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Episode 2: Ballerina

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WORLD Radio - Episode 2: Ballerina

After paramedics find Terri Schiavo unconscious in her apartment, doctors suggest a cause for her brain injury—but physical evidence at the scene raises questions.


Audio sources listed at the end of the transcript.

LYNN VINCENT, HOST: It’s March 18th, 2005, in Clearwater, Florida, and Michael Schiavo is in maybe the last place he expected to be: clinging to the top of an 8-foot fence. 

Michael is balanced precariously, peering over the far side. His brother-in-law, John is standing below. Michael gulps a little, laughing, nervous. He’s a big guy, but even for him, it’s a long way down.

It’s a blue-skied spring afternoon in Clearwater. Michael lives in a plain, bungalow-style house with shade trees in a quiet cul-de-sac. At least…it used to be quiet.

Now, though, it’s a media circus. A bunch of reporters are camped out front, practically on Michael’s front lawn. A dozen cameras line the sidewalk--all waiting to catch a glimpse of Michael Schiavo, the man at the center of the biggest news story on the planet. 

The media had been clogging his street for days when Michael finally got the call. 

The feeding tube was out. Michael’s wife, Terri Schiavo, was finally going to die. Michael didn’t want the reporters to see him leave the house. So he sneaked out the back door, climbed a ladder to the top of his own fence, and now he’s hesitating, eyeing the drop.

From the ground, John whispers, “Go! Go! Go!” Michael takes a breath, then jumps. He lands with a thump in the soft grass and feels his right knee pop. He staggers. Then limps through the neighbor’s yard. Unmarked police cars are waiting for him. They whisk him away to Florida Hospice of the Suncoast.

There, in a small, dark room, Michael bends over a narrow hospital bed. He gathers his wife Terri into his arms and begins to cry.

From WORLD Radio, and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It: This is Lawless

LAWLESS THEME

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 today’s 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.

In Season 1 of Lawless, we'll investigate the Terri Schiavo story, a case that in 2005 shocked the world. This is Episode 2: Ballerina.

THEME OUT

February 25th, 1990: Fifteen years before Michael Schiavo found himself forced to sneak out the back of his own home. It’s before dawn in St. Petersburg. Suddenly, Michael awakens in the dark. He’s not sure what time it is. Four-thirty in the morning, maybe?...Five? As he gets out of bed, he doesn’t notice that Terri’s side of the bed is empty.

Then Michael hears a thud. The Schiavos’ lives are about to change forever.

Michael says his first thought is that maybe Terri has fallen. He bolts out of the bedroom into the hallway of their tiny apartment and finds his 26-year-old wife--young and healthy--lying on the floor outside the bathroom. Michael will later say he found Terri lying on her side, one arm flung up over her head like a ballerina.

She isn’t moving. Michael drops to his knees, turns her to face him, and gathers her into his arms. He tries to rouse her: “Terri, Terri,” he says. “Are you alright? What happened?” Terri’s breath sounds strange and ragged. Michael remembers becoming frantic. Says he dashed to the living room. Called 911.

Michael tells the dispatcher that his wife is unresponsive. That he doesn’t know what’s going on or…or something. He doesn’t remember exactly what he said. But he remembers hanging up, running back to Terri and scooping her up again, cradling her against his chest.

Sunstar Paramedics gets the call. Lights. Sirens. Two paramedics. One named Radjeski and the other Eisenbrandt. One of them writes down the time on the ambulance run sheet. It’s 5:40 a.m.

Back in the Schiavo apartment, Michael remembers lowering Terri to the floor again. He says he sprinted back to the living room and called Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Bob and Mary live in Isla del Sol, 15 minutes away.

Again, Michael runs back to Terri, he remembers, then back to the phone again. Terri’s brother Bobby lives in the same apartment complex, less than two minutes away. Michael calls Bobby and tells him: “Your sister’s collapsed. She’s on the floor.” Michael hangs up, rushes to Terri’s side again, scoops her up and cradles her in his arms.

Experts say that in times of extreme trauma, events often burn into the human memory with sudden and unalterable clarity. The entire family was traumatized in those dark hours—Michael. Bobby. Bob and Mary Schindler. But somehow, that burning clarity of memory would become blurry. The timeline of events. Who called whom…and when. Even the position of Terri’s body. And details that should have been easy to remember…would change.

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.

Bobby Schindler remembers receiving a phone call that night. Not from Michael, though—from his father, Bob. He leaps from his bed and runs out of his apartment, pulling on his shirt as he goes.

BOBBY: I could have either ran over or driven. Driving would get me there a little quicker so I remember getting into my car and driving over there. It was maybe a quarter mile from my apartment. 

Bobby speeds through the dark, quiet morning; past a man-made pond and into the parking lot in front of Michael and Terri’s building. The whole drive takes less than a minute. Michael and Terri live on the third floor. Bobby takes the stairs two at a time.

BOBBY: Michael opened the door and he was very, I would describe him as frantic.

The apartment is tiny. Kitchen on the left. Living room straight ahead. To the right, a short hallway to the only bedroom.

BOBBY: And I remember walking in and seeing Terri laying in the hallway. When I first saw her, I went over and I could hear her breathing but it was labored, kind of a weird type of sound.

His sister is lying facedown on the floor. Head turned to the side. Both hands curled up under her chest. Bobby bends down to try and rouse Terri.

BOBBY: Believe it or not, I think I became less concerned. Because I thought she had just fainted. So I just went over and remember--started shaking her shoulders--like come on, Terri get up. And there was no response.

Bobby is there only moments when paramedics Radjeski and Eisenbrandt arrive. The uniformed men push Michael and Bobby aside and get to work. First a sternal rub. No response. Michael hears a paramedic say Terri’s heart has stopped. She's five-foot-six, 124 pounds. She’s wearing sweatpants and a tank top, that one of the medics cuts away with scissors. 

There's CPR. IV’s. Monitors attached. Michael is shocked. Holding his head in his hands. Had it only been a few hours earlier that he’d talked to her? That she’d told him, good night?

BOBBY: Just asking me over and over and over again: "what could be wrong? What is wrong? What happened to her?"

On the morning that her life changed forever, Terri was only 26 years old. Dark-eyed and tan. Turned heads wherever she went.

MUSIC: “Pretty Woman” Roy Orbison

Not just saying that, because, well…bikini pictures don’t lie.

Terri worked as a receptionist at Prudential Insurance, alongside her best friend, Jackie Rhodes. Though Terri was an olive-skinned brunette, she sometimes went blonde. In fact, the day before that pre-dawn incident, Terri had an appointment at the hair salon. At the office that day, her hair was a hot topic. Would Terri return to work as a blonde or a brunette?

At 24, Bobby was just thirteen months younger. The two were close. Always had been. Michael worked nights at a high-end Italian restaurant in St. Petersburg called Agostino’s. So Terri and Bobby hung out a lot. Going to clubs…taking in movies…all the hits of the ‘80s.

MOVIE CLIPS: “Are you telling me you built a time machine out of a Delorean?” “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side.” “Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?”

Terri and Bobby have a younger sister, Suzanne. The three grew up outside Philadelphia. They were close friends…and antagonists. Typical brother and sister stuff. Tight-knit siblings growing up in the sixties and seventies.

MUSIC: BRADY BUNCH THEME

As they got older, Suzanne leaned toward athletics, while Terri was quieter, more of an introvert.

MUSIC: STARSKY AND HUTCH THEME

But she did have a crush on Paul Michael Glaser. You know, Starsky, as in Starsky and Hutch.

STARSKY CLIP: My name’s Starsky. Just a few questions…

I had a crush on Starsky too.

Terri couldn’t stand to see animals hurt. Her mother Mary remembers one night when she came through the door in tears.

MARY: I mean, all she...crying: "Daddy, Daddy," she says "there's a cat and it's dead. It's in the middle of the road and it's dead."

Terri had just gotten her drivers license. She’d seen the cat in the street and was worried that she was the one who had run over it.

MARY: "You gotta get it out of there. You got to get it out of there. I think I hit it. I think I hit it." And she was going nuts, you know.

Her father Bob went outside to check on the cat.

MARY: And he said, came back in and he said, "Terri," he said, "there's no cat out there." He said, "You didn't hit anything." He’s said, "It’s gone!"

Terri was ecstatic. She went upstairs laughing with relief. But Bobby wasn’t convinced.

BOBBY: I said, "Dad, what took you so long?" He said, "Well, we were burying the cat." That's a true story actually. 

MARY: Yes it is a true story.

SUZANNE: She loved all kinds of animals…

That’s Terri’s sister, Suzanne. She lives in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands now. Works as a private chef aboard a charter yacht.

SUZANNE: I remember her room, she had a million different kinds of stuffed animals. We thought she was going to be a vet…But of course, she never got to do that.

The Schindlers were what Bobby calls “a typical Catholic family.”

BOBBY: We went to Sunday Mass and holy days of obligation, everything you're supposed to do as good Catholics. And I remember my mom would on Good Friday, from 12 to three, we had to stay in the house and turn all the TVs and radios off. And she would make us read the Bible for three hours to remember, you know, the passion and the death of Christ.

Terri spent summers with her Italian grandparents.

SUZANNE: As you can imagine hanging out with your Italian grandmother. What do you do? You cook and eat the whole time. [LAUGHS]

BOBBY: My dad got extremely upset with my grandmother. Cuz after after he dropped her off one summer. He came back two months later and Terri put on I think 15 or 20 pounds in just a couple months because of all the food that was available. [LAUGHS]

Terri was heavy all through high school. At one point, Mary asked the family doctor about it.

MARY: He used to say to me, "Mary, do not say one word to her about her weight. When she's ready, she will tell you, and then we'll do something about it." As soon as she graduated, she said to me: "Mom," she says, "I think I'd like to lose some weight."

They went back to the doctor who put Terri on Nutrisystem. And, slowly, the weight came off. And when it did, Terri blossomed. She’d always been shy. Reserved. But now she revealed a sly sense of humor. She especially loved joking with her dad.

MARY: She changed completely.

By the time she was 20, Terri had lost 40 pounds. Guys began to notice her. And…she noticed them noticing her. Terri became increasingly fun and vivacious, with a hilarious giggle. For her, it was a joyful journey from high school wallflower to beautiful and confident young woman.

SOUND: PARAMEDICS

But had that journey come to an end? In the hallway of that St. Petersburg apartment, Terri hangs between life and death.

Two more medics arrive. One of them begins grilling Michael and Bobby. He wants to know what kind of drugs Terri took. He’s persistent…aggressive even.

BOBBY: They seemed to be adamant that there was an overdose.

Michael and Bobby insist that Terri didn’t use illicit drugs. But rescuers inject her with Narcan, anyway. It’s a drug that reverses the effects of narcotics. They also hit her with epinephrine, adrenaline…to restart her heart. Not just once or twice. Five times. 

Finally, they break out a defibrillator and apply the paddles to Terri’s bare chest.

By 6:33am, paramedics have been trying to revive Terri for more than 40 minutes. That’s when two detectives arrive. Homicide detectives, actually. St. Petersburg P.D. Their names are Phillip Brewer and Rodney Tower.

Brewer is the lead detective. Tower is new on the job, still on probation. Brewer talks first with Radjeski. The paramedic tells the cop that they found Terri facedown on the floor, half in and half out of the bathroom. Radjeski says he called for police assistance because Terri was so young. The situation seemed …unusual.

But when Brewer and Tower look around the apartment, they find no sign of an overdose. No sign of a struggle. Nothing to indicate any crime had been committed.

Brewer questions Michael briefly. But there isn’t much time. Paramedics have strapped Terri to a backboard. Now, they’re preparing to carry her outside, down the tricky switchback staircase.

AMBI: APARTMENT COMPLEX

In May 2021, I met Bobby at Michael and Terri’s old apartment.

BOBBY: I don't think I've been back here since probably after they moved out.

LYNN: Do you have any particular feelings about it?

BOBBY: A little weird. Just a lot of memories come flooding back these last few days…

LYNN: Painful?

BOBBY: Yeah. At times. This is where it all started. 

LYNN: Let's walk up the stairs. 

BOBBY: Sure. It's on the third floor…I think these are the same spider webs... [LAUGHTER]

At the top of the stairs, to the right, is Michael and Terri’s former front door.

BOBBY: Everything looks almost identical other than the color of the building…

From the looks of things, nobody’s home.

After Terri fell to the floor on the other side of this door, paramedics worked on her for almost 90 minutes before they could even move her.

BOBBY: They finally did get a pulse and they brought her downstairs...

Paramedics manage to get her down the stairs on that backboard. Now, they pack her into the ambulance and speed off to Humana Hospital, Northside.

The sun is just coming up.

Fifteen minutes away, Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, are waiting by the phone. When Michael called them earlier, Bob and Mary had gotten out of bed immediately.

MARY: For a phone call to come that early. Like in the middle of the night, I knew something was wrong.

And here’s where things start to get blurry. Where Michael’s story—and the Schindlers’ stories—begin to disagree.

MARY: I think Bob said something was wrong with Terri. And then he hung up. And he said, "I'm going to call Bobby." I remember that. And he said, he called and he said: "Bobby, go over to Terri's apartment. Something is wrong with Terri."

Now Bob and Mary sit staring at the phone. Waiting. Finally, it rings again. Bob snatches it up. It’s Bobby this time.

BOBBY: I was just, I was in total shock. Complete shock. And that's when I called my dad. I said, "Dad, you better get to the hospital. It’s serious…"

SOUND: AMBULANCE ARRIVES/HOSPITAL ADMISSION

BOBBY: So when I got to the hospital--I'll never forget this--when I got to the hospital, they got there. And they were in this room where they put the family. And I remember walking in, I’m like, I’m like frantic, and I said: "she's dead, isn’t she? She’s dead." And they said: "no, she made it."

For the first time since the nightmare started, Bobby feels hopeful. But Terri isn’t out of the woods yet. Instead, she’s barely clinging to life. Nurses and technicians bustle around her in the ER treatment bay. Doctors issue orders in crisp shorthand.

SOUND: VENTILATOR

Already, Terri is on a ventilator. In medical terms, she’s also decerebrating. That means, losing function in her cerebrum—the part of the brain that controls cognition. Worse, Terri remains completely unresponsive.

There are tests and more tests. Drug screening and blood alcohol tests come back negative. There's no evidence of a heart attack. Chest x-ray: also negative.

In the waiting room. Bob, Mary, and Bobby keep vigil with Michael.

FRAN: They were distraught. They were absolutely distraught. And, and it stayed that way, the whole time.

That’s Fran Kassler, a close friend of the Schindler family. She’d been with Terri and the Schindlers just the evening before. When Mary called her from Humana, Fran and her husband dropped everything. They sped to the hospital to support their friends.

FRAN: They were still, you know, kind of caring for Michael. Michael was a basket case. Total basket case...

The admitting physician, Dr. Samir Shah, comes out to question Michael about Terri’s medical history. Michael tells Shah that Terri had been seeing an OB-GYN for about a year. Michael and Terri had been trying to have a baby, and Terri’s menstrual cycles had been irregular.

Then, a body blow.

A nurse comes in and asks if Michael wants a priest...to give Terri last rites. Michael bursts into tears. After that…

BOBBY: Every time we heard a Code Blue, we, we all rushed to the door. We all thought it was Terri.

The family waits on edge, terrified. The clock crawls.

BOBBY: I remember them saying that if she makes it through the next 48 hours, there’s a chance that she'll survive. But it was bad.

More friends stream in to join Michael and the Schindlers in the waiting room. Terri’s best friend, Jackie Rhodes. Mary’s dear friend, Sherry Payne. And Dan Grieco, the attorney. 

Grieco also owns the upscale Italian restaurant where Michael is manager. Michael had called him to let him know what was going on.

DAN GRIECO: And we were closed on Sunday. So I'm wondering, you know, why he was calling. And he was incredibly distraught. What happened? Car Accident? What? He could hardly explain it. Finally told me he was at Northside. So I said: "I'll be there--come over there."

Michael wasn’t just an employee, Grieco says. He had also become a good friend.

Michael Schiavo grew up the youngest of five boys, all big and tall…with big, tall personalities. They were close-knit. Each about two years apart in age: Bill, Steve, Brian, Scott, and Michael. They grew up in a four-bedroom house half an hour outside of Philadelphia. The brothers say Michael was a bit of a momma’s boy growing up. They’d give him a pounding when they thought he deserved it. All the boys got into some scrapes, roughhousing.

One time, Bill and Steve hung out the back window of the house shooting cats with a BB gun…until the neighbors called the police, saying they were under attack. Michael calls his family “absolutely normal." A little crass, a little crazy, but nothing out of the ordinary.

In 1983, Michael started going to a community college in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. That’s where he met Terri. 

They got married in 1984. 

After the couple moved to St. Petersburg, Michael went through several restaurant jobs. A year at one. A few months at another. But when he landed at Agostino’s, he found a home.

DAN GRIECO: So he came in, and Michael in person, especially at that age, before any of this happened. He was tall, blond, handsome. Looked great in a suit.

Dan Grieco remembers Michael and Terri coming into the restaurant together.

DAN GRIECO: Terri was a beautiful girl. She was small. Petite. They looked great together, except he was eight inches taller or nine inches taller. And which even made it more interesting. They were very much in love.

Grieco says Michael was the best manager he’d ever had. And he’d been through a few.

SOUND: HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM

After he got Michael’s desperate phone call, Grieco headed to Humana Northside. He arrived midmorning. Michael was alternately hopeful and confused. Michael kept saying:

DAN GRIECO: "I don't know how this happened. I don't know what happened. I don't know why she collapsed." And it wasn't my place at that point to ask.

But someone had to ask. Remember those homicide detectives, Brewer and Tower? They still had some questions.

The two detectives had stayed behind at Michael and Terri’s apartment. Before he jumped into the ambulance, Michael tossed his keys to the cops, and asked them to lock up. So they did. Then Brewer and Tower drove over to the hospital to return Michael’s keys, and…poke around a bit.

According to Brewer’s report, Michael was cooperative. He told police he’d been sleeping, but woke up when he heard a thud. His first thought was “maybe Terri fell.” He got up, he said, found Terri in the hall. Then the phone calls, the paramedics, and the hospital.

Michael told the detectives that there hadn't been any problems at home,  and they had had no major arguments lately. But other people who spoke with Terri during the hours before her injury told a different story.

JACKIE RHODES: [REENACTMENT] It had been a big joke that week at work because she was going for a hair appointment on Saturday…

That’s the testimony of Jackie Rhodes, Terri’s best friend from work.

JACKIE RHODES: [REENACTMENT] …and she had dyed her hair blonde. She had to decide whether or not she wanted to stay a blonde or if she was going back to her natural color.

Jackie first agreed to be interviewed for this podcast, but then stopped returning my phone calls. The voice you’re hearing isn’t Jackie, but the testimony is hers, given in 2000, at the first of many courthouse battles in the case of Terri Schiavo.

JACKIE RHODES: [REENACTMENT] So I called her Saturday afternoon and asked her, well, are you a blonde or a brunette. She said, I’m still a blonde.

Terri’s injury occurred just before dawn on February 25th, 1990, a Sunday.

JACKIE RHODES: [REENACTMENT] It sounded like she had been crying. I asked her if she was okay. She said that her and Michael had just gotten in a fight with Michael. That he was extremely upset with her because she had spent, I think she told me $80, on her hair that day to stay blonde.

Michael agrees that there was a conversation. He says Terri called him at work that afternoon, fresh from the salon, excited to talk about her new hairstyle. But a fight over money? That never happened, he says.

But Jackie Rhodes would later testify that she saw it differently. In fact, Terri was so upset that Jackie asked if she should come over, make sure Terri was okay. Terri said no. She’d already made plans to run over to Bobby’s place, a couple of buildings over.

When Terri got to Bobby’s house, he says she was still upset. Terri told her brother she’d had an argument with Michael, but didn’t go into details. Bobby and Terri chatted awhile, she ironed his pants for him, and then she left. 

According to Michael, though, Terri spoke with him after visiting Bobby. He says he poked fun at her about ironing her brother’s pants. What was she going to do next? Iron his boxer shorts?

The afternoon of February 24, Terri went to a 5pm mass with her parents...then they all went to dinner at Fran Kassler’s house.

FRAN KASSLER: I had a friend from Italy, who was a chef visiting, and he made us all dinner, early dinner…

After dinner, Terri made a few quick stops on her way home. She called her mother Mary one last time. And after that…nobody knows for sure.

SOUND: HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM

Back at the hospital, Detectives Brewer and Tower wrap up their interview with Michael. And they never interview him—or anyone else connected to the case—again. They never return to the Schiavos’ apartment. Never collect evidence of any kind. Or if they did, they did not enter it into the police record.

Detective Brewer is retired now. I reached out to him through St. Petersburg P.D., but he didn’t reply. Detective Tower now works for a company that does crime-scene clean-up. I reached out to him, too…and again, no reply.

I would still like to ask the detectives one question: Michael Schiavo said he cradled Terri in his arms three different times…so why did Bobby and the paramedics find her face-down. On the floor. With her hands curled underneath her chest?

Next time on Lawless

LAWLESS THEME

BOBBY: I mean, everything I know about eating disorders is that, you know, people do it in secret.

FRAN KASSLER: She leans over and she says, “Don't say anything, but Michael is not gonna live with Bob and or let Bob and Mary take care of Terri.” She said, “I can see trouble coming.”

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.

THEME OUT

AUDIO SOURCES:
(in order of appearance)

Movie Clips

Brady Bunch Theme - Youtube video by Marcia Brady, The Brady Bunch Theme Song Intro

Starsky and Hutch


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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