TAMPA — Without ever taking the witness stand, Julie Schenecker told a jury and a courtroom full of family members on Wednesday that she'd planned to kill her children three years ago.
Prosecutors played audio from a 2011 recording of Schenecker made after she was taken to Tampa police headquarters, where detectives interviewed her for over an hour. Seated near a woman whose body shook, whose hands had blood on them, and whose mind occasionally latched onto the idea that her children were still alive, detectives asked the same question that parents everywhere were asking each other: Why would a mother kill her children?
Schenecker had a half-dozen half-formed replies. She'd loved her children until they reached the age of 6, she told the detectives. But in the last few years, her 16-year-old daughter, Calyx, had become "mouthy" and her 13-year-old son was following suit. "They were really mean," she said, recalling how Calyx threatened to go away to college and never see her mother again. The remark had made her cry, Schenecker said.
By then, she'd already driven the 27 miles from her New Tampa home to the Lock N Load gun store in Oldsmar, where she bought a revolver. On Wednesday, Lock N Load owner Gerald Tanso told jurors that Schenecker's hands trembled slightly on Jan. 22, 2011, when she came in looking for a weapon. But that was no reason to call the police, he said.
Charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Schenecker, 53, faces life in prison if convicted. Her attorneys are waging an insanity defense, arguing that she is mentally ill and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression.
Their task — convincing 12 people that Schenecker either didn't know what she was doing or didn't know her actions were wrong — was not made easier Wednesday by Schenecker's 3-year-old interview.
"I just feel horrible. But I've been thinking about doing this for a long time," Schenecker told Detectives Gary Sandel and Stephen Prebich.
Asked again whether she'd planned to kill her children, Schenecker replied: "Oh, yeah."
It was a suicide that had gone awry when she failed to kill herself, she said. Beau was supposed to be first, and he was. Schenecker shot him in the head while driving the family's van. Calyx was next on her list, and so she walked upstairs and sent a bullet into her daughter's head while the girl was doing her homework. Both children were also shot in the mouth.
She would have killed only herself, she said — she'd always wanted to — but that would have been cruel to her children. "My kids would have to live with the knowledge that their mom committed suicide," she said.
While questioning Sandel on Wednesday, defense attorney Charles Traina wondered why the detective continued to interview Schenecker when she swung from moments of clarity to asking: "Are my kids coming in later?" Sandel said he hadn't known what Schenecker was talking about. Maybe she was asking if the children's dead bodies would be brought in later, he'd guessed.
Are they alive or dead? he'd asked her.
"I don't know," she'd replied. She hoped they were dead. She'd felt them, and they were cold to the touch. She'd tried to apologize, she said.
The prosecution rested its case Wednesday after three days of testimony. The defense has asked for a day to prepare and will begin making its case on Friday.
As Circuit Court Judge Emmett L. Battles moved to end trial for the day, he asked Schenecker what's typically a procedural question: whether she'd agree to a set of facts that he would read to the jury. Her attorneys had already given their approval to tell jurors that the Schenecker children died on Jan. 27, 2011. Asked if she understood this, Schenecker became hysterical, collapsing into her chair, head in hands. Minutes passed before she rose again to say: "Yes, your honor, I understand."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.