A mother's belief her sons had disabilities led to their drowning deaths
March 19, 2017 12:57 AM
Allegheny County sheriff's deputies escort Laurel Schlemmer to the Allegheny County Courthouse on Thursday.
Joe Mandak/Associated Press
A stuffed animal and flowers sit outside the Schlemmer family home in McCandless in April 2014.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Laurel Michelle Schlemmer viewed herself as meek, proper, naive and a people-pleasing rule follower.
She also was a perfectionist. After giving birth to her second and third sons, Daniel and Luke, she became an anxious mother, obsessively worrying about the boys’ well-being and falsely believing that there was something wrong with her younger sons. She became convinced they’d never grow into independent adults.
By 2012, when Daniel was 4 and Luke 1, Ms. Schlemmer was struggling with depression and what became a near crippling anxiety. Buffeted by her husband's increasingly fervent Christian beliefs, going through six pregnancies in seven years — including three miscarriages — she eventually came to believe that only by sending her two younger sons to “heaven” could she care for her eldest child.
She acted on that impulse in 2013, binding Luke and Daniel hand and foot and placing each boy behind a rear tire of her minivan and running them over. Not once but three times, checking after each pass to see if they had died. They didn’t, and recovered after hospitalization.
A year later, they died at her hands.
Ms. Schlemmer was found guilty on Thursday of two counts of third-degree murder. Although she specifically planned out the morning of April 1, 2014, and how she would drown her two boys in the bathtub of her McCandless home, the judge who heard her case believed that the defense proved Ms. Schlemmer was suffering from diminished capacity at the time of the crime, reducing what should have been first-degree murder to guilty but mentally ill of third-degree murder.
She will be sentenced on June 8.
Striving for perfection
Ms. Schlemmer grew up in Greenville, Mercer County, and moved to the North Hills of Pittsburgh at age 15. Her father, Donald Ludwig, was a Christian counselor and licensed social worker, and her mother, Virginia, was a stay-at-home mom to her and her younger brother after earning a degree in Christian education from Hastings College in Nebraska.
Ms. Schlemmer, who wore glasses and two hearing aids, was occasionally teased during her childhood but strove for perfection in her schoolwork, according to a 20-page report prepared by psychiatrist Robert Wettstein, who spent several hours interviewing the defendant. She participated in track, choir, ski club, cheerleading and graduated high school in 1992 before attending Grove City College where she majored in elementary education. After graduation, she taught as a substitute and then went to the University of Pittsburgh where she obtained a master’s degree in education as a reading specialist.
She taught in Warren, Pa., from 1998 to 1999 and was then hired by the Fox Chapel Area School District.
In December 2003, she met Mark Schlemmer, an actuary at Highmark, through an online dating service. They had similar profiles — never married, serious, close to their families and involved in their Christian church community. They were married in July 2005, and she became pregnant with their first son, Joshua, a few months later. Ms. Schlemmer left her job as a teacher at Eden Christian Academy in March 2006 and never returned to work.
According to the psychiatrist’s report, Ms. Schlemmer became pregnant again in May 2007, and Daniel was born in February 2008. Two 2009 pregnancies ended in miscarriages at six weeks. Luke was born in October 2010, and Ms. Schlemmer had one more miscarriage in 2012. She said her husband did not want to use birth control because of his “increasingly fervent religious beliefs,” Dr. Wettstein wrote.
In 2012, Ms. Schlemmer had Daniel tested repeatedly because he had developed facial tics. He was diagnosed by a neurologist as having Tourette’s syndrome, as well as delayed language and speech skills. Ms. Schlemmer believed he was autistic, but no tests ever showed that result.
She described Daniel as not being “an intellectually gifted child” like Joshua, and that he had “highly limited socialization, was not athletic, and had an average IQ score when tested, but did not seem to understand or catch on to learning to play games as did his peers or older brother.”
Ms. Schlemmer described Daniel as being “foreign” to her and her husband. He saw occupational therapists and others, but the Schlemmers did not obtain services for his emotional difficulties, Dr. Wettstein reported
As for Luke, Ms. Schlemmer described him as having normal motor skills but believed he started speaking later than expected and that his preschool academic progress was behind. She described Luke as “accident prone,” and believed that Daniel’s behavior jeopardized Luke’s safety.
In one incident in late 2012 that she reported to Dr. Wettstein, Luke fell in the basement while playing and struck his head on the sharp edge of a wooden step. A pediatrician reassured her that Luke was fine, but Ms. Schlemmer was terrified.
It was shortly thereafter, the psychiatrist continued, that Ms. Schlemmer concluded that her two youngest boys would be unable to function independently as adults. She told the doctor that she was “overprotective” and “hypervigilant.” Her anxiety led to insomnia, emotional withdrawal, fatigue and depression.
‘She wanted a quick fix’
Ms. Schlemmer, who was diagnosed with recurrent major depressive disorder, sporadically sought treatment, but didn’t remain with counselors or continue to take the medication they prescribed.
She saw a social worker, Kathleen Brenckle, two times in 2012, then discontinued treatment.
In May 2012, she saw her family care physician, who prescribed Wellbutrin for her. Schlemmer never took that, but pharmacy records show he later prescribed for her Celexa on April 26, 2013, and May 30, 2013. Ms. Schlemmer told Dr. Wettstein she took it for two months, that it had reduced her anxiety, and she stopped taking it in June 2013.
In January 2013, she began to see Marie Grant, a Christian counselor in private practice, at the request of her husband.
Ms. Schlemmer saw Ms.Grant for eight sessions through July 2013. At the last session, on July 17, 2013, Ms. Grant noted that Ms. Schlemmer “ ‘wanted a quick fix and was not committed to [the] process,’ of treatment.”
In March 2014, Ms. Schlemmer saw another primary care doctor, who initially prescribed for her Lexapro, but when she reported that it caused panic attacks, he prescribed Celexa. She took it for about seven days, but it had not yet begun helping her before April 1, 2014.
Better off ‘in heaven’
By April 2013, Ms. Schlemmer told Dr. Wettstein, she was experiencing “intense and preoccupying anxiety about the anticipated problems that her youngest two sons would face in the future and concluded that they would be better off ‘in heaven.’ ”
Before heading to her parents’ home on April 16, 2013, she considered killing her two youngest sons by running them over and making it appear like it was an accident. She got twine and scissors from her house and took them with her.
After pulling into her parents’ garage and leaving the garage door open, she got the boys out of their car seats and tied their ankles and wrists separately with the twine. Then, Ms. Schlemmer told Dr. Wettstein, she placed one boy on the ground behind each of the rear tires.
“She drove in reverse, running over their torsos, and then checked to see if they were alive,” Dr. Wettstein wrote. “Determining that they were alive, she drove forward to run over them, and checked them again. Finally, she again drove in reverse, running over them, but she was horrified to observe that they were still alive and that she in fact had caused them more pain rather than relieved their suffering.”
Ms. Schlemmer then removed the twine, and her father arrived soon after. She told him she had accidentally run her children over, and they drove to UPMC Cranberry’s emergency room. Luke had a fractured jaw and ankle and liver laceration. Daniel had a broken pelvis. As a nurse in the emergency department was treating Luke, the little boy began to cry. She called his mother over to try to calm him, and instead, the nurse testified during the trial, Luke became more upset and tried to squirm away.
That same nurse called ChildLine, the state’s abuse reporting hotline, to report what had happened, but the nursing director at the hospital cancelled the call by telling a ChildLine worker it had been an accident.
No charges were filed.
Ms. Schlemmer told her husband several days later that she had run the boys over purposely, Dr. Wettstein reported, and he became concerned about his wife’s mental health. But Mark Schlemmer testified at his wife’s trial that he never sought psychiatric help for her, instead sending her to the family physician, and didn’t leave her alone with the children for several weeks.
In January 2014, Ms. Schlemmer became concerned over Daniel’s kindergarten report card because it showed several performance deficits. Her anxiety worsened.
On March 27, 2014, Ms. Schlemmer called her husband at work and told him she wanted to turn herself in to police for having run over her sons on purpose. He left work and stayed home with her for a few days, not wanting her to go to police.
He was back at work on April 1, 2014, when she decided to send her boys to heaven and rescue them “from their anticipated lifelong deficits and impairments,” Dr. Wettstein wrote.
“She did not experience death wishes for herself and believed that she was able to be Joshua’s mother and her husband’s wife in the absence of the two youngest children.”
She told Dr. Wettstein, “’the only thing that I could think to do to get them to heaven was to drown them.’”
Ms. Schlemmer told the boys they were going to take a bath and got them out of their superhero pajamas. She, too, changed out of her jeans and put on shorts and a T-shirt.
“She recalled that she first submerged Daniel in the water and then sat on him and repeated this with Luke,” Dr. Wettstein wrote. “She wanted to ‘hurry up to get them into a better place,’ not to hurt them and make the process painless.’”
Ms. Schlemmer planned to say it was an accident and hid her wet clothes in a garbage bag at the bottom of a garbage can in the garage before calling 911.
Ms. Schlemmer was arrested the day of the drownings and was transferred from the Allegheny County Jail to Torrance State Hospital on April 16, 2014.
She attempted suicide by strangulation on May 23, 2014. Records from Torrance show there were two other suicide attempts, as well as other self-injurious behavior, such as punching herself, picking at her lips and hair pulling, Dr. Wettstein wrote in his report.
“She felt worthless, numb, fatigued and cried most of the time. She was especially distressed at her own alleged criminal conduct which violated her self-concept as a perfect and exemplary mother, woman and individual with intense disbelief, anguish and remorse,” he wrote.
In a letter she wrote to Dr. Wettstein on Nov. 25, 2015, she noted that while in the Allegheny County Jail, her sleep cycles were bad and that she blacked out on Oct. 14, 2015, and woke up Oct. 16 in an observation cell.
“I was very confused!” she wrote. “I didn’t know what time it was or what day it was. ... Then I did something really bizarre; I put my uniform in the toilet. I didn’t know why I did that. Officer Nunley gave me a ‘turtle suit’ to wear until my mind cleared. I was so exhausted that I stumbled and hit my forearm on the rusted, metal bedframe. It made a cut. Thankfully, I cleaned the wound well enough and asked for ointment and a band-aid. It didn’t get infected. I’m also thankful that I didn’t hit my head, instead of my arm!”
Eventually, Ms. Schlemmer was able to journal her history, verbalize her feelings and begin to grieve the death of her sons.
She was discharged from Torrance with diagnoses of major depressive disorder, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified with psychosis, generalized anxiety disorder with obsessive rumination, psychiatric disorder not otherwise specified and obsessive compulsive personality disorder.
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.
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