Tampa Tragedy: What Drove a Mom to Kill?
In hindsight, there were signs that Julie Schenecker was unraveling. Now police say she murdered her two kids, and friends are left to ask if they could have done something to help her
They are small matters, no one of which points to a tragedy in the making. Carpools, for instance: Julie Schenecker, who used to be an early riser, developed a preference for making the return run from King High School. “Julie said she didn’t like to get up in the morning,” says one of the carpool’s moms. So most mornings Calyx, 16, prepared her own breakfast, then emerged from her family’s two-story house in a gated Tampa community, her manner quiet, pleasant and “always very tense,” says neighbor Tsila Abush-Kirsh. Come pickup time, if Calyx was talking with someone, even a teacher, when Schenecker rang her cell phone, “Calyx would drop everything and rush to her mom,” says David d’Albany, her former biology teacher. At school and community events, Calyx often had a parent in tow, same as the other three girls in her inner circle (dubbed the Inseparable Four). “I had met her father, Parker, on numerous occasions but had never met Calyx’s mom,” says one of those mothers. “I just assumed she was busy.”
In the wake of Schenecker’s arrest on Jan. 28 for the murders of Calyx and son Beau, 13, such casual assumptions have given way to regret-filled scrutiny, as those who have known the family during their three years in Tampa wonder, What clues did I miss? Could I have stopped this from happening? “Everyone feels guilty, even though there wasn’t any way to predict this,” says Abush-Kirsh, a clinical psychologist who has been counseling distraught neighbors. “But there were multiple red flags that we just didn’t see.” Seemingly inconsequential aspects of Schenecker’s behavior-she started dressing like a teenager in torn jeans and tops that were “a little too tight” for a 50-year-old mom, exercised obsessively and was friendly but reserved-take on potential meaning when added to clues found by police in her house: two different kinds of antidepressants, a sleeping aid and a stimulant. In addition, says a police source, “people automatically assume she was in shock when she was shaking [when cops found her after the shootings], but there was a physical condition that needed medication. But she hadn’t been taking it.”
None of this squares with the energetic, even-keeled young woman people remember from her unmarried days, when she was known as Julie Powers. “She was athletic, she was academic, she was everybody’s friend,” says Sylvia Carroll, who attended high school with Julie in Muscatine, Iowa. “She was the kind of person that you secretly hoped you could become.” As an Army sergeant and graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., she worked as a Russian linguist assigned to the 18th Military Intelligence Battalion. “No matter what you threw at her, she took it in stride,” says a woman who was stationed with her in Munich from 1988 to 1991. “She was just one of those people that everyone loved.” One officer, First Lieut. Parker Schenecker, took a particular interest. “They were private in their relationship, but Parker absolutely delighted in Julie,” says the fellow linguist. “He was very, very proud of her. And, boy, did he give her a nice engagement ring.”
This woman finds it unsurprising that Julie gave up her Army career after she married, while Parker, an intelligence officer, went on to rise to the rank of colonel. “The Army is really not a place where you can have a dual career,” she says. “I know that Julie had to have given up maybe some of her dreams and aspirations to be with Parker.” Other friends of the family’s similarly suspect a connection between Julie’s horrifying action and the demands of a military life that frequently took Parker, 48, overseas. For many military spouses, says Jack Armstrong, who knew Parker in high school, “the pressure is just too much. The constant uncertainty. The constant fear. To live in that uncertainty year after year really takes a toll.”
Whatever the reasons, Schenecker’s downward spiral was increasingly evident in recent months. In November she got into a car accident during which she “showed signs of drug impairment,” according to the traffic report. That same month, child services was called in after she hit Calyx during a fight; both mother and daughter began counseling. Then there were the two notes police found after she allegedly shot her children: The first, penned before the shootings, detailed her plans to “massacre” her kids, then commit suicide; the second, written as she chain-smoked, spelled out what she had done. “There was no remorse,” says police spokesman Laura McElroy. “No apology.”
While other infamous mothers, such as Susan Smith and Andrea Yates, provoked little sympathy after they were jailed for killing their children, Schenecker is stirring a surprising amount of compassion. “You just can’t reconcile the person that you knew with the person who did this,” says the Army friend. “None of us condone anything that she did, but we want to support her and give her strength in the justice that she is going to have to face.” High school pal Carroll says that she’s received some 200 Facebook messages from people who want to lend support. “We’re going to start sending her letters and see if we can set up an account at the prison commissary.”
For now, Schenecker is being held without bail at a Hillsborough County jail, where she has received no visitors except her public defender Robert Fraser (who refuses to comment on the case). Parker-who was in Qatar at the time of the murders-has since his return poured his energies into preserving happy memories of the two children, who were so loving and protective of each other and whom he has lost. “I am dedicating the rest of my life to honoring my children,” he told PEOPLE (see box). He is determined to keep a hand in the activities that were important to his kids: in Calyx’s case track and field and cancer fund-raising; in Beau’s, soccer.
It also means making sure people remember how his kids lived, not just how they died: the way Beau would fire off a sly grin, followed by a joke and happy laugh; or how Calyx, so responsible and respectful, would cut up during video chats with her Inseparable Four pals. There is also an important lesson for neighbors and friends, says Abush-Kirsh: “We need to feel comfortable in sharing what’s going on in our lives, to seek help if we need it.”
“She was a teenager,” a friend says of Calyx (above, in December 2010), “but she was also Parker’s baby. He is beyond devastated at this.”
A Father’s Photos
Parker Schenecker wants to help “their incredible spirits live on” and shared these images of Calyx and Beau exclusively with PEOPLE.
HIS FATHER’S SON
Beau (in December 2010) “really looked up to his father and always wanted to spend time with him,” says a family friend. “They had the same sense of humor. They were a lot alike.”
A GIFTED ATHLETE
When Calyx (above, in fall 2010) ran a 5K with her cross-country team, Julie was her biggest fan. “That’s my baby,” Julie wrote on Facebook. “Doin’ something I could never do-3.2 miles!”
An “excited” Beau looked forward to a father-and-son trip to the Rose Bowl in January 2011.