911 call paints picture of Pittsburgh-area mother accused of drowning son
Woman remained calm while talking to call-taker
April 2, 2014 11:42 PM
Allegheny County police
By Moriah Balingit and Liz Navratil / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Her report was halting, her voice sweetly high-pitched but calm.
“Um, my two sons,” Laurel Michelle Schlemmer told the 911 call-taker Tuesday morning. “I think that they’ve, they’ve drowned in our bathtub.”
It was just minutes after police said she had pushed the boys’ tiny bodies down into the water and sat on them, telling homicide detectives she believed she could be a better mother to her eldest son, a 7-year-old, if her youngest children “were in heaven.” She said she heard “crazy voices.”
By day’s end, Ms. Schlemmer would be charged in the death of 3-year-old Luke, who died within an hour of being rushed to UPMC Passavant, and with the attempted drowning of 6-year-old Daniel, who remained in critical condition Wednesday.
After the boys were unconscious, she pulled their limp bodies from the tub and laid them on the bathroom floor before peeling off her wet clothing and stuffing it in a garbage bag, she told police. That’s when she went into the study of her two-story home and finally called 911, at around 9:40 a.m.
In a roughly five-minute call with a call-taker at the Allegheny County 911 Center, authorities got a first glimpse into Ms. Schlemmer on that day, who stayed relatively calm through the duration of the call. At times, her voice shook slightly, as if she was about to cry. But she was exceedingly polite, calling the call-taker “sir” and hanging up with a “thank you” as paramedics arrived at her house.
And her first version of events — that she found her boys unconscious after they had been playing in the bathtub — would differ radically from what she would later tell police.
“OK, tell me exactly what happened,” the call-taker implored her.
“I, uh, let my 6- and 3-year old sons play in the bathtub a little bit before their bath this morning,” she said, breathing heavily. “And, uh, I was, and then I went to, to the restroom and, um, took longer than I should have or planned and then I came back. They’re unconscious.”
Later, the call-taker asked “Are they breathing?”
“It doesn’t look like it, sir,” she said, though she was in another room.
About three minutes into the call, the call-taker asks her to return to the bathroom to start CPR. But moments later, paramedics would arrive. She yelled for her elderly mother, who was in the home at the time, and arriving paramedics to come upstairs.
“Upstairs, Mom! Is Dad still here?” she asked. “I’ve got an emergency. Upstairs, sir.”
As the paramedics arrived, the call-taker asked, “Is there anything in their mouth?”
“Just water,” she replied.
Outwardly, the Schlemmers appeared to be a “typical sweet, loving family,” said Pastor Dan Hendley, of the North Park Church in McCandless, where the Schlemmers were members. Yet some close to the family noticed small signs that something was amiss with Ms. Schlemmer.
But the idea that she would kill one of the children never occurred to them, said Rev. Hendley.
“I knew that there were some anxiety issues, that she had had and that they were working through those with some medical assistance, but they seemed fine,” Rev. Hendley said.
Adding to the stress was an incident last year in which Ms. Schlemmer reportedly backed over the two children she is now accused of drowning and attempting to drown. The pastor said the incident occurred about 10 months ago outside the children’s grandparents’ home north of McCandless.
One of the boys “could not walk for a while,” the pastor said.
“We all had sympathy for Michelle,” Rev. Hendley said. “She thought they had run inside, and in fact they were still behind the van. What really happened there, God knows, but that’s the way we were dealing with that at that time.”
Church members visited the Schlemmer home in the days that followed “because of the additional burden to Michelle of having injured sons, as well as the emotional trauma she was going through,” Rev. Hendley said.
Northern Regional Police investigated the incident and did not file charges. Chief Robert Amann did not respond to multiple messages left Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Allegheny County district attorney’s office was “not brought in at the time” but learned about the incident after the boys were found unconscious Tuesday, spokesman Mike Manko said. He said Northern Regional’s police reports from the incident “have been transmitted to us and that information will now become part of the current investigation.”
That incident followed another four years earlier, in which Ross police charged Ms. Schlemmer with leaving a child unattended in a Honda Odyssey for 20 minutes with the car windows part-way down. Ms. Schlemmer was found guilty of the summary offense at a trial before District Judge Richard Opiela.
County officials said state law prohibits them from talking about whether a specific family has had any interactions with Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families.
The agency works off of tips, often sent in by doctors, police or others who are required to report suspected abuse or neglect. Hypothetically, that could include incidents in which children were struck by a car, said Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services.
“If we go out to a hospital to check on a child who has been injured and the doctors feel that this was an accidental situation, if the police who investigate think it’s an accidental situation, if there is a rationale, a story that makes sense … then there’s no ground for us to proceed,” Mr. Cherna said.
The idea that Ms. Schlemmer would have struck her children by accident rather than on purpose aligned more with people’s impressions of her prior to Tuesday.
Ms. Schlemmer, who was born in Morgantown, W.Va., graduated from North Allegheny High School in 1992. She went to Grove City College, where she studied elementary education until she graduated in 1996.
She worked briefly for the Eden Christian Academy in Sewickley and then went on to the Fox Chapel Area School District, where district officials said she worked from 1999 through 2004. State records indicate that she was certified at various times as a reading specialist and that there were not any disciplinary reports noted in her file.
Ms. Schlemmer married her husband, Mark, an actuary at Highmark, in 2005 and the pair moved into their two-story colonial home on Saratoga Drive a short while later.
The pair were regulars at the North Park Church, where Ms. Schlemmer had been attending Bible studies since at least her 20s, and some church members have visited the family since Tuesday’s incident, the pastor said.
He said Daniel Schlemmer, who has Tourette syndrome, remained in critical condition Wednesday — in a coma and suffering from oxygen deprivation.
“There’s been no improvement,” the pastor said Wednesday.
He said Daniel normally would have been at school during the time at which police said his mother attempted to drown the two boys.
It’s hard to tell, the pastor said, how the boys’ older brother is faring. Their father is “holding up reasonably well, but like a lot of people he’s in the early stages of dealing with this and the full weight of it, I’m sure, hasn’t crashed in upon him quite yet,” Rev. Hendley said.
He said Mr. Schlemmer is trying to support his sons and “he’d like to be able to also support his wife. I think he’d just like to be there to hug her and express his love for her. He’s obviously distressed over what’s occurred, but he’s not hostile or angry at all.”