TAMPA — Sitting straight-backed on the witness stand three years after his ex-wife killed their children, Parker Schenecker recalled the tough love he had offered her.
"It was her illness," he told a jury on Tuesday, referring to his then-wife's bipolar disorder. He had never looked at her prescription medications, kept track of whether she was taking them, or seen to it that she was meeting with her therapist and psychiatrist during their 20-year marriage. "It was her responsibility to follow up with her doctors' appointments."
On Tuesday, the day defense attorneys for Julie Schenecker, 53, rested their case, they portrayed her ex-husband as a man who intentionally kept his distance from his wife's escalating problems. While the Army had trained him in suicide prevention, he said, it didn't prepare him for life with a chronically mentally ill spouse.
And his wife's condition was particularly challenging. As a young woman, her bipolar disorder presented itself as episodic depression, but as she aged, it left her immobilized or fueled her recklessness. By 2010, she was taking the pain killer Oxycodone, which had been prescribed for her, but which Parker Schenecker didn't know she was abusing. She was also gambling away thousands of dollars at Tampa's Hard Rock Casino, losses that her husband only learned about after she was in jail.
When she became depressed and took to bed for eight weeks, her husband communicated with her mainly by email, sometimes signing off with the letters "VR," shorthand for "very respectfully."
He traveled often for work and was in Qatar on Jan. 28, 2011, when his then-wife was accused of killing their 16-year-old daughter Calyx and 13-year-old son Beau. Charged with two counts of first degree murder, Julie Schenecker faces life in prison if convicted.
Her attorneys are waging an insanity defense, arguing that she did not understand her actions were wrong. As evidence, they called Dr. Wade Myers to testify, making him the last of three mental health experts retained by the defense, all of whom concluded that Julie Schenecker was insane when she shot her children.
Parker Schenecker, his family and friends have allied themselves with prosecutors, who say Julie Schenecker planned to shoot her children out of anger mainly directed at her husband and teenage daughter. During his four hours of testimony, he often characterized his ex-wife's actions as choices she had made, whether it was refusing to get out of bed, or picking fights with her daughter. His wife was a grown woman who acted like a 10-year-old, he wrote in an email to her family members.
He preferred to email her, he said. When he tried "verbal communications," as he termed it, he sometimes felt as though he wasn't getting through.
"I always felt it was better to have things in black and white for her, unemotionally, where she could read them over and over if she needed to," he said.
But Schenecker showed a slightly softer side Tuesday, as he described his efforts to help his wife. In 2002, when his career moved the family to Germany, the former Army colonel sought out a doctor familiar with the special type of depression treatment she had begun receiving at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Later, as fights with Calyx grew worse, he arranged family counseling sessions and guided his daughter's search for a boarding school. It wasn't his job to dig through the trash and count his wife's empty wine bottles, he said, but he did try to alert her psychiatrist that she was mixing alcohol and Lithium. He had asked his wife to waive her privacy rights, allowing him to talk to her doctors, and she had refused.
In late 2010, when Julie Schenecker crashed her Mercedes on her way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, she told her husband she'd had a few glasses of wine before she left. He told her he would no longer allow her to drive their children around.
"I MUST protect them; they are telling me that they feel unsafe — this is the basic responsibility of a parent, especially a father," he wrote to her in an email, adding, "the hard part of this is that they've asked for protection from their mother."
Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys asked him the question that has hung over this case since his children were found dead: why he had trusted his wife to take care of them. "Julie and I talked about suicide many times over the years," he said on Tuesday, but as he packed his bags for Afghanistan, he didn't think she was on the verge of acting.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.