Audio sources listed at the bottom of the transcript.
AMBI: DINNER SOUNDS
Congressman Jim Davis has a reputation: he almost never gets angry. But he’s about to get some news that will make his blood boil.
JIM DAVIS: I had gone to dinner with a family friend in Washington. And I got a phone call in the middle of dinner and it was congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Davis is a Florida Democrat. Wasserman Schultz would later rise to chair the Democratic National Committee. But when she interrupts Davis’s dinner in March 2005, she’s a freshman in Congress for less than three months.
JIM DAVIS: And she called to tell me that she was very upset, because she had just found out that there was a plan to bring a bill to Congress on an extremely expedited basis, as I recall, there were no hearings.
On the phone, Wasserman Schulz tells Davis that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is set to fast-track a bill meant to save Terri’s Schiavo’s life. DeLay plans to call a vote—without a floor debate or a quorum. That’s not a huge deal...Congress waives the rules all the time. But Davis feels this vote is outrageous. In his view, the U.S. House is about to trample on matters already decided in a state court.
JIM DAVIS: It was one of the most significant examples of abuse by government I’d ever seen.
He tells Wasserman Schulz…
JIM DAVIS: I understand this issue well enough to know that …we need to stand up and fight this.
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 Four: For Love or Money?
Terri Schiavo loved Florida and she loved to drive.
Two years after Michael and Terri got married, they packed up their car and left Pennsylvania for good. With Michael in the passenger seat, Terri steered their car to I-95 outside Philly, stepped on the gas, and headed south. It was 1986. Ferris Bueller was cutting class.
FERRIS BUELLER: This is my ninth sick day this semester…if I go for ten, I’m probably gonna have to barf up a lung.
President Ronald Reagan was promoting liberty.
RONALD REAGAN: We can enlarge the family of free nations if we will defend the unalienable rights of all God's children to follow their dreams.
And Tom Cruise…was box office king.
MUSIC: “Danger Zone” Kenny Loggins
TOP GUN: "Talk to me, Goose." "Roger, I got him. Twenty left at 30 miles, 900 knots closure."
AMBI: FIGHTER JET FADES OFF INTO THE DISTANCE
Even before they got married, Michael and Terri had talked about moving to Florida. Terri worked at Prudential, but Michael wasn’t happy in his job outside Philadelphia. Bob and Mary Schindler owned a condo in St. Petersburg and agreed to let Michael and Terri rent it. And when the time came for the big move, Terri was ecstatic.
MUSIC: “Danger Zone” Kenny Loggins
As Michael and Terri flew down I-95 toward a sunny new chapter in life, they didn’t have money, but they did have love. They had no idea they were headed into history.
SFX: SOUNDS OF PEOPLE SETTLING INTO THEIR SEATS, AS IN A COURTROOM
November 5, 1992, at the old Pinellas County Courthouse, Courtroom B. in Clearwater, Florida. Judge Philip Frederico presiding. Almost exactly two years before, Michael had filed a medical malpractice suit against Terri’s OBGYN, Dr. Stephen Igel, and her general practitioner, Dr. Joel Prawer. On Terri’s behalf, Michael claimed Terri had suffered from a secret battle with bulimia—and that both doctors should have caught it. At first, both Igel and Prawer denied this claim.
I visited the old courthouse twice in 2021. It’s neoclassical, tan brick with four towering white columns. A big contrast with the sleek, flagship headquarters of Scientology, which sits within sight, half a block away. In May, COVID restrictions kept me out of the courthouse. On my second visit, a very kind deputy gave me a tour.
AMBI: DOOR OPENING…WALKING UP STEPS
DEPUTY: Downstairs used to the holding cell in the original jail.
MUSIC: “GIMME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION” FROM INHERIT THE WIND
LYNN: How old is this building?
DEPUTY: This is a hundred years old.
LYNN: A hundred years…
Some Pinellas County lawyers call this the Inherit the Wind courthouse, after the 1960 film that dramatized the infamous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. The wood-paneled courtroom looks just like the one in the movie.
It was in this place that Michael Schiavo—and Terri with him—took their first steps into legal, and medical history.
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.
AMBI: COURTROOM ROOM
Though Terri was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, she wasn’t in the courtroom. But she could have been—easily. In fact, Michael’s attorneys had initially planned to wheel her in, introduce her to the jury. But in the end, they made a video to show the jury instead. More on that later.
The malpractice trial begins at 9 a.m. Dr. Stephen Igel takes a seat beside his defense attorney, Ken Deacon.
On the advice of his insurance company, Dr. Joel Prawer had settled out of court for a quarter of a million dollars ($250,000). But on the eve of trial, Terri’s OBGYN, Igel, rejected a settlement offer. A couple of possibilities here as to why. Either Igel’s insurance company thought they could win the case. Or Igel himself didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong.
But Glenn Woodworth immediately gets to work trying to prove that Igel had done something wrong. Remember, Woodworth is Michael’s attorney. He’s a crackerjack malpractice lawyer from Tampa Bay.
Woodworth builds his argument on several data points: Terri’s iced tea habit and her life-threatening potassium level. Terri also had irregular menstrual cycles. But her mother, Mary Schindler, said that wasn’t unusual for her daughter. When Terri visited doctors Igel and Prawer...
MARY: They just would always say, “Oh, you know, just watch your period” or, “you know, make sure that you get them regularly…” Terri never had regular periods—ever.
And now, Woodworth argues, everyone knows why—because Terri had bulimia. Woodworth also emphasizes Terri’s weight loss, which he says caused stretch marks and sagging skin. Woodworth calls Michael to the witness stand.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): Okay. After you all moved to Florida, did Terri lose more weight?
SCHIAVO (VOICED): Yes, she did.
Michael Schiavo still hasn’t responded to my multiple interview requests. So that’s not his voice, but it is his testimony. There’s no courtroom audio available for the malpractice trial. These are voice actors.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): And how far down the weight scale did she go?
SCHIAVO (VOICED): I can remember Terri being about 110, 115 pounds.
But Igel’s defense attorney Ken Deacon gets Michael to admit that he rarely saw Terri, because they worked opposite shifts. DeaconHe also produces Terri’s medical records, which seem to show that Michael’s memory of her weight—including claims of wild swings of 20 to 25 pounds—actually conflicts with documented evidence.
Deacon tells the jury that when Terri saw her GP, Dr. Prawer, in 1987, she weighed 119 pounds. That was the year after she and Michael moved to Florida. Two years later, she saw Dr. Igel, he recorded her weight at 121 pounds. That was 1989. The year after that, Terri visited Igel again. Her weight? 124 pounds.
That visit was in February 1990, the same month Michael says he found Terri unresponsive on their hallway floor.
But in court, it’s not always hard data that sways a jury…sometimes it’s which lawyer has the more compelling story. Deacon represented an insurance company. And Woodworth? He was fighting for a tragic young couple in love.
AMBI: ST. PETE BEACH, WAVES, GULLS, PEOPLE.
After Michael and Terri moved to St. Pete in 1986, they settled into the Schindlers’ condo. Terri got that job at a Prudential branch in St. Pete. At first, Michael struggled to find work, so the couple was often late on the rent. But the Schindlers let it slide.
After a couple years of job-hopping through the restaurant industry, Michael landed the manager job with the Grieco brothers at their high-end Italian restaurant, Agostino’s.
A few months later, the Schindlers sold their Philadelphia-area home after Bob’s material-handling business failed. Then they, too, moved to St. Pete. And so did Terri’s brother, Bobby.
Because Michael and Terri worked opposite schedules, Terri spent a lot of time with her parents and their friends, Fran Casler and Sherry Payne. Sometimes, Sherry remembers, Michael came along, too.
SHERRY PAYNE: The one that really sticks out was when we were at that concert...at Pass A Grille, right?
SFX: STREET FAIR SOUNDS, PEOPLE LAUGHING, MUSIC
SHERRY PAYNE: And they shut off the street. You know, no cars could come. So we had blankets and everything, and Terri was there and Michael was there, Bob and Mary and the Clings were there and it was so much fun.
Terri’s olive skin browned in the Florida sun and the constant bikini weather motivated her to lose more weight. But she wasn’t skinny. A family photo from that period shows Terri smiling on a beach in a bandeau bikini with pastel geometrics. She’s tanned and slim, but with womanly curves.
No more beach trips now, though. No more bikinis. Terri’s in a nursing home, completely dependent on her caregivers. It’s been tough on everyone.
For Michael, money isn’t just tight. It’s almost nonexistent. Unable to work, he lives on Terri’s disability payments from social security. He can’t foot the bill for more rehab. And the stress of her care weighs on him and he slogs through a haze of depression—and sometimes—rage.
By this time, Terri lives in a nursing home called Sabal Palms. And Michael isn’t happy with the care she’s getting. He starts railing against the Sabal Palms staff. Hunts down staff members and chews them out, asking why they aren’t doing their jobs.
Michael’s friend, Dan Grieco, says he doesn’t remember that happening…but if it’s true, it’s understandable.
DAN GRIECO: Here's a guy that's 26 or 27. His life—as he expected it—just ended on a Sunday morning. Right? In 1990. You're angry. He wasn't angry with me. But he was angry at everybody. He was angry at life. How do you how do you deal with something like that? I mean, those first three years were horrible.
Michael files grievance forms against the nursing home staff, one report after another, accumulating a stack of complaints an inch thick.
Years later, after the Schiavo case went to court, a court-appointed investigator would interview 13 members of the Sabal Palms staff. Several said Michael yelled in the hallways, intimidated staff, and brought nurses to tears. The staff learns to dread his tirades. They say he’s a bully, harassing them about Terri’s care and screaming at them when they don’t follow his instructions to the letter. But several witnesses at the time notice Michael’s dedication.
GEORGE FELOS: Michael Shiavo is a nursing home administrator's nightmare. He has had nurses, aides, administrators in tears because of his overbearing demeanor and demands that Terry get the best care possible.
That’s attorney George Felos. He’ll become a major figure in the Schiavo case. You’ll meet Felos in Episode Six. Doctor David Baras also has great regard for Michael. Baras says that Michael is devoted to Terri, perhaps obsessively so.
Bob and Mary also notice Michael’s dedication. They never thought their daughter had an eating disorder. But it sounds plausible, at least. What else could explain what happened? And Michael tells them that if he wins the case…
MARY: The money is going to be used for her to be taken care of, you know, and she's going to have a house—that's for him on one side. And then the other side was going to be a house for her with everything in it that she could possibly have, like, rehab and nurses.
But Bobby is a little more cautious.
BOBBY: My dad was spending all of his savings and he wasn't receiving any rent from the condo that he was letting Michael and Terri stay at the time. And yeah, I just said make sure Michael honors what he says. I just wanted my dad to be protected in case. And I remember my father said that he wasn't gonna do that, that he trusted that Michael would do what he said he was gonna do...
SFX: COURTROOM SOUNDS
Back in Courtroom B, Michael testifies to exactly that. Not only will he take care of Terri, he’s going to study nursing so he can bring her home, take care of her himself, help her get better.
In other testimony, Michael says he never noticed unusual eating habits. And he had no indication whatsoever that Terri had an eating disorder. She ate a huge omelet most Sundays—cooked it and ate it all. Sometimes, the couple would order in.
SCHIAVO (VOICED): We’d order a pizza and she’d eat practically all of it.
Doctors also testify on Terri’s behalf, including Dr. Baras. From the witness stand, he tells the jury about Terri’s cognition…what she can and can’t do. He says that Sabal Palm therapists have been able to get Terri to follow a one-step command. Not always, but she could do it. Baras said this meant Terri might be able to regain some brain function and make progress.
Glenn Woodworth wants the jury to see for themselves what Terri’s life is like. So he shows them a 20-minute video. Michael rises from his chair at the plaintiff’s table and joins Woodworth on the main floor of the courtroom. From there, he narrates what’s happening in the video.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): Mike, if you will, just as we go along tell the jury what’s happening here.
SHIAVO (VOICED): Right here, basically, you can see she’s already had her shower and everything. We would get her dressed, put her shoes and socks on…
The video goes on. Michael tells the jurors what they are seeing: Michael and Mary working together to care for Terri.
SHIAVO (VOICED): ...and I usually do a little bit of range of motion.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): She doesn’t like that very much?
SHIAVO (VOICED): No, she doesn’t. She does feel pain.
Wait…what? Remember: Back in 1990, Dr.Garcia DeSousa diagnosed Terri as being in a persistent vegetative state. PVS patients have sleep/wake cycles, but they are not aware of their environments. And, by definition, PVS patients don’t feel pain.
More scenes from Terri’s typical day: Michael putting makeup on Terri. Moving her between her bed and her chair. Stretching out her arms and bracing her legs to prevent contractures.
Terri has a feeding tube attached to her abdomen. In the video, a speech pathologist massages Terri’s lips and throat.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): You hoping he can get her to the point where she swallows?
SHIAVO (VOICED): Yes...She just swallowed that time.
If therapists can teach Terri to swallow consistently, they can take her off the feeding tube. She’s gotten her food and hydration that way for two years. She’ll continue to do so if she can’t learn to swallow.
Remember: this is November 1992. At trial, neither Michael nor his attorneys tell the jury that Terri wouldn’t want to be kept alive by a feeding tube. Then Michael’s attorney asks a key question.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): How do you feel about being married to Terri now?
SHIAVO (VOICED): I feel wonderful. She's my life and I wouldn't trade her for the world. I believe in my wedding vows...
Again, this isn’t Michael’s voice, but those are his words read from a transcript. Michael says he believes in his wedding vows. He chokes up at this point, shedding tears in full view of the jury. Woodworth asks the judge for a short recess. Then:
WOODWORTH (VOICED): You okay?
SHIAVO (VOICED): Yeah. I’m sorry.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): You believe in your wedding vows, what do you mean by that?
SHIAVO (VOICED): I believe in the vows I took with my wife, through sickness, in health, for richer or poor. I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I'm going to do that.
In his closing statement, Woodworth makes an emotional appeal.
WOODWORTH (VOICED): There is life, life inside this woman. Something is flickering there. How much, we don’t know. She is trapped in that body. She’ll be trapped the next 51.27 years—half a century.
He’s referring to the number of years doctors projected that Terri will live. Michael had said that he believed in his wedding vows and that he would take care of Terri for the rest of his life. That’s going to cost a lot of money. Woodworth asks the jury to award the Schiavos twenty million dollars.
It’s going to take that jury less than three hours to return a verdict. But what the jury didn’t know may have been as important as what they did.
At the same time Michael was giving his emotional testimony about his wife, he was seeing another woman. Had been for almost a year. Her name was Cyndi Brashers. They got to be good friends. And…maybe more than friends. In 2001, when the Schiavo case first crept into Tampa-area regional news, Cyndi Brashers dialed into a radio call-in show.
CYNDI (BRASHERS) SHOOK: I was the first girl Michael dated...
Michael’s relationship with Cyndi didn’t become public until then. Each remembers the relationship differently. And sometimes they even contradict themselves. We’ll explore that in a future episode.
But in a 1993 deposition, a lawyer asked Michael whether his relationship with Cyndi Brashers was intimate. He said yes. But he would later say they never actually dated. And that deposition answer? Michael would say the lawyer never defined what “intimate” meant.
But Michael and Cyndi did hug and kiss. And according to Cyndi, they even talked about marriage. Cyndi says Michael asked her once: “What would you do if I asked you to marry me?” Cyndi says she told Michael, “I would say that you’re married to somebody else and you can’t ask me that question.”
Michael has an explanation for all that. He says Bob Schindler told him to do it. To move on with his life. Even told Michael to go out and find someone to sleep with.
It’s unclear whether Michael slept with Cyndi. But they did spend a lot of time together. Cyndi said they talked a lot about Terri … her condition, her medical care, and how she interacted with him.
CYNDI (BRASHERS) SHOOK: He said that he would go through the nursing home. And he said immediately, as soon as he got near the door, her head was already looking at the door because she would recognize his voice. [Right?] And she would start crying when he got ready to leave.
But there are other things that don’t quite line up with Michael’s heartfelt testimony about how much he loved his wife. Terri loved animals and couldn’t stand to see them hurt. Remember that time she thought she’d run over a cat? She was hysterical.
At the time of her brain injury Terri had two cats—Tolly and Shanna. Terri found Shanna first: an emaciated, flea-bitten kitten on the side of the road. The vet said there was nothing to be done for Shanna…but Terri disagreed. She stayed home from work for two days to nurse the kitten back to health. Later, she worried that Shanna would be lonely, so Terri adopted a second cat from a shelter: Tolly. Terri picked Tolly when she found out he’d been abused.
Mary still has the photos Terri took of Tolly and Shanna. When Michael gave up the Schiavos’ apartment, he had no place for the cats. Mary says she begged Michael to take Tolly and Shanna to a shelter.
Instead, he had them euthanized.
CASLER: And the fact that they were Terry's you know, why? Why would he destroy? You know—what she loved…
That’s Fran Casler.
CASLER: Why would he want to do that? I just can't imagine doing that to an animal that’s perfectly healthy. You know, I understand if he couldn't take care of them and you give them away or you you know, but you don't just put them down...
Michael says Mary told him to do it.
Back at old Pinellas County Courthouse, the malpractice jury doesn’t know about Cyndi Brashers…or the cats. And they reach their verdict in two hours and 46 minutes. They had to answer seven questions, the most important of which was Question 1: Was there negligence on the part of Dr. Stephen Igel which was a legal cause of injury to Theresa Schiavo?
The jury’s answer: Yes.
But they don’t go for the $20 million Woodworth had asked for. Instead, they award Terri $4.8 million in damages, and Michael $2.1 million for what is called “loss of consortium”—the loss of Terri’s companionship and affection. Here’s Dan Grieco.
DAN GRIECO: The verdict was enormous. It was the biggest verdict at least in the county that year.
But there’s a catch. The jurors conclude that Terri did indeed have bulimia. That means they held her partially responsible for her own brain damage.
DAN GRIECO: In some states, it's called contributory negligence, as the victim, if you contributed to it. In some states, you can't recover anything. In Florida it's a comparative negligence statute, which means that the jury, they attribute percentages to the plaintiff and the defendant. So they found a 70-30 comparative negligence split.
That reduced the initial award by about 70 percent. And so, some math was required. In the end, the jury awarded about $1.56 million to Terri. About $686,000 went directly to Michael. After attorney’s fees, he received about $300,000. Worth about 600,000 today.
On January 27, 1993, the court issued final approval on that settlement. The money was in the bank.
And three weeks after that, everything changed.
SFX: AUTOMATIC DOOR
It’s Valentine’s Day, 1993. A Sunday.
Terri Schiavo sits in her chair at Sabal Palms, dressed, with her hair and makeup done by one of the nurses. Michael brings her a dozen red roses and sets them on a table, then pulls out his school books. He’s taking classes to get certified as an EMT. He plans to sit next to Terri as he studies for a few hours.
Bob and Mary Schindler come in, greet Michael, say hello to Terri. Then, Bob walks over to Michael.
MARY: He said to him, to Michael, “Michael, I thought we were going to use some of this money to take care of Terry and get her rehab.”
He means the money from the malpractice settlement. Since the trial, Bob had asked Michael twice about his promises to them and to Terri. Michael always said they’d talk about it later. Then on Valentine’s Day, Bob asks Michael again.
MARY: And he stood up and he got so mad at Bob.
Mary says Michael tells them, “There is no money.” And then things get heated. No one is sure who started yelling first. Michael says it was Bob. The Schindlers say it was Michael.
MARY: He took the books. And he threw em, took the books just off the table, and they went flying up against the wall. And he said that she's not getting any rehab. You're not getting anything.
Bob goes toe to toe with him…all of five foot eight versus Michael’s six foot six. The two men scream at each other, red-faced and furious, hurling accusations and threats.
Mary, who is tiny at five-foot-three, jumps up and gets in between them. Trying to calm them down. Trying to stop one of them from punching the other. Then, Michael shuts it all down.
MARY: And that was that. And he walked out of the room and he says, “you can talk to my attorney.”
The Schindlers are devastated. Mary feels like she’s been punched in the stomach. And Mary is terrified of what Michael was going to do next.
Michael has a different version of the Valentine’s Day fight at Sabal Palms. Michael says Bob Schindler planted himself in front of the chair Michael was sitting in and demanded to know about the malpractice money. “How much am I going to get?”
Bob was talking about the money Michael had gotten for loss of consortium. That was the only part of the jury award over which Michael had direct control.
Michael says he tried to stay cool. But that Bob just kept pushing and pushing. So Michael said, “You know something? I’m just going to give it all to Terri.” Michael says that’s when things escalated.
He says his father-in-law had been obsessed with the malpractice settlement. Bob didn’t think it was enough. He’d driven everyone around him crazy, calculating and recalculating the numbers. Dan Grieco says:
DAN GRIECO: Bob came in to see me….and asked how much he and Mary should be getting.
LYNN: (OFF MIC) Do you remember his exact words or a close paraphrase?
DAN GRIECO: Are Mary and I entitled? Are we entitled to any compensation out of this? We've taken care of Terri, you know…
LYNN: (OFF MIC) Would that be because they had drained their savings and mortgaged their house and would like to be made whole again? That kind of thing?
DAN GRIECO: I don’t remember it being that.
But Bobby Schindler says it was exactly that.
BOBBY: I do remember telling my dad: "you know Dad maybe you should get something in writing from Michael that he’s going to use the money you know, for Terri, and also reimburse you all the money" that you—you know—that to help him at the time.
People outside this family fight are also concerned about Michael’s behavior.
Don’t forget: he’s clashed with the Sabal Palms staff for months. But that day, February 14th, 1993, Sabal Palms administrator Emily Layton has had enough. She files for a restraining order against Michael.
According to the filing, Michael had come to Sabal Palms two days before. He acted in a “belligerent manner,” causing “fear of bodily injury to the staff members and/or residents.” Administrators at the nursing home talked him down. Now, two days later, a screaming match in Terri’s room. Right next to where she was sitting?
Layton wants to keep Michael from entering the Sabal Palms premises and from contacting any of the staff or residents. But the restraining order doesn’t go through. A judge denies the request.
But Bobby Schindler isn’t about to be denied. When he hears about Michael’s fight with his parents, he’s furious.
BOBBY: I had a meltdown. I got extremely upset. I got so mad. I punched a hole in the hallway, my bedroom door. I was extremely mad. And I grabbed my keys. And I was going to go over and confront Michael.
Next time on Lawless:
JIM SHEEHAN: He had this money that was supposed to be used to take care of Terri. So that created a conflict for him if something happened to her, that money would be his. It wouldn't be spent on her well being, which to me, was just a clear conflict of interest.
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. Audio support from Creative Genius Productions. Lawless is reported and written by Anna Johansen Brown, Bonnie Pritchett, and me, Lynn Vincent. Thank you for joining us.
(in order of appearance)
“Ferris Bueller's Day Off Opening Soundtrack (Film Version)” Youtube video by Neo Anderson
Ronald Reagan - “State of the Union: President Reagan's State of the Union Speech - 2/4/86,” Youtube video by Reagan Foundation
“Top Gun Opening Scene” Youtube video by skyMTV
“Top Gun - ‘Great...Maverick & Goose’” Youtube video by Potentium
“Kenny Loggins - Danger Zone (Official Audio)” Youtube video by Kenny Loggins
“Gimme that old time religion” (Inherit The Wind, 1960), Youtube video by katkapital
George Felos - “Between Life & Death - the Terri Schiavo Story” by beanfieldproductions
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