McCandless woman accused of murdering sons wanted to confess to earlier attempt, husband testifies
Shortly before Laurel Michelle Schlemmer drowned her two youngest sons in a bathtub, she called her husband at work and told him she wanted to tell police that she had intentionally run over the boys with the family car the previous year.
“She was considering going to the police station to confess that it wasn’t an accident,” said Schlemmer’s husband, Mark Schlemmer, on the second day of his wife’s murder trial.
But Mark Schlemmer told her not to talk to police, he said.
Four days later, on April 1, 2014, Laurel Schlemmer, 43, of McCandless told police she heard “crazy voices” in her head that instructed her to put her sons Luke, 3, and Daniel, 6, in a bathtub, sit on them and hold their heads under 5 inches of water. Laurel Schlemmer is charged with murder, child endangerment and tampering with evidence.
Her videotaped confession was presented Wednesday in court.
Luke died that day. Daniel survived on life support at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for four days.
Laurel Schlemmer waived her right to a jury trial. Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning will decide the case. Laurel Schlemmer is using a mental infirmity defense, meaning Manning could find her guilty of first- or third-degree murder but also rule her not guilty by reason of insanity.
Her husband of 11 years was the first witness to testify Thursday.
A thin man with hunched shoulders, Mark Schlemmer appeared timid and confused on the stand. He hesitated before answering even basic questions and responded often by saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t recall.”
“It’s hard for me to think right now,” he said at one point. “I’m nervous.”
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini asked if he spoke to his wife about a 2009 incident in which Laurel Schlemmer was cited for leaving Daniel, then 2, in a hot car at Ross Park Mall.
“I don’t recall,” he said.
Later, he said his wife told him that an April 16, 2013, incident — in which Laurel Schlemmer ran over Luke and Daniel in the driveway of her parents’ Marshall home — was not an accident, as the family told police and hospital officials. Rather, she told him that she tied the boys up with twine, placed them behind her vehicle and ran over them intentionally. Luke and Daniel suffered severe injuries and were hospitalized for four days at Children’s Hospital.
“I remember her telling me she tied them up,” Mark Schlemmer said. “I don’t remember her saying she drove over them repeatedly.”
After that incident, Mark Schlemmer said, he thought his wife needed “medical treatment,” but did not take her to a psychiatrist. Instead, she went to the family doctor, who prescribed medication.
“It might have been Celexa,” an antidepressant, he said.
Pellegrini asked whether Mark Schlemmer believed in medications, or if they conflicted with his religious views. The Schlemmers were members of North Park Church, which is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, according to its website.
“I was open to medications,” he said. “(But) I’ve always been concerned about side-effects. It’s a matter of judgment, I guess, as to whether or not one should take them.”
Mark Schlemmer said he was aware that his wife stopped taking her medication before the boys’ drowning.
Though he knew she had stopped, he said, he allowed her to be alone with the boys.
Pellegrini asked about an interview with county police — after Luke had died and Daniel clung to life at Children’s — in which Mark Schlemmer told an investigator: “I’m a sinner. My son is dead and I could have prevented it.”
“I don’t remember saying that,” he said.
Pellegrini showed him the investigator’s report and noted that his pastor also was present during the interview.
“I think there is some truth to this statement,” he said after reading the report.
“You could have prevented all of this, couldn’t you?” Pellegrini said.
Laurel Schlemmer’s defense attorney, Michael Machen, objected to the question. Judge Manning sustained the objection and Mark Schlemmer did not answer.
Mark Schlemmer declined comment after his testimony. The couple’s surviving son, Joshua, 10, lives with him.
The state’s final witness was Dr. Karl E. Williams, chief medical examiner for Allegheny County, who observed the boys’ autopsies.
The boys had several scratches and bruises on their bodies, Williams said.
Luke died from asphyxia from drowning. Daniel died from “near drowning,” Williams said. He explained that Daniel would not have survived the lack of oxygen to his brain that resulted from the drowning, but because he lived for four days on life support, the cause of death is classified as “near drowning.”
The state rested, and Machen delivered a short opening statement.
“This is not a whodunit,” Machen said, acknowledging his client’s “criminal liability.” But Laurel Schlemmer’s “mental disorder” must be taken into account, he said.
Machen called one witness: Jane Bartholomew, a volunteer music teacher from Hermitage who said she has known Laurel Schlemmer since she was a toddler.
“She’s a very gentle, kind young woman,” Bartholomew said during her brief testimony.
The state did not question her.
Earlier, during Williams’ testimony, a large photo of Luke’s body remained on a projector screen even after Manning called for a brief recess. Laurel Schlemmer, who did not look at the photos during testimony, saw it.
“Can the video be turned off, please?” Laurel Schlemmer asked.
Pellegrini turned it off.
“Thank you very much,” Laurel Schlemmer said.
Testimony will continue Friday.
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer.