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Episode 1: Thunderstorm (Prologue)

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WORLD Radio - Episode 1: Thunderstorm (Prologue)

In 2005, the Terri Schiavo story riveted the world. New York Times bestselling author Lynn Vincent reinvestigates the case that changed the way we think about life, death, and what it means to be human.


Audio sources listed at the end of the transcript.

LYNN VINCENT, HOST/REPORTER: Florida. The Sunshine State. Beaches …theme parks ... and snipers?

CARRIE KIRKLAND: There were threats coming in from the protesters. And they had Homeland Security snipers in the trees around the elementary schools to protect the kids.

DAVID GIBBS: Sharpshooters that are designed to literally take people out … really the only way to describe it would be like a war torn nation.

Those are just two eyewitnesses to the scene that erupted in Pinellas Park, Florida, in March 2005. That spring, Florida Hospice of the Suncoast was the epicenter of the biggest news story in the world.

PROTESTERS: Let Terri live! Let Terri live!

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to a domestic issue that has gotten international attention, the Terri Schiavo case …

SHANNON BREAM: It started as a fight between her parents and her husband over ending her life support …

MICHAEL SCHIAVO: It was to a point where Terri wasn’t going to function…And there was nothing more they could do for Terri.

MARY SCHINDLER: Please, please, please, save my little girl.

Outside the hospice, police barricades.

AMBI: POLICE RADIO CHATTER

A crush of media tents and satellite trucks.

CARRIE KIRKLAND: Since the beginning there have been close to 40 people arrested outside that hospice facility.

And hundreds of protesters … singing and praying…jabbing signs in the air … some even dressed like prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp.

PROTESTOR: There's forces here today who are manipulating Terri Schiavo's case to make a big power grab for the imposition of the so-called rule of God instead of the rule of law.

And inside the hospice, in a dark, tiny room, a severely disabled woman is having a great day.

Terri Schiavo is sitting up in a chair. She isn’t hooked to machines of any kind. Her aunt and sister are visiting. As they chat with her, Terri smiles. She has no idea that the State of Florida is about to dehydrate her to death.

LAWLESS THEME

From WORLD Radio, and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It: This is Lawless. I’m New York Times bestselling author and WORLD Magazine senior writer Lynn Vincent.

Lawless is a new true crime podcast that examines a frightening fact of American life: That not every crime is against the law. In America, the essential value of being human has eroded to the point that what once would have been prosecuted as a crime is now unexceptional. Even celebrated.

GEORGE FELOS: It seems that the opponents to Mrs. Schiavo’s freedom of choice will stop at just about nothing to frustrate her wishes

PAT ANDERSON: How injured do you have to be before society won't let you live?

In Season 1 of Lawless, we will investigate the Terri Schiavo case, a case that in 2005 shocked the world. This is Episode 1: Prologue.

THEME OUT

Terri Schiavo was only 26 when she suffered a severe brain injury. That happened on February 25, 1990, just before dawn. Terri’s husband Michael Schiavo found her lying in the hallway of their tiny St. Petersburg apartment. He called 9-1-1. He called Terri’s parents.

Michael called Terri’s brother, Bobby, who arrived to find his sister unresponsive and gasping for breath. Paramedics tried everything to revive Terri: paddles, Narcan, adrenaline. Over 30 minutes of CPR.

BOBBY SCHINDLER: I got to the hospital. My parents had already been there. I remember walking in … I'm like, like frantic, and I said she's dead isn't she? She's dead?

Terri wasn’t dead. But she had suffered prolonged anoxia—or oxygen deprivation. The injury left her severely brain damaged. The cause? A mystery—until a doctor suggested the possibility that Terri had a secret eating disorder. Here’s attorney and Schiavo family friend Dan Grieco.

DAN GRIECO: Early on, when we knew that there was an issue with her potassium levels that's what caused it, it was the eating disorder. And it was bulimia.

Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, accepted that explanation—at first. Mary, especially, worked closely with Michael to take care of Terri.

MARY SCHINDLER: We took classes together, how to transfer her from bed to wheelchair from wheelchair to chair. And I just wanted us to be cohesive to, you know, to do it all together.

This harmony lasted exactly three years. Then money entered the picture. But, as we’ll see, the desire for money—$20 million dollars to be exact—had actually been there all along.

SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: Lawless is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from Samaritan Ministries, a Biblical solution to health care, connecting Christians across the nation who care for one another spiritually and financially when a medical need arises. More at samaritanministries.org/worldpodcast.

In 1992, Michael Schiavo won a malpractice suit on Terri’s behalf and established a medical trust fund to care for her. But just a few weeks after he got the money, Michael had a falling out with the Schindlers. In fact, Michael and Bob Schindler almost came to blows.

Accusations flew. About greed. Broken promises. Even adultery. Soon after that, the Schindlers, began to wonder: Had Michael had something to do with Terri’s brain injury? Years later, investigators would examine Michael’s story of what happened that night.

TERRY BECKSTROM: There were time inconsistencies. He would articulate different times that he arrived home, and that he woke up. Inconsistencies all throughout the whole storyline. He says he scooped her up and he cradled her and he tried to revive her. The biggest problem I have with that is the paramedics found her face down.

In 1998, eight years after Terri’s injury, her husband went to court. Michael Schiavo said Terri was in a kind of waking coma, and that she would not have wanted to live that way.

MICHAEL SHAIVO: She told me what she wanted. And the courts heard it over and over and over again.

Over the next seven years, Michael would argue that the Schindlers wanted to force her to live a meaningless and humiliating existence against her wishes. But the Schindlers, along with Terri’s friends and caregivers, said her existence wasn’t meaningless at all.

CARLA SAUER-IYER: Terri was everybody's favorite.

That’s registered nurse, Carla Sauer-Iyer, who cared for Terri in the mid-1990s.

CARLA SAUER-IYER: When I first came on board. they had her at the front of the nursing station when visitors would enter. She would just smile she would actually react, she reacted to her environment, she reacted to people, she reacted to her name. She would just light up.

Attorney Tom Brodersen, who assisted on the Schiavo case, visited with Terri at hospice. He played music for her, everything from John Denver to Gregorian chants.

TOM BRODERSON: And you could see her, her face kind of open up, as if in surprise and wonderment. And as she was listening to it, she, she, she raised her arms. All the while she was looking up with her face filled with wonderment, joy.

Several witnesses said Terri could even talk.

CARLA SAUER-IYER: She would say "mommy" all the time. And then she would say the word "pain" which came out like “pay.”

CB TAMARRO: And Barbara said, "Terry, do you want to live?" and Terry goes like this—like she was trying to pull herself up—her head went up, and she goes, "I waaanna li-i-ii..." I'm not kidding. I saw it with my own eyes.

Terri’s parents argued that their daughter wasn’t on any kind of life support—just a feeding tube that was attached at mealtime. The Schindlers said Michael invented Terri’s “wish” to die only after convincing a medical malpractice jury to give him a huge sum of money to care for her … and after falling in love with another woman.

Michael filed his petition to remove Terri’s feeding tube in 1998. Three years later, in 2001, I became one of the first reporters to write about the fight over Terri’s life for a national audience.

I read court transcripts. I researched the bioethics of feeding tube removal. I talked to Bob and Mary Schindler. I talked to Michael’s attorney, George Felos. That was more than 20 years ago. But Terri’s story never left me.

There were unanswered questions. Unsettling details.

And maybe that’s why, years after I wrote that first story, I found myself driving through a thunderstorm to visit her grave.

FRANK PAVONE: [CHANTING] Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani...

August 11th, 2021. Clearwater, Florida. I’m driving north on Highway 19 in a rented silver sedan. Lightning splits the sky. It’s rapid-fire—like paparazzi. Each bright flash startles me a little. We don’t have much lightning where I live.

But sitting next to me in the passenger seat, Bobby Schindler tells me he loves Florida’s summer storms. What he doesn’t love is our destination. We’re headed for Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park. Where Bobby’s sister Terri is buried. But for Bobby, visiting his sister’s grave is still shockingly painful.

As we leave Highway 19, the storm moves west and the sun comes out. But the closer we get to the cemetery, the more anxious Bobby becomes. A couple of blocks from the freeway, I turn left off a busy commercial street and into the cemetery. It’s like entering another world.

A long asphalt drive stretches into the shade of hundreds of oak trees. Laurel oaks, scrub oaks, but mostly live oaks. Tall. Graceful. Branches draped with Spanish moss. It’s as if the live oaks dressed up just a little extra, in honor of the residents of this place.

Ninety acres of cool green grass spread around us. Sprays of flowers dot the lawns. Sunlight falls through the tree canopy here and there, dappling the shade.

We park near a small pond with a pulsing fountain.

FRANK PAVONE: [CHANTING] Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando; dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus...

We circle the pond and come to Terri’s bronze grave marker. It’s flush with the ground, just a few feet from the water’s edge. I read the inscription.

LYNN VINCENT: Theresa Marie. Beloved wife born December third 1963. Departed this earth. February 25 1990. At peace March 31 2005.” And then, under a dove carrying an olive branch, “I kept my promise.”

For Bobby, visiting his sister’s grave is still shockingly painful.

BOBBY SCHINDLER: It brings back a flood of memories. Not, not very good memories. Very difficult memories of what Terri went through. It took me a long time to want to come visit just because of the inscription, and how upsetting it was.

Bobby means the part where it says Terri “departed this earth February 25, 1990.” Terri Schiavo lived for 15 more years after suffering her brain injury. Until 2005. So why does her grave marker say she departed earth in 1990?

BOBBY SCHINDLER: I think that was just Michael's final way of just—how do I say it?—It's just to try and validate the reason why Mike was doing what he was doing. On the night of the collapse, she had died. And, you know, it was just a body that he was caring for.  I mean, it's just not true, obviously …

Or is it? That’s one of the things we’ll explore in this podcast. Was Terri Schiavo really in a “persistent vegetative state,” a kind of waking coma? Many doctors and attorneys said she was, including Richard Pearse, the first guardian ad litem in the case.

RICHARD PEARSE: She just had a vacant glare. Oh, there's no question in my mind that she was in a persistent vegetative state.

Or was Terri responsive, as her family, many doctors, and other eyewitnesses insisted?

NAT HENTOFF: I've interviewed neurologists on both sides. I've been on this case for two and a half years.

That’s journalist Nat Henthoff, a writer for the left-leaning Village Voice.

PANELIST: The panel of doctors who looked at it said she was in a persistent vegetative state…

NAT HENTOFF: And a number of them say she is not.

Was Michael Schiavo trying to honor his wife’s wish not to be kept alive by a feeding tube? Or was he simply trying to end Terri’s life so he could get the money and the girl? Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler, says yes.

BOBBY SCHINDLER: He was living with another woman. There was a lot of money that he would have assumed upon her death. What else do you need to know?

But Michael said the real crime in his wife’s case was that right-wing activists and politicians interfered in a private family matter.

That’s the thing about the Schiavo case. There’s the public part … then there’s the story that happened behind closed doors. For example, you may remember that Terri’s feeding tube was removed three times by court order between 2001 and 2005—that last time leading to her death. What you may not know is that Michael tried to end his wife’s life at least six times, beginning way back in 1993, not long after the malpractice trial.

But Michael’s family said it was Terri’s father Bob who seemed overly concerned with the malpractice money. Here’s attorney Dan Grieco.

DAN GRIECO: Bob came in to see me: "Are Mary and I entitled to any compensation out of this? We've taken care of Terry, you know…" I just said, "you know, Michae, is the only person entitled to receive any money other than Terry, in this situation."

Grieco didn’t think much about the conversation at the time. Later, though, Michael and others would say Bob Schindler wanted the malpractice money for himself.

At its climax in spring 2005, the fight over Terri’s life would race up and down the federal court system…

CHARLIE GIBSON: The Florida Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a law passed to keep a comatose woman, Terri Schiavo, alive....

… making it to the U.S. Supreme Court and back twice in 10 days, a record in American jurisprudence.

The case would draw in the Florida governor, Congress, the American president, and even the pope.

JIM DAVIS: Tonight, this Congress is about to commit a travesty.

BILL FRIST: And the real fundamental reason is, is if we don't act, there's a good chance that a living human being would be starved to death in a matter of days.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life.

Michael’s attorney, George Felos, called this government intervention an abuse of power.

GEORGE FELOS: Blatantly unconstitutional. What you had happen here is that somebody on their deathbed had the police come to their door, remove them from their bed, had her force fed against her will.

Which side is telling the truth? For the past year, I’ve been on the case again. Reading court transcripts and depositions. Examining new evidence. Interviewing people who’ve never before spoken publicly. Trying to find out.

By March 2005, protests outside Terri Schiavo’s hospice had reached a fever pitch….

PROTESTORS: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now at the hour of our death. Amen.

UNAMED PROTESTOR: I don't want to live in a Christian fascist theocracy…

CARRIE KIRKLAND: Demonstrators who have remained camped out in front of Terry Schiavo’s hospice in Pinellas Park showed frustration and desperation yesterday. A half dozen got out of their wheelchairs yesterday and laid out in the road…

… and the Schindler family was running out of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Her parents’ legal options are virtually gone. They faced another setback when the US Supreme Court for the sixth time denied their request for an emergency order allowing her feeding tube to be reinserted.

DAVID GIBBS: And as Mary was there, and she was kissing her daughter and hugging your daughter and talking in her ear. I saw some of Mary's tears hit Terry's cheek…

MARY SCHINDLER: I was on the bed with my face down in the blanket. I cried for a while. And then the policeman picked me up by my shoulders and told them to take me out.

Hubert Humphrey said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats … those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

In the Schiavo case, did America meet Humphrey’s moral test? On that question, Terri Schiavo’s story divided the nation—and riveted the world.

MARY SCHINDLER: Hi baby how are you?

DAN GRIECO: And we're talking to her about like she's a viable person. She's not a viable person.

GLENN BECK: You wouldn't believe my email. Some of the most coarse callous, hateful email I've ever received: "She's a vegetable. What does she know? She sitting there drooling all over herself. Let her go."

MICHAEL SCHIAVO: I'm going to do what it takes for Terri.

PROTESTERS: Save us from the fires of hell...

MICHAEL HOBBES: It was really the Christian Right, that made it this rallying cry, and then politicians who picked up the baton.

PAT ANDERSON: It was a slow motion judicial murder…

DAVID GIBBS: How was this innocent disabled woman not getting the constitutional protections that we give to killers.

KEN GOOD MAN: We never had to deal with the idea that because you withdraw a medical intervention, you were doing anything bad to anybody.

GLENN BECK: All week, I’ve been telling you this thing is euthanasia ... we're murdering her.

Many world-changing stories emerge from the smallest beginnings. This one began with a pre-dawn phone call from a small apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida…

LAWLESS THEME

Next time, on Lawless:

BOBBY SCHINDLER: I was just, I was in total shock. Complete shock. What was going on? And that's when I called my dad. I said, "Dad, you better get to the hospital. It's, it's, it's serious."

Lawless is a production of WORLD Radio. Our executive producer is Paul Butler. Our production assistant is Lillian Hamman. Rich Roszel is our sound engineer. Music by Will Shehan. Lawless is reported and written by Anna Johansen Brown, Bonnie Pritchett, and me, Lynn Vincent. For a list of additional audio sources in this episode, visit LawlessPodcast.com. Thank you for joining us.

AUDIO SOURCES:
(in order of appearance)

Protestors -- Terri Schiavo Revisited: Woodside Hospice 3.27.05

Amy Goodman -- Democracy Now, Nat Hentoff: Terri Schiavo Suffered From “Longest Public Execution in American History."

Shannon Bream -- Fox News: Why Michael Schiavo says Jeb Bush made his life miserable

Michael Schiavo -- Youtube video: Terri Schiavo Documentary: The Case's Enduring Legacy | Retro Report | The New York Times

Mary Schindler -- Youtube video: Terri Schiavo Documentary: The Case's Enduring Legacy | Retro Report | The New York Times

George Felos -- Youtube video by George Felos & Meditation for Lawyers: George Felos - Terri Schiavo Removal Press Briefing

Charlie Gibson -- ABC News Youtube video: Terri Schiavo: A Look Back 10 Years After Her Death

Jim Davis -- C-SPAN: House Session 3/20/05

Bill Frist -- Youtube video by SoThisIsWashington: Frist Diagnosing Terry Schiavo on Senate Floor

George Bush -- Democracy Now, Tuesday, March 22, 2005

George Felos -- Youtube video by George Felos & Meditation For Lawyers: George Felos - Lessons From the Schiavo Case Part 3

Mary Schindler -- Youtube video by koliberek89, Shortcut of Terri Schiavo story

George Felos -- C-SPAN: Florida Supreme Court News Conference

Michael Schiavo -- C-SPAN: Florida Supreme Court News Conference

Michael Hobbes -- Podcast: You’re Wrong About…, Episode: Terri Schiavo, March 5th, 2019

Ken Goodman -- Democracy Now! Tuesday, March 22, 2005


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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