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Episode 7: The Trouble with Uncle Fred

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WORLD Radio - Episode 7: The Trouble with Uncle Fred

In January 2000, Michael and the Schindlers head to court to decide once and for all: What did Terri want?


AMBI: REPORTERS

LYNN VINCENT: It’s March 25, 2005. Terri Schiavo is on her eighth day with no food or water. At the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, the press room is packed. Governor Jeb Bush has called a press conference…and attorney Rocky Rodriguez is about to be thrust into the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

RODRIGUEZ: There must have been easily 20-30 reporters if I recall, both print and media.

That’s Rodriguez—her name is Raquel, but she goes by Rocky. Rodriguez is Bush’s chief counsel.

RODRIGUEZ: The governor says come down to the press room…And so it was on the first floor of the Capitol we call plaza level, off the hallway outside of the governor's office suite.

Bush got involved in the Schiavo case in 2003. He filed a friend of the court brief supporting the Schindlers. Now, a week into Terri’s slow-motion death, he’s looking for a last-ditch plan to save her.

Rodriguez has been researching the Florida Statutes. At the press conference, she stands behind the governor, holding copies of those laws.

RODRIGUEZ: The governor made a statement and he responded to some questions. And I think there was a direct question to him. Well, what can you do? And then he said, Well, I'm going to let my counsel answer that.

Rodriguez has never spoken at a press conference before. And she wasn’t prepared to speak at this one. For her, it was…

RODRIGUEZ: Sheer panic. I was deathly afraid since we hadn't discussed in advance what I was supposed to say. But I was trying to follow the governor's lead that we were not giving up.

There is one strategy Rodriguez has found in the Florida Statutes. It involves the Department of Children and Families. DCF.

RODRIGUEZ: And so I probably was way too candid. And I said, Well, based on and I cited the Florida Statute, DCF could take protective custody of Ms. Schiavo. 

An official from DCF quickly steps up and says, we don’t have any plans to do that at the moment. But, it’s too late…The word is out and official wheels are set in motion.

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.

In Season 1 of Lawless, we’re investigating the Terri Schiavo story, a case that in 2005 shocked the world.

This is Episode 7, “The Trouble with Uncle Fred.”

AMBI: FAMILY VIDEO OF TERRI

The VHS tape starts with an electric blue screen. Purple and green static flickers across it, then it cuts abruptly to a shaky home video shot. It’s a tiny white room lit with a warm yellow lamp.

In the center of the frame is Terri Schiavo. She’s sitting in a wheelchair with her head tilted back and to the side. Mouth ajar. Eyes open, blinking. One arm is curled up by her chest.

MARY: Hi! Terr! It’s Mommy! [Terri vocalizing]

When Mary Schindler enters the frame, Terri’s face opens up with a big smile.

TERRI: VOCALIZING/LAUGHING

MARY: Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you.

Terri’s parents keep talking to her, coaxing her to respond, touching her shoulder, ruffling her hair. Sometimes it seems to work.

MARY: Aw, you’re turning over here to see Mommy? Hi!

BOB: Look at your Mommy.

MARY: There ya go! Right at Mommy.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

MARY: Theresa. Theresa.

BOB: It’s alright, just take it easy.

But any parent would recognize the language Mary uses.

MARY: Can you say ma ma ma ma? Can you say ma ma ma?

It’s January 2000 and the Schindlers are headed for a showdown: a trial that will determine whether their little girl lives or dies.

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.

At the center of the fight: Terri’s wishes. Did she want to live or did she want to die? And before her 1990 brain injury, had she made those wishes known?

To prove that she had, Michael had made the Schindlers an offer. If they would withdraw their objection to removing Terri’s feeding tube, he would donate the “net proceeds”of the money in her medical trust fund to a charity of his choice.

Michael says his offer proves he was only doing what Terri wanted…that he is concerned only with her wishes and not with her money. Bobby calls the offer...

BOBBY: …a shell game. I mean, it was it was disingenuous because he knew my parents were going to say no to that. I mean, come on they had been fighting for at that point. That's been the whole battle is to try to stop Terri from being killed by the by Michael. So now all of a sudden, because Michael’s offering to donate the money to charity, my parents can say, “Okay, go ahead and and starve Terri.” My dad was like, “No, why would we agree to this? 

Neither did Michael’s offer sway Terri’s guardian ad litem, Richard Pearse. He saw Michael’s conflicts of interest as extending beyond to his fiancée, Jodi Centonze, and his quick action to end Terri’s life after the malpractice trial. As for his giving up the money, after legal and medical bills, would there really be much left?

The Schindlers declined Michael’s 1998 offer. That same year, Michael’s attorney, George Felos, hired his first medical expert in the case. Dr. James Barnhill, a neurologist.

Barnhill is a familiar figure in Florida right to die cases. Including Florida’s controlling right-to-die case—the case of Estelle Browning. Barnhill appeared as an expert witness for George Felos during that case in the late 1980s. By the time Schiavo vs. Schindler went to court, Barnhill had testified half a dozen times in similar trials.

Barnhill first examines Terri in March 1998, then again for 10 minutes in January 2000—on the eve of the feeding tube trial.

MUSIC: “Melancholy Baby” by Gene Austin

In his opinion, Terri is in PVS. But he tries something different with Terri. Something he hadn’t tried with Estelle Browning. As part of his examination, he sings “Melancholy Baby” to her.

PAT ANDERSON: Dr. Barnhill testified, testified that he sang come to me my Melancholy Baby and Terri had no reaction. And therefore, she was in PVS.

That’s attorney Pat Anderson, who would join the case in 2001. Anderson says it wasn’t unusual for Terri to not react. When she was with strangers, Terri didn’t seem responsive at all. But with her family, it was a different story.

PAT ANDERSON: Because man when her mother came in the room, it was like turning a light switch on.

In the early 2000’s, Felos would team up with Barnhill for Holland America cruises to places like the Bahamas and Panama Canal. During these sailings, the pair lectured to groups on topics like “removing or refusing unwanted medical treatment.” and managing “inertia and resistance among healthcare professionals.”

Pat Anderson has a name for these floating seminars: “death cruises.”

Remember, Felos had Pearse booted off the Schiavo case because he was “biased” against the removal of feeding tubes. But, given the cruises, it’s safe to say that Barnhill held a bias of his own.

Now, Barnhill is about to testify in Terri’s case, too. The case that’s supposed to settle, once and for all, what Terri really wanted.

FELOS: She said to her husband, I don't want to be kept alive, artificially.

That’s George Felos.

FELOS: Promise me, please promise me that you won't keep me alive that way.

Bob Schindler thinks that’s a lie:

BOB: Anybody knew Terri, they would know that Terry would never ever make that kind of a statement. [The] only people that heard that Terry made these alleged wishes were the husband

The Schindlers’ good friend, Fran Kasler, says Michael never knew what Terri wanted. She remembers going to a concert on the beach with him and the Schindlers, back before everything imploded.

FRAN KASLER: And Michael was living with Bob and Mary wasn't he? At the at the house? And we were talking about Terry, and he said, "How should I know what her her life? What her wishes her last wishes were?" And, you know, I just looked at him. I went, "well, you're married to her?" And he said, "I don't know." So he actually told me, I do not know. But later on, he knew exactly what her wishes were. Allegedly.

Soon, a judge will decide. Did Terri want to die?

Even before the trial starts, everyone is exhausted. Traumatized, even. Michael as well as the Schindlers. He’d been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and the stress makes it worse. Michael writes in his book that he knew removing Terri’s feeding tube was the right thing to do, but that didn’t make it any easier, letting her go.

The tension is getting to Bob Schindler, too, and his blood pressure is dangerously high. Mary is sick with worry. It seems insane to her that a judge she’s never met before could decide the fate of her little girl.

Everyone’s nervous. Still, the Schindlers also believe they have an ace in the hole—a piece of evidence that will crush Michael’s case…and save Terri.

Remember, during those few years leading up to Michael’s petition, there had been that legal lull and the Schindlers had had a little space to breathe. And in that time, their family grew by one.

AMBI: MEETING VITADAMO

This is Michael Vitadamo. He first met Terri’s sister Suzanne Schindler in the early 90’s.

The Sound Queen and I met Vitadamo in St. Pete in the fall of 2021. He’s 59, but looks 49. He’s wearing a tank top and wireless headphones hung around his neck. A pair of sunglasses on the brim of his snapback hat. You can tell he’s been throwing barbells around in the gym.

MICHAEL VITADAMO: Weights, some cardio, you know, nothing, nothing crazy. Because I'm almost the oldest person in the gym.

The gym is where he met Suzanne Schindler. Her gym membership was going up, and Michael Vitadamo gallantly volunteered to pay for it. They hit it off. Got married in 1995.

Vitadamo hadn’t known Terri before her brain injury. He didn’t have a before and after to compare. He just met the woman in the nursing home.

MICHAEL VITADAMO: I remember being a little nervous, you know, going into her room. And I just remember thinking, Wow, she's way more alive than, you know what I'm saying? Her her actions, her reactions were very purposeful, and they were very appropriate. So in other words, tell you something funny, you laugh. Tell you something sad, you cry. Bob would always tell her jokes all the time, and the lame jokes, and she would, she would laugh. Mary would come and say Mommy's here, Terri, and she would, she'd either cry or she'd laugh. So, you know, when I witnessed that, for the first time, I was definitely taken aback. You know, it's it's a powerful thing.

In fact, Vitadamo’s belief that Terri was responsive was so powerful that just a day or two before the trial, he volunteers for…well, something of a secret mission.

SOUND: CAR DRIVING

January 24, 2000. The day dawns cloudy and still. At 8:30am when Michael arrives at the courthouse, it’s in the low 60s.

It’s been almost ten years since Terri suffered her brain injury. The front page of the St. Petersburg Times reports a fiery pileup in Kansas City, and gives the score of the Tampa Bay Bucs game. (They lost.) Nobody is reporting on the Schiavo case.

The courtroom is cavernous with its high ceilings and large windows, and it feels almost empty. But there are a few spectators, especially on Michael’s side of the room.

MARY: ...was his side hit up quite a bit. Mostly his friends. All his brothers were there. He had four of them, and his sister in law. 

Michael sees his attorney, George Felos, at the petitioner’s table. But he goes over to talk with his father instead. His brothers Scott and Brian are there, too, along with Jodi Centonze’s mother.

Jodi, however, is not in the courtroom. In his 2005 book, Terri: The Truth, Michael writes, “We’d agreed that as much as I would have liked Jodi’s support in the courtroom, it would be better if she stayed out of sight.”

Remember Michael had proposed to Jodi in 1994. For the past few years, they’d been living together in house Michael bought with his malpractice trial award. But Michael was married to Terri and seeking her death…and some people had made an issue of that.

Then two reporters appear in the courtroom: One for Bay News Nine, the local ABC station, and a woman named Anita Kumar, a writer for the St. Petersburg Times. Bobby had faxed a letter to the press telling them about the case. He thought public outcry might help.

SOUND: GAVEL / “All rise.”

Judge George Greer enters the courtroom. The first thing he does is ask all testifying witnesses to leave. Everyone except Michael, Mary, and Bob.

BOBBY: I was waiting to testify, so I was not allowed into the courtroom.

Bobby and Suzanne wait in a room next door. In a room next to them, witnesses for the Schiavo side. The Schindlers are tense, but feeling confident.

BOBBY: My father and I remember speaking, I think it was probably the night or two nights before the case and we were nervous. But we felt pretty good about the fact that there was a family that was willing and wanting to bring Terri home and care for her. The fact that Michael these wishes to call the wishes of Terri surfaced almost 10 years after her collapse he was living with and admittedly wanting to marry another woman, all this close to a million dollars that Michael was going to inherit upon if if he was successful in killing my sister. So we, we felt pretty good that that the judge when he saw all this evidence to do it, don't be a judge in the world that would that would rule and Michael's favor.

Add to that, their “ace in the hole”—that new evidence the Schindlers have collected. Well…Suzanne Schindler’s husband Michael Vitadamo collected it, actually. On that secret mission.

MICHAEL VITADAMO: And I just remember somebody coming up with the idea that, you know, we need to record Terri. 

A couple of days before the trial, Vitadamo secretly brings a camera to Palm Garden and makes a tape of Terri interacting with her family. Secretly because Michael had strict rules about recording Terri.

MICHAEL VITADAMO: We went in I had a friend of mine. I borrowed his camera. And we went in and and recorded but I did it without hesitation. I remember walking in and I had to sneak this big. You know, the cameras weren't little like they are now that it's literally this. I still have it. It's this big.

LYNN: Like a mailbox

MICHAEL VITADAMO: Yeah, it's ridiculous. So I just remember walking past the front counter and just walking into Terri's room, which was pretty close there and and then starting to record--hide in plain sight kind of deal, it was not like I put it under my shirt or anything. To me, it was it wasn't that it wasn't a big deal to go in there and videotape her. Like there wasn't you know, and I didn't have that fear like something's gonna go wrong.

But Mary was worried. What if Michael found out?  But Vitadamo’s secret taping operation goes off without a hitch. When Schindlers see the tape, they are elated. Surely the court cannot ignore video evidence of her responsiveness!

The trial begins and George Felos is up first. We would’ve liked to play trial testimony audio for you…but the county only holds onto it for 20 years. So what you’ll hear ahead is voice actors, but the testimony is verbatim.

In his opening statement, Felos goes way back to the beginning. He recounts Terri’s childhood, her struggles with weight, her brain injury, her years in hospitals and rehab centers and the bleak diagnoses. He highlights the main point of Michael’s argument: That Terri would never want to live in her current condition. Michael says he listened with tears in his eyes.

After Felos’ opening statement, it’s Pam Campbell’s turn. Remember, Campbell is Bob and Mary’s attorney.

CAMPBELL: [VOICED] You will hear a lot of medical testimony concerning the persistent vegetative state that Theresa Schiavo currently exists in. We do not doubt she’s in a permanent vegetative state.

This stipulation, that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state, is a legal strategy. Rather than dispute all the facts Michael was alleging, Campbell chooses to focus on the issue of Terri’s wishes. But the precise state of Terri’s cognition will later prove critical.

Here, Campbell stipulates-or concedes—that Terri is in PVS. That’s important. Because if she isn’t, if she’s a sentient human being who responds to her environment, her feeding tube could not be removed.

As we mentioned in Episode 5.5, the emerging science around the “minimally conscious state” describes Terri perfectly—a patient who is sometimes responsive and sometimes reflexive. In future appeals, the Schindlers will fight to have judges acknowledge this.

But Campbell’s stipulation in the original trial will seem to work against them.

After the opening statements, Michael is the first witness called. His palms are sweaty as he heads up to take the stand.

To win this case, Felos has to prove that Michael knows what Terri would want in this situation. She didn’t leave a written directive. But did she tell people close to her what she would want? Michael says yes. And it isn’t long before he gets to Uncle Fred.

You remember Uncle Fred.

AMBI: RECEIVING LINE AT TERRI AND MICHAEL'S WEDDING

You met him at Terri and Michael’s 1984 wedding. The handsome guy walking through the receiving line, lightly assisted by a cane.

What you may not know is that Uncle Fred endured unspeakable tragedy. His wife Joan and 16-year-old daughter Gail were killed at a railroad crossing—hit broadside by a train.

Against the advice of attorneys, Fred sued the railroad and won. He didn’t get any money, though. Instead, he forced the railroad to install better signals at the dangerous crossing where his wife and daughter were killed.

The Uncle Fred story first entered the record in 199 when the Schindlers challenged Michael’s guardianship. During that case, Michael claimed thatTerri told him Uncle Fred was so distraught over the loss of his wife and daughter that he got drunk, got in his car, and ran it into a tree.

Now Michael repeats the story for Judge George Greer.

MICHAEL SCHIAVO: [VOICED] When he came out of his coma, he was pretty much severely handicapped. Had a lot of impediments. Had to live with his mother.

These weren’t just Terri’s recollections of her uncle. Michael testifies that he met Uncle Fred and observed these infirmities himself.

MICHAEL SCHIAVO: [VOICED] A Her uncle had paralyzed -- I believe his right arm was paralyzed, I believe. He had a severe limp. He used a cane. He had slurred speech. Difficulty. He had to sit for long periods. He could not get up and move around a lot. Difficulty in thought processes, I believe. That he could not process his thoughts quick enough with his answers.

Michael says Terri was worried about what would happen to Uncle Fred if her grandmother died.

MICHAEL SCHIAVO: [VOICED] Because he lived with the grandmother and she basically helped take care of him.

Watching Michael’s testimony, Bob and Mary grow more and more frustrated. Michael’s story is A + B = C. Fred’s wife and daughter die…he’s grieving and wrecks his car…and is disabled. But Joan and Gail were killed in 1969. His accident was 11 years later—in 1980. Not only that, he bounced back quickly.

KATHY BROWN: The first two years we had him back speaking perfect English.

That’s Fred’s daughter, Kathy Brown.

KATHY BROWN: There's never a time when my dad gave up. There was never a time when he was an injured, broke man. There was nothing odd about him except he was paralyzed on his one side, but he compensated for that. Obviously as people do. But he did need a cane. But other than that he was fine. He was driving until the day he died.

Driving to work. Driving to the gym every day. Driving to pick up his grandkids at school when Kathy needed a hand. 

By the mid-1980’s—at the time Michael says Terri told him her uncle was profoundly disabled—handsome Fred was actually a ladies man. And the story about having to live with his mother? Actually, she moved in with Fred so he could take care of her.

AMBI: MARY FEEDING CHICKENS

Last year, I went down to Dothan, Alabama, where Mary now lives. On a farm, with her brother Mike and sister in law, Mike and CB Tamarro. I asked her about Michael’s story.

LYNN: He said that Uncle Fred would come to parties at your house, and just sit there...

MARY: ...and play darts and drink.

LYNN: … And play darts and drink.

MARY: ...He started to taking girls out. He went to the gym all the time. He went to work every single day, came over to my house every weekend, sometimes during the week with girls. It didn't seem like anything changed with him. The only thing he did. Yeah, he limped. That's all.

Michael said he was at those family gatherings often. So was Terri. Which raises a question. Is it reasonable that Terri would hang out at parties with her dart-playing, gym-going Casanova uncle between 1984 and 1986…then tell Michael in 1986 or 87 that she would never want to live that way?

I also spoke about Uncle Fred with Richard Pearse. Pearse was Terri’s guardian ad litem in the case before Judge Greer discharged him.

Remember, Michael’s story about Uncle Fred was the only one Michael offered Pearse as evidence that Terri had expressed a wish not to be kept alive if she were in an irreversible condition. Pearse called the Uncle Fred story “hearsay” known only to Michael. But years later, Pearse would change his mind about Michael entirely.

LYNN: Now, you mentioned just now that we talked before about the fact that you ultimately changed your mind about Michael. Tell me that story?

PEARSE: Well, it took a while. But with all the legal controversy, and various lawyers were involved in the case eventually the three quarters of a million dollars that she had at one point became zero dollars. And, and Michael kept going. And he kept going on his own dime, as far as I know. And he was just as relentless as always, with his belief that he was the proper decision maker, and that she should be taken off life support. And so I finally had to admit to myself, that I was wrong about his motivations in this case.

I talked with Pearse about Uncle Fred…

LYNN: The story about the uncle was that he was he had to be under his mother's care, that he was disabled that he couldn't walk, that he was severely brain injured.

Then I told Pearse about the wedding video. About Uncle Fred strolling through the receiving line, laughing and chatting. Pearse seemed taken aback.

PEARSE: I'm surprised by what you're telling me. It disappoints me if what you're saying is true and somebody lied about that uncle, and about Terri’s statement. That's a that's a big disappointment to me. Again, not sure a change of the legal outcome, but I don't know what to think. I mean, she's, she's long gone now. And God rest her soul. But that was kind of a big deal.

Back in the courtroom, it’s Pam Campbell’s turn to cross examine Michael. The Schindlers have great hopes for this moment.

BOBBY: And I remember we anticipated Michael's testimony, because there were so many questions that needed to be asked. And we felt confident after our attorney would ask these questions that would clearly show Michael's intent and what he was doing, what he's trying to do.

Bobby thought Michael’s testimony and cross examination would take all day, because of all the questions Campbell would ask him.

How did he explain the fact that he said he cradled Terri in his arms, but paramedics found her face down?

Why did he promise the malpractice jury he’d take care of Terri for the rest of his life…then try to end her life a few months after he got the money?

Eight years had passed since Terri’s brain injury. Why hadn’t Michael come forward earlier with Terri’s alleged wishes?

The Schindlers think these, and other, questions, will take quite a while. But it’s not even lunch time when Bob and Mary come out of the courtroom.

BOBBY: I clearly knew there was something wrong. My dad, I mean, His face was white as a ghost And I know clearly he was upset. And I said, I said, are we breaking for lunch? I believe and he said, No, it's finished. And I said, What do you mean, it's finished? And he said to me, something along the lines of, she didn't ask him anything. ‘She’ meaning our attorney, Pamela Campbell. I guess what my dad was trying to say is the questions that we had thought and hope that she was going to ask Michael were never asked.

The Schindlers are shocked.

MARY: It was a very soft questioning period. She never, I thought we needed a pit bull to go after him. But she was very easy on Michael. Very easy.

Even Michael is surprised at how the questioning went. In his book, he writes, “I remember thinking Pam Campbell seemed way too nice to be in this line of work.”

Everybody heads for lunch…the Schindlers at one end of the room, Michael and his attorneys at the other.  Bob asks Pam why she wasn’t tougher on Michael…why didn’t she ask harder questions, get the answers they needed?

BOBBY: And I'll never forget. Pam Campbell, turned to us and said, don't you think he's been through enough already? He meaning, Michael Schiavo...I thought I could not believe she said that. And I remember, after that. When I spoke to my dad privately, we talked about removing her as our attorney…

To this point in the trial, Michael has scant evidence to support his claim that Terri would not have wanted to live. What he does have is hearsay, just as Richard Pearse noted in his report.

And the Schindlers still have their secret weapon to present—that video Vitadamo shot of Terri interacting with her family.

But George Felos is nobody’s fool. The Uncle Fred story hadn’t convinced Richard Pearse back when he first drew up his report. So Felos needs more evidence to support Michael’s case. It arrives just in time. Two new witnesses whose testimony will change the course of the entire trial—and of Terri Schiavo’s life.

Next time on Lawless join us for the season finale of Lawless Season 1: the Terri Schiavo Story. In a special extended episode, Judge Greer rules and the Schindlers think they’ve lost everything…

MARY SCHINDLER: And we, we panicked. He could put her somewhere and never tell us where we put her. She would be dead and I would never know it.

…until an unlikely character triggers a twist in the case that no one saw coming.

Lawless is a production of WORLD Radio. Our executive producer and sound engineer is Paul Butler. Our production assistant is Lillian Hamman. Music by Will Shehan. Audio support from Creative Genius Productions. 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.

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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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