TAMPA — A New Tampa woman accused of murdering her teenage children brought her trial to a halt on Friday, shouting at her former psychiatrist as he testified he had repeatedly warned her against mixing alcohol with the mood-stabilizing medications she was supposed to be taking.
From her seat across the courtroom, Julie Schenecker, 53, suddenly yelled, "Doc, you told me I could have two drinks a day, and two oxys a day!"
Admonished by the judge, she dissolved into tears as the jury was taken out of the courtroom until her attorneys could extract a promise that she would control herself.
Schenecker's outburst came on the day her attorneys began to make the case she was insane on Jan. 27, 2011, when she killed her 16-year-old daughter, Calyx, and son, Beau, 13. Without disputing that she shot each child, once in the head and once in the mouth, they've argued that her mental problems — bipolar disorder with psychotic features — prevented her from knowing right from wrong. On Friday, they put her mental health care on trial. For more than an hour, they questioned her former psychiatrist, Dr. Demian Obregon, going over his notes from each of their sessions together and second-guessing his choices.
Why, they wondered, when Schenecker began talking about suicide, wasn't she hospitalized under Florida's Baker Act?
Obregon said he had never considered Schenecker to be an imminent danger to herself or others, a requirement before someone is hospitalized involuntarily.
"She did not meet criteria for a Baker Act," he said. "At some point I did offer her voluntary hospitalization and she thought about it for a little bit and then declined."
Obregon was a third-year resident at the University of South Florida when Schenecker became his patient in July 2010, roughly six months before she killed her children. She was transferred from another resident and he began seeing her every couple of weeks for sessions that lasted 20 minutes, though some went longer. By then, Schenecker had been living with bipolar disorder's manic highs and lows for much of her adult life, and had seen a variety of psychiatrists as her husband's Army career moved them from base to base. More recently, she had developed an alcohol problem, as well as a condition termed "pathological gambling."
For the first several months he saw her, Schenecker appeared mildly depressed, Obregon said. The side effects of her medication were making her legs jerk and her lips smack and she was having trouble sleeping. She was making "intense eye contact," Obregon said, recalling how he thought this might be normal for her. "Hindsight is 20/20," he said.
Most of the visits ended with him changing her medications, attempts to find the drug cocktail that would transform her into a stable suburban housewife.
By the fall, she was taking the mood stabilizer Lithium, to little effect, Obregon said, possibly because she was also drinking more. Contrary to her outburst on Friday, Schenecker had been told not to mix alcohol and prescription medications. She not only discarded this advice, but also told her then-husband, Parker Schenecker, that she was allowed two drinks a day.
Baffled by this dubious medical advice, Parker Schenecker emailed Obregon, saying his wife had shown him a note from her psychiatrist okaying her drinking.
"I still don't believe she should be allowed to drink while on Lithium . . . but I guess that's your call," he wrote, later adding: "She's truly a disaster."
After a stint at a Clearwater detox center, she returned to her Tampa Palms neighborhood and began drinking again. In December, she began talking about suicide and begged Obregon to write her a prescription for oxycodone, a painkiller. She missed her next appointment and when he called her, she swore she wasn't suicidal, homicidal or psychotic. She told him she was dry.
But those who knew Schenecker could tell that she wasn't being truthful. Michelle Frisco, her family's housekeeper, testified Friday that when Schenecker came home from rehab, she started spending most of her time in bed. There were days when she would get dressed to run errands and then crawl under the covers. She refused to sign a waiver allowing her husband to access to her medical records. She refused to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Parker Schenecker emailed Obregon again: "She's depressed (no kidding), but it seems that she's choosing this — it's the first time she's been like this for this long in 20 years." In court, prosecutor Jay Pruner agreed with this assessment, pointedly noting that Schenecker knew what guzzling pills and wine would do. "You can prescribe, but you can't monitor her actions every day of the week," he said.
Hours after Schenecker killed her children, investigators entered her home and seized 567 prescription pills and two empty painkiller bottles. Coursing through her body: a combination of Lithium and the blood thinner Coumadin. It was her third documented suicide attempt, and another disappointment.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.