Reporting Esme Murphy
RIVER FALLS, Wis. (WCCO/AP) — A River Falls father was charged with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide Thursday in the deaths of his three young daughters.
Eight-year-old Sophie, 11-year-old Amara and 5-year-old Cecelia Schaffhausen died Tuesday in their home in River Falls. Police say their dad had showed up for an unexpected visit while their mom was away, and the babysitter was allowed to leave.
Aaron Schaffhausen allegedly killed the girls, soaked the basement in gasoline and turned on the gas fireplace. Police say he then called his ex-wife and told her, “You can come home now because I killed the kids.”
During his brief court appearance Thursday, Schaffhausen showed no emotion. He appeared via video conference from the St. Croix County Jail.
Present in court were staff members with Turning Point, a woman’s shelter in River Falls. Staff members said while the Schaffhausen case is particularly horrific, some aspects of it are not.
“This is what I see on a daily basis, working with families,” said Jen Rhead, a staff member. “Children are always in the middle. Unfortunately, this one is the worst possible thing.”
Staff members could not say if any member of the Schaffhausen family came to them for help.
The criminal complaint says his ex-wife called police after receiving the call from Aaron. Investigators arrived and found the three girls in each of their rooms, tucked in bed with their blankets pulled up to their necks. All three had blood on their faces, the charges state. There was a large amount of blood on the carpet of one of the bedrooms, according to the complaint.
The three girls were being watched by a babysitter earlier the day of their deaths, the charges state, but Schaffhausen called his ex-wife to say he would spend the day with their daughters.
The babysitter hugged the girls goodbye at about 1:40 p.m. before leaving. She told authorities the girls rushed up to greet their father because they were excited to see him.
The girls’ mother told police she received a call from Schaffhausen at about 3:30 p.m. He said he killed all three children, the complaint says.
Investigators say that the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s preliminary findings show that Sophie and Amara died as a result of sharp force injury to their necks. The medical examiner reported Cecelia died as a result of both sharp force injury and strangulation.
Circuit Judge Howard W. Cameron set Aaron Schaffhausen’s bail at $2 million Thursday. The judge also ordered him to have no contact with his ex-wife or any member of her immediate family. He’s due back in court July 24 for a preliminary hearing.
No motive has yet been given for the crimes.
Dawn Simonson, executive director of Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging, a nonprofit organization in St. Paul that helps the elderly live independently, said Jessica Schaffhausen has worked there since 2009. Schaffhausen, she said, helps people return to their own homes after stints in nursing homes.
Simonson declined to comment further, saying she wanted to respect Schaffhausen’s privacy. She didn’t immediately return a telephone message later Thursday asking if Schaffhausen had been at work Tuesday.
“We’re just so sad and so devastated by this loss,” Simonson said Thursday morning.
Jessica Schaffhausen, released a statement Thursday afternoon, which said, “Our family deeply appreciates the outpouring of support and love shown to honor the girls’ memory. We understand the community’s desire to help and assist. At this time, the family has two approved venues to offer your support. There is a memorial fund at First National Bank of River Falls and the River Falls Wildcat Soccer team will be selling bracelets. At this time, the family DOES NOT endorse any other sales of T-shirts, memorabilia or websites. When the time is right, the family will use the generosity and support to honor and memorialize the girls in the best way possible. Again, we thank you for your support, however we ask for privacy and respect at this time. Thank You.”
WEB EXTRA: Aaron Schaffhausen Criminal Complaint (.PDF)
Fifteen miles to the south in River Falls, the community is still dealing with the loss of those three sisters. At Greenwood Elementary School, the memorial has grown since Wednesday.
Families were dropping off flowers for the girls on Thursday and there are support counselors there to help Greenwood families through this difficult time.
The principal says the kids, parents and staff are getting through this together.
“We’re confused,” said Nate Schurman, Greenwood principal. “We don’t understand exactly what happened and why it happened and we’re not sure we ever will. (We’re) letting the students know we’re in this together and that’s brought them comfort.”
Principal Schurman says there were about 100 people that came to the school Wednesday for support. And more people will be there today.
A visitation and memorial service has been planned for the three girls. The visitation will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 17 at Kilkarney Hills Golf Club. The memorial service will follow.
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)