Book excerpt

Sleep My Darlings

The true story of a mother who killed her children in cold blood

Diane Fanning

St. Martin's Press

On Friday, January 28, 2011, midwesterner Patty Powers, vacationing in Texas, contacted the Tampa Police Department in Florida, concerned about her daughter’s well-being. That simple, routine call generated the following message to Officers William Copulos and Gregory Noble: Go to 16305 Royal Park Court in North Tampa: “Check on the welfare of daughter, white female, Julie Schenecker, date of birth one-thirteen-sixty-one. Husband is out of country. She has been depressed, etc. Complaint received. Possible suicidal email from her tonight, now she isn’t answering her phone. Also 16 & 13 years of age children are supposed to be home but they are not answering their cell phones either.”
The worst the officers thought they’d find was a suicide. They hoped they’d arrive in time to save a life or to uncover a simple, logical explanation. They pulled up to a two-story beige house with white trim at 7:49 on a chilly morning under blue skies. The quiet street in the upscale gated community provided no indication of the horrors they’d discover inside the home.
They walked up a driveway of cement pavers to the garage; Copulos put a hand on either side of his face to block out the sunlight as he peered in the window. He spotted two vehicles parked inside.
Approaching the front of the two-story house, the officers saw two notes attached to the glass entry door. One read: “No car pool today, went to N Y City.” Copulos rang the bell and knocked but received no response. He looked inside and got a view straight through the width of the house all the way back to the rear sliding door. He spotted a one- to two-inch gap between that door and its frame.
The officers circled around to the rear of the home. They entered the backyard through a gate in the six-foot-high wall that enclosed the area. There, in the screened-in area, they saw a white female wearing pajamas and a robe lying next to a cement in-ground swimming pool. Noble shouted, “Tampa Police Department.” He got no response.
When they stepped through the screen door, they saw blood on the woman’s robe and hands. They called out her name and Julie sat up. She stood and identified herself as Julie Schenecker.
Noble asked, “Are you injured?”
She shook her head and said, “No.”
The two officers checked her arms and wrists for injuries but could see no obvious wounds or abrasions. Their concern then shifted to the safety of Calyx and Beau, the two teenagers who lived in the home.
Copulos asked, “Where are your children?”
“They’re inside,” she said, pointing to the rear door.
“May Officer Copulos and I go into your home and check on the welfare of your kids?”
She agreed and followed the officers into the family room with a beige-tiled floor and yellow-green walls. Once inside, however, she turned belligerent. “What are you doing in my house?” she demanded to know.
Next to the sofa, a small end table was covered with paperwork, including an application to The Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas, mortgage interest statements, and other financial papers. On another table, the officers saw a partially completed Candidate Statement for Groton School in Massachusetts.
The family room led into a formal living room with a love seat, two chairs, a double-doored cabinet, and a stacking end-table grouping. Although it was late January, a decorated Christmas tree stood in the corner, with unopened presents scattered beneath its boughs and on the nearby coffee table, where stockings still hung. Rolls of unused wrapping paper lay on the floor next to one wall.
As Officer Noble approached the doorway of each room, he said, “Tampa Police. Come out with your hands up.”
Walking into the unlocked master bedroom on the first floor, he assessed the scene: The bed was unmade. On top of it were pill bottles, a cell phone, a blue spiral notebook, and a flower-topped pen. On the dresser, he saw a Smith & Wesson five-shot revolver. He removed five live rounds and placed them inside the blue cardboard box that held the gun at the time of purchase. He stuck the revolver in his back pocket.
In the master bathroom, he spotted a spa tub, a walk-in shower, and a pile of discarded clothing on the floor. On the six-foot-long vanity, he found an open box of Hornady Critical Defense .38-caliber bullets. Of the twenty-five originally in the box, ten were missing. Next to it were five spent .38-caliber casings.
Along the staircase leading to the second floor, Noble saw eight red-and-white Christmas hats marching up on every other step leading to the top. He passed a Post-it note on the first step. On the third one, he glanced down at a pair of pants, shirts, and socks. On the fourth rise, he saw a Spanish textbook. Up one more step, his eyes scanned paperwork for the PSAT bearing Calyx’s name. Nearing the top, he shouted, “Calyx, Beau, are you here? Are you home?”
He approached a desk in an open loft room outside of the bedrooms where a computer chair sat in front of a Gateway laptop. A congealed, blackened pool of blood radiated across the plastic floor protector and onto the white carpet, intermingling with the specks of splatter. Darkened blood covered the seat of the chair, smeared on the armrest and back support, and ran down one of the legs. A single tooth lay on the floor next to the desk. Bloody drag marks led to the closed front bedroom door. The air was thick with the stench of fresh-spilled blood and ominous apprehension. Before opening the door, he warned, “Tampa Police. Come out with your hands up.”
Getting no response, he turned the knob and pushed, entering the bedroom of sixteen-year-old Calyx Schenecker. A body, nearly concealed beneath a blanket, stretched out on the bed. He could see a small portion of one hand jutting out from under the covering. Blood stained the sheets and the pillow. He pointed his gun and ordered, “Tampa Police. Show your hands.”
The body did not move. Noble pulled back the blanket to reveal a young white female lying on her back, her face covered in blood, a large amount of it around her mouth. Her skin was exceptionally pale. He observed no signs of breathing. He searched for a pulse on her right arm and found nothing. Her body was cold to the touch and as stiff as a plank of wood.
Echoing down the stairway from the second floor, Copulos heard a shout from Noble, “Signal Seven,” the Tampa Police code for a dead body. “Possible Signal Five,” he added, indicating that it might be a homicide. “Bring Ms. Schenecker to the staircase.”
As Copulos escorted Julie to the bottom of the stairs, he heard a knock on the front glass door. He looked over and saw Sergeant John Preyer, who had responded to their call for backup. Holding on to Julie, Copulos walked to the front door and unlocked it. He told the sergeant about the signals. Copulos left Julie with Preyer and went upstairs.
Preyer detected the strong, distinctive odor of alcohol. He wasn’t certain if the smell was wafting out of the woman’s breath or her clothing. She mumbled incoherently and struggled to remain standing. In his judgment, she appeared impaired by drugs or alcohol or both. He pulled out his handcuffs and attempted to secure Julie, but she stumbled away from him to the sliding glass door. He grabbed her right wrist, bent it back, and pressed her against the door to secure the restraints.
Copulos came back downstairs after viewing the body. Preyer handed over control of the suspect to Copulos and went upstairs to assist Officer Noble.
Noble backed out of the room with the body and approached the second closed door. “Tampa Police. Come out with your hands up.”
After no sound issued from inside the closed room, he eased open the door with Preyer providing cover. After a pause, Noble entered the bedroom of thirteen-year-old Beau Schenecker. The officers saw the normal evidence of the presence of a young boy: a pile of dirty clothing on the floor, a half-empty bottle of Powerade, a small aquarium, soccer trophies, an MP3 Player Station, chewing-gum packs, school supplies, video games, books, and magazines. Nothing was on the bed itself except for a pillow and a blue comforter emblazoned with the Boston Red Sox insignia. The policemen looked in the closet and under the bed.
The room was empty. They had expected to find another body in that room. Could Beau still be alive? Would they discover him hiding somewhere too frightened and confused to respond? Or was another body waiting for them elsewhere in the house—the body of a boy who should have lived a much longer life? Noble and Preyer went downstairs to continue the search for Julie’s son.
They entered the garage through the connecting interior door. Next to the door was a chalkboard bearing the message: “2011, Best Year ever.” The upbeat normalcy of those words made them cringe.
Inside were two vehicles: a black Volkswagen Passat and a white Honda Odyssey mini-van, with an empty bay between them. The windshield of the Honda had a bullet hole on the passenger’s side, leaving behind external beveling and spiderwebbing in the glass. The seat on that side of the mini-van was covered with a white blanket. The side window was covered with blood spatter. Preyer shone a flashlight through the window and saw a human leg sticking out of the covering.
Noble opened the driver’s door, reached through, and uncovered the head beneath the blanket. A horrific wound and a massive amount of blood marred the left side of the young boy’s face. White fluid foamed around his nose. His seat belt secured him in his upright position. Noble saw no rise and fall in the boy’s chest. He searched for a pulse in the boy’s left arm and discovered that this body, too, was cold and stiff.
Back inside the home, Preyer led Julie to a sofa. Noble handed her a glass of orange juice. They obtained the dates of birth of her children and the name and birth date of her husband.
Police officers always hope for a happy ending or at least a partial positive outcome when they make a call to check on someone’s welfare, but their hopes were dashed in this upscale neighborhood where no one thought it could happen. After taking Julie’s statement, they arrested her and led her from her home. Her body twitched; her face contorted; her eyes appeared lost in confusion and despair. She looked more like a terrified, traumatized dog than a human being.

Copyright © 2013 by Diane Fanning

DIANE FANNING is the author of the Edgar Award finalist Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart, as well as ten other true-crime books (available from St. Martin’s) and the Lieutenant Lucinda Pierce mystery series. She lives in New Braunfels, Texas.