A certain amount of turmoil exists in every family—especially those with headstrong teenagers. But what caused one family's turmoil to turn violent, leaving two teenagers dead with gunshots to the head inflicted by their own mother, police say, is the troubling question at the heart of the story of Julie Schenecker.
Officers arrived at the Schenecker home, a beige, two-story house in a tidy neighborhood of Tampa, Florida, on January 28. They were concerned for the 50-year-old former Army linguist's well-being after her mother had called from Texas, worried because she could not reach her daughter and because, she said, her daughter was depressed. The officers arrived at 7:45 a.m. and discovered Julie unconscious in a screened pool area behind the house, a notepad, water bottle, cigarette butts and lighter nearby, according to a search warrant report. The officers revived her, took her inside and sat her at a table, where they noticed dried blood on her white robe. They found she had no injuries, though, and while one officer stayed with her the other began searching the house, trying to determine the welfare of her children.
What that officer found was 16-year-old Calyx upstairs in bed, a pool of blood around her head and a blanket covering her, according to the report. The teen had no pulse and was cool to the touch. The officers then found 13-year-old Beau in the garage in a van. A blanket covered him, too. Both were dead.
Elsewhere in the house the officers found a Smith & Wesson box and instruction manual, bullets, and spent shell casings. They found medication in the master bedroom and bathroom, and a sticky note in the stairwell issuing a do-not-resuscitate order. Eventually Schenecker would confess, according to an arrest affidavit, that during the previous evening she had fired two bullets into her own son's head herself, using a .38 caliber revolver as the two rode together in the van. Afterward she drove home, parked the van in the garage, and left Beau inside it as she went in the house. She walked up behind her daughter Calyx as she did homework on her computer and fired twice, once into the back of Calyx's head and once into her face. Schenecker is charged with two counts of first-degree murder. She remains jailed.
The kids appeared to be the kind of people parents pray their little ones will grow into as teenagers.
Mothers who kill their children are a tragic and yet perennial news sensation. But those children are nearly always very young, drowned one-by-one in bathtubs, driven into lakes, discarded as infants in trash bins. It is rare for a mother to kill her teenage children, who themselves are nearly adults, says Dr. Walter Afield, a Tampa psychiatrist specializing in evaluating criminal behavior.
"I've been practicing medicine for 50 years, and I haven't seen it in my professional practice," he said.
And the Scheneckers appeared, until recently, to be anything but atypical. They were a military family. Julie's husband Col. Parker Schenecker is a 28-year intelligence officer stationed in Tampa with Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. Julie herself left the Army years ago. Parker had been deployed in the Middle East for fewer than two weeks when the murders took place. He rushed back to Tampa and has declined interviews but spoke last week at a memorial service honoring Calyx and Beau. Julie Schenecker never was mentioned during the service.
"I can't thank you enough for today's moving, loving memorial for my exceptional children and for your tributes through the past few days," Parker said. "The family and I are humbled by your support, grace, and overwhelming love for Calyx and Beau. They love you, too. Please don't forget how they lived."
Indeed, the kids, according to school officials, appeared to be the kind of people parents pray their little ones will grow into as teenagers. Calyx was a sophomore at King High School. She was "just a terrific child," Carla Bruning, the school's principal, told The Daily Beast. "If you were going to be able to pick traits for your daughter to have, you would have picked her traits, Calyx's traits, because she was just the best." An outstanding student who excelled at cross country, she was outgoing and helped start a school club for Harry Potter enthusiasts. She was also involved in speech and debate, and a program called Relay for Life, helping to raise funds for cancer research.
Beau, for his part, was an eighth-grader at Liberty Middle School, where he, too, was well-liked and an accomplished student, said Jimmy Ammirati, the school's principal. Beau was an enthusiastic soccer player. (A game scheduled for last week was canceled for the memorial service.) Neither Bruning nor Ammirati ever met Julie Schenecker, but neither sensed any unusual family trouble. In fact, on Facebook, the Scheneckers doted on their children. In October, Parker posted a photo of Calyx with her cross-country teammates.
"that's my baby!" Julie wrote under the picture. "doin' something I could never do - 3.2 miles!!"
In September, Julie commented on a friend's post about the friend's daughter, writing, "my soph daughter runs (cross country) too. I know how proud od (sic) her you must be. I think it's the hardest sport ever!!"
But recently, for reasons that remain unclear, discord appears to have crept into the happy suburban home. In November, officers visited the house after Calyx told a Children's Crisis Center counselor that her mom had hit her in the face. Calyx and her mom had been in counseling at the center for about three weeks because Calyx had grown verbally abusive toward her mom, according to a police report. The young girl had told her mom "you're disgusting" and "you're not my parent," and Julie admitted she had hit her daughter multiple times in the face because Calyx no longer responded to losing her privileges. Another previous incident had caused Calyx's mouth to bleed, Calyx said, although Julie said she never saw any blood. Calyx told the officers she regretted what she said. The officers found no evidence of a criminal offense, and the case was cleared.
That same month, Julie was cited for careless driving after rear-ending another vehicle. Both drivers were injured, and Julie "showed signs of drug impairment including dilated pupils with no reaction to light (and) mush-mouthed speech," according to the traffic report. She was taken to a hospital but discharged before an officer could arrive for a blood draw. Hours after her children's murders, Julie was escorted to jail-— caught on video mumbling to herself and shaking uncontrollably. Soon after, she was admitted to Tampa General Hospital, where she was treated for a medical condition that existed before her arrest, said Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. She remained in the infirmary after returning to jail, and Carter declined to elaborate on the nature of her medical condition.
How could a mother kill her own children? Schenecker told officers she killed her son "for talking back to her while driving him to soccer practice," according to the arrest affidavit. "The defendant admitted to purchasing the revolver on Saturday 1-22-11. She admitted to planning to murder her children and kill herself afterward."
If Julie Schenecker is mentally ill, an insanity defense will be difficult for her to prove, Afield said. In Florida, defendants must prove they didn't know right from wrong. Afield said no one knows why Julie Schenecker killed her children, except Julie Schenecker.
"We all get angry sometimes and say, 'God, I'd love to kill my kids,' but we don't act on those feelings. An awful lot of people have that, and most of us have difficulties with our parents. That doesn't mean we're crazy and we go out and kill people," he said. "We all want an answer because it hits home with us... The bottom line is we do not know what goes on behind closed doors in any family."
Amy Green is a journalist in Orlando, Florida, who has worked as a regular contributor to People, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications. She specializes in faith, the environment, and travel.