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As trial starts, lawyers give differing descriptions of Schaffhausen

HUDSON -- His defense attorney said Aaron Schaffhausen killed his three young daughters in River Falls without realizing what he was doing. The prosecutor said Schaffhausen murdered the children -- Amara, 11, Sophie, 8, and Cecilia, 5 - to punish his ex-wife.

Public defender John Kucinski and lead prosecutor Gary Freyberg gave their opening statements Tuesday morning, outlining their arguments for jurors.

Since Schaffhausen, 35, pleaded guilty last week to three counts of first-degree intentional homicide and one count of attempted arson, the jury won't be asked to determine his guilt but rather to decide if he was legally insane at the time of the murders.

His client was "a good looking guy" with a family and a job who did well in college but wasn't able to stick with any occupation for long, said Kucinski.

The lawyer outlined the events in the lives of Aaron and Jessica Schaffhausen from the time they met at college in Mankato, Minn., through the births of their daughters and their eventual divorce.

Through it all, Aaron kept getting and losing jobs. He enrolled at UW-River Falls and did well in his chemistry and physics classes. But, said Kucinski, "as he did with so many jobs, all of a sudden, he quit."

Then, said the lawyer, Schaffhausen sat around the house playing video games, neglecting his family and drinking excessively.

When his wife insisted he see a doctor, Schaffhausen did and was prescribed first one antidepressant and then another, but combined that with drinking and later quit the medications.

In August 2011 the couple separated. That fall Schaffhausen moved to North Dakota to work a construction job. His attorney said Schaffhausen was obsessed with this ex-wife and wanted them to reunite.

"He ends up calling Jessica all the time," said Kucinski. The calls were made to her at home and at work - as many as 30 to 40 calls a day.

Schaffhausen saw his children only occasionally, but then called Jessica unexpectedly on July 10, 2012, to tell her he was in the area and ask to visit the girls.

"He describes (the children's deaths) as if it's kind of in a dream," said Kucinski, adding that after the murders Schaffhausen put the children in their beds, covered them with blankets, got in his car and "just drives."

Later Schaffhausen told a police officer he didn't know what happened.

Responded Freyberg: "The truth of this case is that man knew exactly what he was doing - before, during and afterward."

He said Schaffhausen "acted out of jealousy, anger, bitterness and revenge."

The defendant wasn't bipolar, schizophrenic, psychotic or delusional, said Freyberg.

"He was depressed, like a lot of people are, but he wasn't out of touch with reality in any way," said the prosecutor.

For more, read this week's print edition of the River Falls Journal or the Hudson Star-Observer. Also watch for continuing online coverage.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.