Specialist, United States Army
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
A Dale City, Virginia, woman accused of murdering her husband choked back tears as she stood before a judge Monday.
Teressa Irene Turner-Schaefer, 24, pleaded guilty Monday to an amended indictment of involuntary manslaughter of her husband, Erin Lee Turner-Schaefer.
Teressa Turner-Schaefer was initially charged with murder after stabbing her husband with a serrated steak knife on December 10, 2005, at their Del Mar Drive home.
She initially told police she didn't know what happened, and that it had been an accident or Erin Turner-Schaefer had stabbed himself, Prince William County Detective Paul Masterson said Monday.
The Turner-Schaefers had been having a party that night, and after everyone left, Teressa called one of the guests to make sure he/she had gotten home safely, Masterson said.
When Erin Turner-Schaefer overheard the conversation, an argument ensued and they went into the kitchen, Masterson said.
Teressa then grabbed the knife from the counter as Erin Turner-Schaefer approached her, according to Masterson.
She then stabbed him one time in the chest, Masterson said.
Erin Turner-Schaefer was transported to a hospital where he later died.
Masterson said Teressa Turner-Schaefer cried and screamed when he told her that Erin died in the hospital.
"She asked me to shoot her," Masterson said.
Masterson said Teressa Turner-Schaefer told police Erin had "come at her" before and that he had strangled her.
However, Teressa Turner-Schaefer had not filed any reports of previous abuse.
Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said self-defense was in question and that there was "no question she had been abused before."
"There is no question it was a spontaneous act," Ebert said.
Prosecutors recommended to Prince William Circuit Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. that Teressa Turner-Schaefer serve one year in jail followed by five years of probation.
Prosecutors also recommended that she enter counseling upon her release.
However, Alston is not bound by that recommendation when he sentences Teressa Turner-Schaefer November 16.
Teressa Turner-Schaefer faces up to 10 years in prison by statute.
She is being held without bond until her sentencing
Teressa Turner-Schaefer has to live the rest of her life with the grave truth that she killed her husband nearly a year ago, a Circuit Court judge reminded her Thursday.
She stood before Circuit Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. to hear her sentence for the involuntary manslaughter of 25-year-old Erin Lee Turner-Schaefer.
Prosecutors had recommended Alston sentence Turner-Schaefer within the sentencing guidelines, which were up to six months in jail and five years of probation.
Alston followed the prosecutors' recommendation and gave Turner-Schaefer credit for the 11 months she has served in jail in addition to five years of probation.
Turner-Schaefer, 24, faced up to 10 years in prison.
With tears running down her cheeks, Turner-Schaefer turned to her late husband's family, as well as her own, to apologize for what happened that December night.
"The words, 'I'm sorry,' I know are little and petty, but if you knew the pain, sorrow and regret I feel each day, maybe you would know how I feel," she said.
Alston, who said he'd received several letters in support of both Turner-Schaefers, said his sentencing decision was "such a struggle."
"When [Turner-Schaefer's attorney] says you grieve for your husband, I believe it," Alston said.
She was initially charged with murder after stabbing her husband with a serrated steak knife at their Dale City home in December 2005.
Prosecutors amended the murder charge to involuntary manslaughter in July in exchange for her guilty plea.
The couple began arguing after friends left a party at their house December 10, 2005. As Erin Turner-Schaefer came toward Teressa, she grabbed a kitchen knife off the counter and stabbed him once in the chest, police said.
Erin Turner-Schaefer was transported to a hospital where he later died.
Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said in July that self-defense was in question and that there was "no question she had been abused before. There is no question it was a spontaneous act," Ebert said.
Teressa's family members and friends said there was a history of physical abuse in the relationship and that Erin had hit her before.
However, Erin's father, David Schaefer, said he never knew of any abuse going on in the relationship.
He said he'd heard rumors of physical abuse, but every time he talked to his son, everything seemed fine.
"If [Erin] had been hitting her, I would have known it," he said. "There were never any marks on her."
Schaefer said he thought the only problem between his son and daughter-in-law had to do with an affair Teressa was allegedly having with one of Erin's friends.
In fact, he said he thinks that is what sparked the argument the night of Erin's death.
Schaefer said he doesn't feel justice has been served for his son.
"It's a shame, that's all there is to it," Schaefer said.
The Turner-Schaefers had been together since Teressa was 12, her cousin Karen Williams said.
Williams said Teressa met Erin while living on the streets of New York, when he "took her under his wing."
Teressa and Erin had Devon, the first of three children, when Teressa was 15, Williams said. They got married when Teressa was 17.
Both Williams and Schaefer have no doubt that Teressa and Erin loved each other.
The Turner-Schaefers' three children, ages
4, 6 and 8, are living with Erin's mother, Tracey, in the area. Williams
said Teressa hopes to regain custody of them at a court hearing in December.
Of all the tasks required of employees at the Lowe's home improvement store in Dale City, Erin Turner-Schaefer thrived at the hard labor. The 25-year-old loved working during the holiday season in the store's outside lawn and gardening section, where all day he could wrap his hands around Christmas trees, trim them, net them and hoist them on top of customers' cars.
After work Saturday, Turner-Schaefer headed to his Dale City home, where he was stabbed to death that night in his kitchen, Prince William County police said yesterday.
The Lowe's store's operations manager, Richard Roche, said yesterday that Turner-Schaefer's co-workers feel as though they have lost a member of their family.
Police said that about 11:50 p.m., Teressa Turner-Schaefer, 23, stabbed her husband in the chest after the two got into an argument. She was charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bond, they said.
Police declined to comment on what the couple were arguing about. They said that their children -- two sons, ages 7 and 5, and a 3-year-old daughter -- as well as Erin Turner-Schaefer's 15-year-old brother were at the home in the 3700 block of Del Mar Drive when he was slain.
After a family member called 911, rescue workers found Turner-Schaefer lying on the kitchen floor with a stab wound in his chest, police said. He was taken to Potomac Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Detective P.J. Masterson interviewed Teressa Turner-Schaefer later that night. "She confessed to me that she stabbed her husband during an argument," he wrote in a criminal complaint filed in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Donna Hardy, 46, a next-door neighbor and close friend of the Turner-Schaefers', said yesterday that the couple had a very strong relationship and that Teressa Turner-Schaefer said the death was accidental. Hardy said she spoke with her friend twice on the telephone from jail.
"She said that it was an accident," Hardy said. "She had the knife in her hand, and she heard Erin coming, and she turned around and Erin just walked right into the knife. She can't believe he's gone. She's scared."
But Paul B. Ebert, the county's chief prosecutor, said the killing was deliberate. "It was not an accident. That's all I can tell you," he said.
The couple met when they were teenagers living
in New York and had been in Dale City for about two years. Erin Turner-Schaefer
had recently returned home from Iraq, where he was wounded while serving
with the U.S. military, Hardy said. He was also a member of the local Veterans
of Foreign Wars post.
Wife Freed on Probation in 2005 Stabbing
Teressa Turner-Schaefer, 24, was released on probation yesterday after serving 11 months in the Prince William County jail for fatally stabbing her soldier husband in their Dale City home.
The mother of three small children wept as she publicly apologized for the killing of Erin Turner-Schaefer December 10, 2005, saying, "I will continue to love him for all my days."
Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. accepted the prosecution's recommendation that Turner-Schaefer receive a 10-year suspended sentence and five years' probation on charges of involuntary manslaughter. "While some might think of that as a slap on the wrist, I don't," Alston said, citing Turner-Schaefer's clean record.
The defense had portrayed Turner-Schaefer as
a battered wife who never intended to kill her 25-year-old husband. They
were arguing over a phone call when he was killed with a kitchen knife.
On the day that her life began again, Teressa Turner-Schaefer stood in a windowless Manassas courtroom and tried to remember the speech she had written in jail. "I'm really nervous and emotional right now," she began. She thanked everyone she could think of, including her prosecutor, then turned to face the waiting spectators, some weeping, others staring stonily ahead.
"To my husband's family, to my family, and to all affected by this tragedy, I apologize, and despite the problems, Erin and I love each other." Her dark eyes flooded, and her thin frame shook beneath the lavender sweater she wore.
"I loved him before I knew him," she went on. "I will continue to love him for all my days."
The court heard how Teressa had made good use of her 11 months in Prince William County jail. She had completed every life-skills class offered and aced her GED. She attended religious services and Bible study. She cooperated with counselors trying to help her overcome years of abuse, neglect and despair.
"I have come to find out that you are apparently a very decent person," Circuit Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. said at her sentencing that blustery November day last year. He accepted the plea bargain that suspended a 10-year prison sentence and placed Teressa on probation for five years. "I am giving you the benefit of the doubt," he admonished.
Outside, tornado winds began to howl and the skies opened up to a lashing rain. Teressa would later hear that those who believed she had just gotten away with murder considered the storm a sign of God's wrath.
Teressa herself would remember, though, how the rain stopped as suddenly as it began that day, how she looked up and saw what she needed to see.
Forge ahead or fall back. At 25, Teressa Turner-Schaefer finds herself at the same juncture as some 2,000 felons released each day in America, reclaiming life from the ruins. She is determined to find her footing on this shaky ground. Officially, society has forgiven her for taking a life. Teressa is unsure if she can do the same: "I'm working on it."
Bearing jail commissary gifts for her three small children -- cheap radios, little toothbrushes, plastic combs -- she forces herself to return to the Dale City split-level where she killed her husband, Erin, making the place where his life ended the one where hers is beginning again.
"It's all I have left of him," she rationalizes. Erin's family cleared out his belongings, save for the huge sectional sofa reeking of stale smoke, and the wide-screen TV that drones in the background. Teressa sorts through the paperwork underscoring Erin's absence, the insurance forms she must fill out, the lease she cannot pay, applications for jobs she won't get. He was always the decision-maker. Methodically she lists what she must do to build a stable life: Find work, regain custody of the kids, seek counseling, join a church, enroll in college, learn to drive, buy a house
Within a week of her release, she is flying over every hurdle.
She lands a seasonal job at the Ann Taylor store where her sister already works, and takes delight in folding sweaters just so. The employee discount seduces her into spending too much of her part-time paycheck on pretty outfits, she realizes, "but I need clothes for work." It's the first real job she's ever had. Her mother and two grown sisters have moved into the split-level to offer financial and emotional support. A neighbor is teaching Teressa to drive, and friends from her new church have promised to help her get a car from a good Samaritan who repairs beaters for donation. She peruses Christian universities online.
But she worries about her biggest challenge, the only one, she says, that matters: Teressa's children are living with Erin's mother, who moved to Northern Virginia to care for them after her arrest, living in the house where her son died until Teressa's own mother and two sisters arrived to reclaim it for Teressa just before her release. Now Teressa must convince the court's guardian ad litem that her sons, now 9 and 6, and her daughter, 5, should be returned to her.
Her first weekend home from jail, they came over to celebrate an early Thanksgiving with the relatives and friends who had shown up in court to support her. Etta and Earl Hardy walked over from next door with a huge casserole of macaroni and cheese, while Teressa's mother, Maria, fussed over a turkey in the small kitchen that Teressa couldn't yet bear to enter.
Teressa spent the afternoon playing cards with the kids and snuggling with them on the sofa. "They've heard different things about what happened," she says, knowing that their paternal grandmother disputes the court's finding of involuntary manslaughter, believing Teressa lost her temper during an argument and stabbed Erin on purpose. Erin's mother refuses to comment about what happened, or to testify on behalf of her son's memory when the judge invited her to do so during Teressa's sentencing. Teressa says she has told her children "that I loved their daddy very much, that it was an accident, and that I'm very, extremely sorry." She says they slept through everything that drunken midnight when she whirled around during an argument with a kitchen knife in her hand.
The six-inch blade sliced through Erin's lung, pericardium and pulmonary artery. Teressa at first told police she didn't know what had happened, that Erin was drunk and she came upstairs and found him clutching his chest. But she quickly confessed, and when told at the police station that Erin was dead, Teressa begged an officer to take his service revolver and shoot her, to please, please, just let her die, too. She was booked on charges of first-degree murder. It was December 11, 2005. She was 24 years old and had rarely known love without violence.
Teressa met Erin Turner-Schaefer when she was 14, a wild child cast adrift, swallowed up by a nomadic teen subculture of drugs and petty crime, the empty hours swinging crazily between peril and play on the streets of Syracuse, New York. Teressa and a friend were riding a tourist trolley in a park one day when a handsome boy rolled up alongside on his skates. Teressa remembers laughing and holding out her hand to tow him, how he grasped it but then skated away. She tells the story now as tragic prophecy, recounting how she turned to her friend to declare: "I'm going to marry that guy someday!"
Her young life by then was already built more on heartache than hope. Teressa's childhood memories are of shuttling from one relative or family friend to the next, bouncing from one state to another, from what she remembers as one dysfunctional home to the next. She remembers her father beating her back purple after she refused to wash the dishes, at 12, because she was afraid of the maggots in the filthy sink.
When Teressa was 13, a neighbor man raped her and went to prison for it, but justice held little meaning for Teressa. He had taken "the one thing that was sacred to me," she would explain to her attorney more than a decade later, when facing prison herself. She began sleeping with older men and began living on the streets in the eighth grade. Drugs and booze offered blissful escape.
A couple of weeks after the trolley ride, Teressa was near the same park, this time fleeing some man she had angered. A friend flung open the door of a parked car and urged her to jump inside, it was okay, he knew who owned it. That, she says, is how Erin found her hiding in his back seat. She moved in with Erin, his mother and his six siblings. When Teressa fought with one of the sisters, she remembers, she and Erin were kicked out. They slept in a shared sleeping bag beneath a freeway overpass, and crashed with relatives or friends when they could, roaming Upstate New York and making their way to the Carolinas, where Teressa's grandmother took them in.
Erin became violent the first time, Teressa recalls, when she threatened to leave him because "I thought he was flirting with this other girl." Erin was 16 and Teressa 15 when she says he dragged her by her hair into a bedroom and pulled a gun on her. He then put the gun in his own mouth and put Teressa's finger on the trigger. "He snapped out of it," she says. He was filled with remorse, and she forgave him. After another violent fight, Erin came home with her name tattooed across his chest.
Teressa gave birth to their first son at 16. Erin joined the Army, and they married. Posted to Germany, Erin injured his back in a fall and was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment in March 2004. They rented the split-level while Erin sought a medical discharge. They had big plans that December he died. They bought a big white cargo van they couldn't afford. "We were going to be bounty hunters," Teressa explains. "We'd need it to carry prisoners."
The van needs major repairs, though, and now Teressa doesn't have the money to tow it away, much less get it fixed. It's as much a symbol as an eyesore sitting there in the driveway. Her seasonal job has ended. Erin's mother is vowing to fight for permanent custody of the kids. No free car has materialized, and the rent and utility bills are overdue. "I don't know what's going to happen," Teressa admits.
Everything, it seems, has screeched to a standstill.
God will provide, Teressa tells herself. Why lift her up only to drop her again?
But faith isn't going to appease the landlady, who sends an eviction notice.
"I filled out over 30 job applications online," Teressa reports, "and on all of them, they ask if you've ever been convicted of a felony and ask you to explain. I put 'involuntary manslaughter causing death.' I tried Silver Diner, a stock job at Toys R Us, clothing stores, Valvoline. . . . I only got one response, from Chuck E. Cheez, saying sorry, you're disqualified." A friend from church thinks she may be able to get Teressa part-time administrative work in her Alexandria office, but it's a defense subcontractor, and when that contract's up, there's no guarantee they'd keep her on.
Tensions at home are mounting, too. The court is gradually increasing the amount of time Teressa's kids visit, and now that they're back a few days a week, Teressa enforces strict house rules that cause her grown sisters to balk.
"Last night, the kids were awful," Teressa says, looking exhausted one gloomy afternoon after a weekend visitation spent "trying to draw birthday cards for their dad because it was his birthday." Her younger son grew angry, and ran outside in the dark. "What're we going to do with these?" he demanded. "We can't just take them to Dad's grave; they'll get wet.' "
It's January, but 13 months after Erin's death, Teressa herself hasn't visited his grave yet, though she spends hours arguing with the military to correct his erroneous marker to reflect Erin's promotion to corporal, and to find out what happened to the flag she was supposed to be presented with. She would have had to go to Arlington National Cemetery in shackles for his funeral, and pay three prison guards to accompany her. She promises herself she'll make the pilgrimage now when she's ready, when she can afford to have his favorite dress of hers dry-cleaned. How handsome he looked in his uniform. She used to write love poems to him in spiral notebooks, about how he smelled like the color yellow, soapy and fresh, full of sunlight.
The night she killed him, Teressa says, Erin was falsely accusing her of an affair with one of his friends. "He pushed my head against the wall and I pushed him away and went to the kitchen to get a bottle of medicine. I had a migraine," she says. "I was putting water in the glass when I heard him yell, 'I'm going to kill you, you [expletive].' It just scared me. He'd choked me before until I blacked out. It was just a spontaneous act. I grabbed a knife that was drying on a towel on the counter. I turned around just as he lunged."
Her first month out of jail, donations from friends, family and church covered the rent. Now she contacts county social services, looking for emergency assistance. "They gave me a piece of paper with the names of different churches on it and told me to start calling," she says. When that didn't work, "I opened the phone book and started calling all the churches listed. I had one church tell me to come in Wednesday by 5 and bring my pay-or-quit notice and a photo ID, so I did. I waited around till about 6:30. . . . They asked for my children's Social Security numbers or cards. I didn't have that, and they said they couldn't help me.
"I got out the door and in the parking lot I started crying. The next day I called the chaplain from jail and asked if he knew any organizations that could help with rent." The $1,500 rent was paid a couple of days later. "I have no idea what I would've done otherwise," Teressa says. "Plan B? There wasn't one."
Her plight plainly worries the next-door neighbors who have been like surrogate grandparents since the Turner-Schaefers moved in. The kids often wander over to watch cartoons with Mr. Earl and Miss Etta, or to raid the candy jar. "They're all three on my desktop," Earl says. "I wouldn't take a million dollars for any one of those kids." The Hardys never doubted Teressa's innocence, staying in touch with her while she was in jail, even depositing money each month into her commissary account.
Financially, such charity was a stretch for the Hardys -- they're working-class themselves, renting their basement to a boarder to help pay the mortgage -- but they believe people ought to help each other out. "We do what we can," Earl explains.
After 76-year-old Earl teaches Teressa how to drive, and spends five hours waiting at the DMV for her to take her driving test, the Hardys put $6,700 more on a Discover card to buy Teressa a used SUV, taking her at her word that she'll make the payments. Erin had $400,000 in life insurance, and the legal finding of involuntary manslaughter means Teressa is eligible to collect; the first installment is due any day. The Hardys lend her money for groceries, and pay the March rent so she won't have to beg her way through the phone book again.
The administrative job comes through, and Teressa is working 20 hours a week, less than the 35 required by the court, but her probation officer lets it slide. She enrolls in Liberty University online, registering for English and Bible study classes on her new laptop. She wants to major in criminal justice, or maybe psychology, to help people. She keeps vowing to get counseling for the kids, but she never manages to follow through, and stops going herself because she lacks rapport with the counselor the military provides.
Etta Hardy goes with her to court one afternoon, waiting on a bench while Teressa and Erin's mother meet with the mediator to settle the custody issue. With Teressa out of earshot, Etta crumples under the anxiety. Tears roll down her face.
"Teressa's got a thousand-dollar utility bill, and they're going to turn off the power," she sobs, "and I can't help anymore. We're tapped out. I don't know what will happen to her."
Teressa returns, too giddy to notice Etta's swollen eyes. Erin's mother has decided not to fight, after all. Everyone assembles in the courtroom, where the judge congratulates them on reaching an agreement.
"These children are off to a good start," she tells Teressa. "Best of luck to you."
The evening gown is deep gray, the color of a shadow. Teressa wore it to a military ball with Erin. He loved this dress. In her living room, Teressa fusses with her bouquet. "Eleven yellow roses and one red. Those were our flowers. I always told him he smelled like yellow. And the red one is for love."
Her 6-year-old, bouncing on the sofa, flashes his mother a gaptoothed smile. "I thought you didn't love him," he says, still bouncing, the accusation tumbling out in a disarmingly chirpy rush. "You killed him. You killed him on purpose!"
The color drains from Teressa's face. She rearranges the roses again, but says nothing. The 9-year-old pounces on his little brother, tapping him on the mouth over and over, as if to push the words back inside. "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" the older boy cries.
At Arlington National Cemetery, a volunteer highlighted a map showing Teressa how to find Erin's grave, but she has marked the wrong turn, and Teressa studies the rows of identical white headstones in frustration.
The boys take off running, darting between tombstones, wanting to be first to find Erin's name. "Daddy, Daaaaaady!" the younger one calls into the cold March wind.
Teressa begins walking in the opposite direction, high heels sinking into the soft grass. Farther and farther she walks, intent on finding him, a ponytailed widow in her ball gown, the yellow roses she clutches the only flash of color in this Gothic moonscape. She doesn't notice that her sons are no longer within sight or earshot. She walks until she suddenly falls to her knees in tears, her hand tenderly caressing Erin's chiseled name, her lips mouthing the silent entreaty: " My yellow."
First her sisters move out in April, then her mother leaves in a huff one morning a month later after quarreling with Teressa. Erin's insurance had been set up to be paid out in installments. The first check comes and is almost as quickly gone, Teressa laments, used to pay her bills, reimburse the Hardys and return the money a great-aunt scraped together to pay for Teressa's attorneys. She also buys her sister a used purple sportscar, so she'll have transportation for work, even though she has no driver's license and hands the keys over to a bad-news boyfriend Teressa can't stand.
Learning how to manage her own finances is proving to be a tough and sometimes humiliating lesson for Teressa. A drive-by landscaper scams her out of $750 for what amounts to a couple of sorry little impatiens and a sack of mulch, and Teressa berates herself for paying him upfront. Fixing her poor credit rating is proving to be an expensive chore, too. When a financial adviser suggests that opening new lines of credit and making faithful payments will boost her low scores so she might eventually qualify for a mortgage, Teressa buys a cellphone and signs a service contract that requires a $700 deposit. Thinking regular car payments will also enhance her rating, she buys an orange convertible. She isn't sure how long the car loan is for, "but it doesn't matter, because I'm going to pay more each month."
A home of her own is still a distant dream; the real estate agent she met through her church keeps pushing Spotsylvania as an affordable option, but Teressa resists the idea of a long commute. "I don't want to be that far from my church, either," she insists. The Reconciliation Community Church in Manassas has been her safety net since members prayed with her in jail.
She is excited when the jail chaplain calls and invites Teressa to train for the same outreach ministry. He also wants her to help organize a support group for women after their release, because she knows how to cling fast to that shaky ground. The idea of evangelizing to inmates makes her feel proud, chosen. She grows misty-eyed with peculiar nostalgia when she remembers how the inmates in her Christian dorm used to worship together before bed. Teressa would sing her favorite hymn. Night after night, a song of redemption.
Sometimes she is electrified by the will to move on, by the possibilities that still might exist for a 25-year-old woman. She ventures into online dating sites, and goes out a couple of times with men who can't help but ask why she's a widow so young. At first, Teressa would merely say she didn't want to talk about it so early on. But a new fierceness has taken hold lately, and she throws the truth down like a dare.
"I tell them I'm trying to change my life. I'm going to church. I help the homeless. I have a big heart. I'm doing everything the best I know how, and if you're going to judge me, then you're not the kind of person I want to be with."
And sometimes she is paralyzed by the past.
After a three-week trip to North Carolina to visit family over the summer, Teressa's schoolwork falters and she withdraws from college. At work, there are hints of a promotion and full-time hours, but she has to pass a security clearance, and worries that she could just as easily end up unemployed again. She buys new furniture, cuts her long hair, invites friends over for dinner.
She finds herself standing every day on the
spot where he fell. She knows she should move away, go far from this place,
but somehow she can't bring herself, yet, to leave.
Posted: 22 August 2007 Updated: 31 August 2007