By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
part 1 of 2
Teresa Schoepflin used to dream of returning triumphant, college diploma in hand, to teach at the rural consolidated school she'd attended in tiny Mulhall, Oklahoma. That dream seemed about to come true in 1983, when she was awarded a basketball scholarship to Oklahoma State University in nearby Stillwater.
But Teresa turned down the athletic scholarship and turned her back on college and a teaching career when, at age eighteen, she married her brother's best friend, Dale Schoepflin, a local boy she'd known since the third grade. The couple settled in Stillwater, a few blocks from the college, and started a family that now numbers three sons. "I wanted to be a stay-home mom," Teresa explains. "I wanted to be like my mother and do what she did. I wanted to be the best mom I could."
Now, however, the 29-year-old Schoepflin stands accused in one of the most bizarre criminal cases in Denver history. Prosecutors have charged that she intentionally subjected her youngest son, Kyle, to unspeakable abuse--all while the two-year-old was a patient at two prestigious Denver hospitals. And, in what authorities describe as the first case of its kind filed in local courts, prosecutors are expected to argue that Schoepflin repeatedly brought her son to the verge of death merely to call attention to herself.
In a twelve-page criminal complaint filed in Denver this past spring, prosecutors say Teresa Schoepflin "unlawfully, feloniously, knowingly and recklessly" abused or attempted to abuse her son on 38 separate occasions. According to court documents, 28 of those "events" were considered life-threatening. If convicted of all charges, she could face a prison term of more than 100 years.
Denver pediatrician Leland Fan, who originally brought the case to the attention of investigators, testified at Schoepflin's preliminary hearing that be believes Teresa forced Kyle to inhale fluids into his lungs, severed a catheter hooked to the desperately ill boy, removed an oxygen tube that had been taped under his nose and, in one instance, nearly drowned him.
Fan added an even more baffling twist to the case with his explanation for the alleged abuse. He told investigators that Teresa Schoepflin fits the profile of someone suffering from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a rare and little-understood condition in which mothers compulsively fake or cause illnesses in their children to gain sympathy for themselves.
Teresa Schoepflin has since entered a plea of not guilty to 33 felony counts of child abuse, 2 felony counts of attempted child abuse and 3 misdemeanor counts of abuse or attempted abuse. She says she's a victim of circumstance, emphasizing that no one ever saw her harm the boy. She dismisses as inconsequential the fact, noted by police investigators, that she was the only one with her son when nearly all of the alleged incidents of abuse occurred. After all, says Schoepflin, she stayed with her son twelve or more hours a day when he was hospitalized, so it only stands to reason that she would have been present during the episodes. Schoepflin claims that Kyle's medical chart indicates the boy often struggled to free himself of the tubes and wires taped and jabbed into his body. And she says she never fed him anything that hadn't been handed to her by nurses.
Teresa's supporters, including her husband, her family and numerous friends, label the allegations against her "asinine" and a "grievous error." The criminal prosecution, they say, is the result of a witch hunt by a zealous, overprotective medical community.
But Denver social workers are so convinced Kyle's life is at risk that they've wrested him from his family and placed him in foster care. The Schoepflins, who still live in Oklahoma with their other two sons, have been able to see the boy only twice since May, driving the 700 miles to Denver for two-hour visits that must be arranged at least a week in advance. The couple say authorities have turned down their offer to move Teresa out of the house in Stillwater in exchange for Dale receiving custody of Kyle. Dale Schoepflin says his support for his wife has convinced social workers that he might not take steps necessary to protect his son.
"The way the system is set up, there's no guarantee we'll ever get Kyle back," says Teresa in an interview conducted during a recent trip to Denver. "How is our family ever going to get back together?"
Until five months ago, Teresa says, she had never heard of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. But she says she's learned a lot about it since the March day police hustled her from her son's bedside and out the door of the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine.
The condition is named for an eighteenth-century baron named Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Munchausen, a blowhard known for telling tall tales about his alleged military exploits. His name went down in history only because an acquaintance decided to put the baron's fantastical adventures in writing.
The name Munchausen eventually became so allied with the idea of making up phony stories that the term "Munchausen Syndrome" was coined to describe cases in which adults fabricate or induce illness in themselves. Munchausen patients sometimes ingest or inject poisons into their systems. In one well-publicized Colorado case, a woman who competed in disabled skiing events is believed to have faked blindness, cancer and a host of other serious illnesses.