WEST PALM BEACH — The siblings sat, anxious, on opposite ends of the crowded courtroom. They refused to look at each other.
Their dad ignored them. Stephen Kruspe, 69, waited beside his lawyer, staring straight ahead. His hands and feet were shackled. His white hair had thinned.
He hadn’t talked to his daughter or oldest son in more than six years, not since he was arrested for murdering their mom. He had never spoken in court.
On this Monday in August, he finally would be sentenced.
Kruspe’s youngest son, Matt, 43, wanted to share his parents’ love story, the way they looked at each other when they danced, how his dad gave up his freedom to spare his sick mom from suffering. He hoped the judge would let his dad out with time served.
Kruspe’s oldest son, Andrew, 47, and daughter, Stephanie Wilhelm, 45, planned to talk about how their mom held the family together while their dad was deployed, how he selfishly shot her as her dementia worsened to spare himself the burden of caretaking. They wanted the judge to give him 25 years — likely the rest of his life.
Over the next four hours, each of Kruspe’s children would speak directly to him.
Divided on whether his act was mercy or murder, they would tell the judge what price they believed he should pay.
Then Kruspe had something to say.
• • •
At first, the case seemed simple.
On the evening of March 27, 2017, Kruspe took his wife, Pam, out of her assisted living facility in Boynton Beach. He drove her to get Dunkin’ coffee, checked her back in.
A few minutes later, he crouched beside the parking lot and called 911. In a level voice, he said, “I just shot my wife.”
“OK, is she awake?” the operator asked.
“No,” Kruspe replied. “She’s dead.”
Steve met Pam in 1974, at a Marine ball. Drawn to her green eyes and auburn hair, he asked her to jitterbug to “In the Mood.” He was 20, serving as military security at Gerald Ford’s White House. She was 18, a civilian working at the Naval Sea Systems Command.
In 42 years of marriage, they raised two sons and a daughter, doted on five grandkids, sang in the church choir, went Rollerblading, climbed lighthouses.
They retired in Lake Worth, settled down.
Not long after that, Pam started forgetting things, losing herself, and — at age 59 — was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Kruspe tried to care for his wife. But she kept wandering away, even dashing into traffic. In her confusion, he said, she tried to kill him twice. Three times, she was hospitalized to prevent her from harming herself.
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After a couple of years, Kruspe moved her into an assisted living facility.
Pam had brief moments of clarity, aides said. She was upbeat, then depressed. She told one worker, “I can’t take it anymore.”
When Pam was lucid, Kruspe said, she often told him she didn’t want to be in a diaper or a nursing home. She threatened to take her own life. She pleaded with him to end hers.
The Tampa Bay Times wrote two stories about Kruspe after his arrest. Mercy or Murder chronicles the couple’s history and the day Pam died. Fractured Family traces the aftermath through a contentious bond hearing.
As the Times reported this series, the Palm Beach County Jail prohibited journalists from interviewing Kruspe. He didn’t reply to several letters. Much of the available information comes from his lawyer, a private investigator, police reports and a handwritten account of Steve’s life that he penned in jail.
Steve’s son Matt is the only one of his three children who agreed to be interviewed.
“Can you tell me why you shot her?” the dispatcher asked Kruspe that night in 2017.
He said simply, “She asked me to.”
• • •
The defense had made a video: The Kruspes’ wedding, Christmases with the kids. When a photo flashed onscreen showing Matt beside his dad, both in their Marine dress blues, Matt hung his head.
“Always faithful,” he told the judge a few minutes later. “Dad was always sacrificing himself for someone else.”
He pressed both fists into his eyes, then looked up. “You watch someone you love suffer. You’re desperate. Mom was the one thing he couldn’t fix. Oh, he tried. But it was unfixable.”
For the last six years, while his brother and sister refused to talk to their dad, Matt went to the jail most Thursdays for video visits. He kept his dad updated on his twin grandkids: “They’re learning to drive!” He tried to get his dad out on bail.
Yes, he said, his dad had gotten the gun. But Matt chose to see good in his father’s intentions. Ultimately, he was sure his dad did what his mom wanted.
“Dad, believing in you has not been easy,” he said. “I’m ashamed of my anger and hatred.”
He swallowed, looked at his dad and said softly, “The truth is, you did not take my mother’s life.”
• • •
Police didn’t need to do much investigating. They had Kruspe’s Colt .45 and his confession.
The state charged him with first-degree murder.
But he refused to plead guilty. The shooting, he insisted, was not premeditated.
Kruspe, who had won military medals and been voted teacher of the year in Deerfield Beach, didn’t have so much as a parking ticket on his record.
He had not planned to kill his wife, he told police after the shooting. He only got the gun out of his glove box to call her bluff.
They had been standing close, face to face. One shot went through her blue T-shirt, straight into her heart.
While he called the cops, he held her and asked, “You OK, baby?” He said he’d lost his honor.
The judge denied Kruspe bail.
His trial was delayed by COVID-19, then scheduled for January 2022, then postponed again.
Amid all the delays, an investigator reviewing Pam’s autopsy photos noticed something on her hands. It looked like gunpowder residue. The defense demanded that the gun be examined.
Kruspe’s DNA was all over the grip.
So was Pam’s.
All of a sudden, the story got murkier.
Had she tried to stop him? Or — as Kruspe’s lawyers now suspected — did she help pull the trigger?
In February, the state changed the charge to manslaughter by assisted suicide.
Since 1981, only 35 people in Florida have been charged under that statute.
Kruspe pleaded guilty to the new charge in March. He told his lawyers he wanted the record to show he was helping his wife fulfill her wish.
• • •
“My father has shown that he can’t be trusted,” Kruspe’s oldest son said from the stand. “He changed his story from he killed my mother to saying that my mother shot herself.”
Like his dad and brother, Andrew was a Marine. Serving his country, he told the judge, “does not absolve him.”
He asked for the maximum sentence — meaning his dad would likely die in jail.
He swiveled to face his father and demanded, “Take responsibility for your actions.”
• • •
Only 10 states in the U.S. allow doctors to help patients die on their own terms.
Florida lawmakers have introduced bills to allow “death with dignity” for certain terminally ill patients. But as recently as this legislative session, they haven’t gained traction.
Moving to Oregon, the first U.S. state to sanction physician-assisted suicide, wasn’t an option for Pam because of her dementia: She would have had to be competent to decide to die.
Even if Pam had grabbed the gun that night, people said in court, she wouldn’t have known what she was doing.
“You’re blaming a woman who didn’t even know how to use the phone,” said Christopher Wilhelm, Kruspe’s son-in-law.
• • •
As Stephanie stood, Matt walked out of the courtroom.
Their mother, Stephanie said, cooked great lasagna, pushed her to run marathons, made everyone feel cherished. When Stephanie and her brothers moved out, their mom got an 800 number so they could always call home for free. She loved root beer floats and baking Christmas cookies with her grandkids.
Wiping her eyes, Stephanie turned to her dad. “My kids were 5, 11 and 18 years old when you murdered their Nana,” she said. “They leave notes to her, missing their Nana. They’re angry at their grandfather.”
Kruspe didn’t move. From the back of the courtroom, it was impossible to see his face.
“You are a controlling, selfish liar,” Stephanie continued. “You were more concerned about your needs than you were for hers or ours.”
“It’s scary to think you can get rid of someone you love just because it’s hard.”
• • •
Throughout the hearing, Judge Caroline Shepherd remained impassive, nodding at each witness.
After all the tearful testimonies, she addressed Kruspe.
“You don’t have to speak,” she said. “But I’m willing to listen to whatever you have to say.”
Kruspe leaned into the microphone.
“I did not murder my wife,” he told the judge. “My life is over for me anyway, because I lost what’s most important to me — my wife. Every time she mentioned not wanting to live anymore, I lost a piece of myself.”
His voice didn’t waver. He sounded numb.
“If I had it to do over again,” he said simply, “I wouldn’t.”
Then he turned to his family.
“There are those who felt I was guilty until I was proven innocent,” he said, growing louder. “No one knew that woman better than I did. No one knew me better than her. I haven’t even been able to grieve.”
He continued, angrily, “I want to know where everybody’s help was when me and my wife needed it the most.”
• • •
Sentencing guidelines called for 10 to 30 years.
Kruspe had served more than six.
And nothing could bring back Pam.
Remember this man’s spotless record, the defense urged the judge: Consider his service, his devotion to his wife. “This is not someone who acted with malicious intent,” said Kruspe’s lawyer, Christopher Haddad. There were no signs of defensive wounds, he said. No struggle at the crime scene. “There is a high probability that Mrs. Kruspe had some role in her own death.”
Military service shouldn’t matter, the prosecution countered. Kruspe changed his story when it was convenient, stole Pam from people who loved her. And she was too far gone to have been able to decide to help with her own death.
The judge left the room. Everyone else sat, quiet. Ten minutes later, the judge returned — her face inscrutable.
“It is a complete tragedy,” she said. Pam was in a nursing home. Kruspe could have walked away.
“She was vulnerable. She needed your help and support,” Judge Shepherd said. “She could not have been a willing participant in this event.”
The judge told Kruspe to stand. Wished him luck. Gave him 20 years.
With credit for time served, he will be 83 when he can walk free.
Slowly, dragging his ankle chain, Kruspe shuffled from his seat.
Though his children waited in the court as deputies processed his paperwork, their dad didn’t turn around.
• • •
Matt says he will never see or speak to his siblings again.
He’s transforming his garage into an apartment for his dad.
“His lawyers are appealing,” Matt said. “And whenever he gets out, he’ll need somewhere to go.”
Of course he’s disappointed with the sentence. But he’s glad his dad is being transferred to prison. In jail, Matt could only talk to him on a screen.
“Now I’ll finally be able to bring the kids to visit, have a picnic — in person,” Matt said. “We’ll actually be able to hug him.”
His dad has always wanted to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Now he probably won’t be able to, Matt said.
His mom, a converted Catholic, was cremated — but has no grave.
In a box in his bedroom, Matt keeps his share of her ashes. “She always wanted to be buried with my dad.”