TAMPA, Fla.- A judge has given prosecutors until August to determine whether they'll seek the death penalty against a Tampa mother accused of shooting her two teenage children earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Hillsborough County Judge Ashley Moody also set an August deadline for Julie Schenecker's defense team to decide whether they will use the insanity defense.
Police have said Schenecker, the wife of an Army colonel, shot her 13-year-old son to death on the way to soccer practice and later her 16-year-old daughter as she studied in her room because she was fed up with them talking back and being "mouthy." Schenecker, 50, was discovered on her back porch, covered in blood.
During Tuesday's hearing, the judge told lawyers they need to start thinking about a trial date.
Authorities have been perplexed over exactly what led to the killings, and recently got a search warrant to seize five computers in the home so they can scrutinize Schenecker's online activity.
"It is very puzzling. You might expect a parent to lose control and smack the kids, not come up from behind with a gun," said Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University of Medicine in Cleveland who has researched homicidal mothers for decades.
Mothers who kill their children usually fit a pattern, such as unwanted kids, revenge on a spouse, the children are already severely abused or the mother believes they are suffering a "fate worse than death" while alive.
The Schenecker case doesn't fit any of those patterns, Resnick said.
"There is something else going on that we don't know about," Resnick said. "On its face it just doesn't compute."
By most accounts, the family seemed like overachievers.
Parker, the father, is an Army colonel. Julie, the mother, is a former Army Russian linguist and college volleyball star. Calyx, their daughter was tall, gorgeous and had a talent for art and a love of Harry Potter. Beau was a soccer standout.
"By all appearances, it was an all-American family," said Eric Storey, a college classmate of Parker Schenecker.
Schenecker was not in the courtroom Tuesday when lawyers and a judge gathered to discuss her first-degree murder case, one of many hearings to come before the trial. Her attorney filed a motion to waive her presence, a likely attempt to quell the already intense media interest in the case.
More details about the family are likely to emerge. A Hillsborough County judge recently signed a search warrant authorizing investigators to seize five computers in the home at the time of the shootings, so they can look at Schenecker's online activity, in addition to the handwritten notes she left that allegedly detailed her crimes.
Also, Parker Schenecker has filed for divorce from his wife - who has asked a judge to freeze the couple's assets. Depending on how the judge rules, it could mean Parker Schenecker would be forced to pay for his wife's criminal defense.
"After his children's tragic death, Col. Schenecker could not imagine that there was anything else (Julie Schenecker) could take from him," wrote Alexander Caballero, Parker Schenecker's lawyer, in a court paper. "It appears to be an attempt to compel Col. Schenecker - who had only intended to participate in these proceedings to give a voice to his children, the victims - to fund the defense."
Two teens dead, an insanty defense, a contentious divorce - how did it come to this for the seemingly perfect Schenecker family?
"Parker's holding up much better than I would have," Storey said. "He's dealing with forgiveness, taking blame on himself that he didn't realize how fragile (Julie's) psyche was."
Julie Schenecker was born in Muscatine, Iowa, a small town in America's heartland. There, she was an athlete and that continued in college, where she played volleyball for the University of Northern Iowa.
Schenecker eventually joined the military and became a Russian linguist. While she was stationed in Munich, Germany, she met and married Parker Schenecker in the late 1980s. In an online military bulletin board, Schenecker wrote that the family spent 10 years there. Calyx was born in Germany.
On that same online bulletin board, Julie Schenecker wrote in 2009 about some of the things she didn't miss about the military: electric typewriters, walking on cobblestones in heels and white glove inspections of the barracks.
Like many military families, the Scheneckers moved often. Beau was born in Hawaii, and the family also lived in Arizona and Virginia. Julie left the military, but Parker didn't. He was rising fast through the ranks.
In 2008, they moved to Tampa, because of Parker's assignment with U.S. Central Command, which is located at MacDill Air Force Base and runs the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The family bought a home in the Tampa Palms subdivision, an upscale area north of downtown. The 3,300-square-foot stucco home with a pool is nearly identical to the others. The only sounds in the neighborhood are the wind in the trees and the kids playing in the cul-de-sac. They paid $448,000 for the house three years ago.
It's unclear whether Julie Schenecker was feeling lonely or depressed after moving to Tampa, where the family had few friends. If she was, she hid it well, neighbors and those who met her said. She took her kids to school and to activities, and by all accounts, was a pleasant person.
Charanun Soodjinda said the Scheneckers "fit right in" when they arrived. The couple's two children often played in the cul-de-sac with other neighborhood kids, and Julie Schenecker seemed to be at home a lot.
"They seemed like a nice family," said Soodjinda, who lives across the street.
Carla Bruning, the principal at King High School where Calyx attended, said she often saw Julie Schenecker from a distance but knew Parker better.
"He was very involved with the kids," Bruning said, adding that he spent a lot of time with Calyx's track team. "He was close to the children. He's kind of like part of the school."
By late 2010, there were cracks in the family's perfect veneer. On Nov. 8, Calyx called police, telling officers her mother hit her as she drove home in the family car, according to a Department of Children and Families report. Julie Schenecker was in the passenger seat. The report said Calyx had been in counseling because of verbal abuse directed at her mother.
Officers didn't observe any marks or bruises on the teen, and closed the case without charges.
Parker Schenecker told investigators it was the first time his wife had ever hit one of the children. Records from the state agency also show that Julie Schenecker and her daughter were in counseling.
On Nov. 10, Julie Schenecker was in a car crash in Tampa, driving into a trailer hauling landscaping equipment. Officers on the scene wrote that she "showed signs of drug impairment," including dilated pupils with no reaction to light and "mush-mouthed speech."
Other field sobriety tests weren't conducted because Schenecker was taken to the hospital. Another trooper went to the hospital to obtain a blood sample from Schenecker, but by then she had checked out.
The crash caused $26,500 in property damage to her car and to the trailer, records show. Schenecker paid a $115 fine and attended traffic school.
According to state child welfare records, Schenecker and her daughter attended counseling and in December, the entire family was attending therapy - and the report noted that Julie Schenecker was also getting individual help from a therapist.
In January, Parker Schenecker was sent on assignment to the Middle East. Around Jan. 22, Julie Schenecker bought a .38-caliber handgun, records show. On Jan. 28, she emailed her mother to tell her she was depressed. The email was so disturbing that Julie Schenecker's mother called police and asked them to check on her daughter and grandchildren.
That's when officers found Julie Schenecker, half-conscious and covered in blood. Beau was in the garage and Calyx was in her bed - both teens were covered with blankets. Officers say she confessed, saying she shot them both in the head for being "mouthy."
Detectives found a manual for the gun and a spiral notebook in Julie Schenecker's bedroom. A detective wrote that inside, it "documented in detail how she planned and followed through with the murder of her children."
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