she had to get them out of the house because she had run out of excuses about why the neighborhood was so busy.
“This is tragic and we all wish that it somehow could have been prevented,” she said, sadly. “My heart goes out to the mom.”
Grief counselors were called to Greenwood Elementary School, where the older girls attended and the youngest was scheduled to start kindergarten this fall. The school set aside some time to help families and students deal with the loss.
“These girls were bright girls … with a zest for life,” said principal Nate Schurman. “They left a mark on our school.”
Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said he was deeply saddened by the loss of the girls.
A growing memorial outside the school shows how students and teachers treasured them. One student left her favorite stuffed animal, an elephant, in memory of Amara.
“She was a really good friend,” the student said. “She always made me laugh.”
The city of River Falls numbers about 15,000 residents and is located about 30 miles east of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Fund For The Schaffhausen Children
If you would like to assist the family with monetary donations, you can make checks out to First National Back of River Falls (located in River Falls and Prescott) to the “Benefit Account for Schaffhausen Children.”
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