By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
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The constant care did little to alleviate Steven's problems, however. When Steven was five years old, Bob testified, "he had a vocabulary of about ten words. And he had trouble with people understanding him until he was probably in eighth grade."
Sharon also noticed that Steven seemed to have difficulty concentrating. He couldn't stay on task. His muscle coordination was poor, he was impulsive and he had odd sleep patterns. Sharon expressed her concerns to the doctors at Children's; while still in kindergarten, Steven was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and placed on the medication Ritalin.
Bob was never able to come to grips with the fact that his son was not perfect, and he took to belittling the boy. At Bob's trial, Suzanne testified that her parents had numerous arguments about Steven in front of the boy. Her father, she said, would complain that "this stupid little retard should go to an institution."
Suzanne seemed Steven's opposite. The carrot-topped child was bright--almost aggressively so --and physically agile. By the time she was two or three, she'd surpassed Steven emotionally and physically. She began playing the piano when she was in kindergarten. She took gymnastics lessons. When she was in third grade, she won a fiction-writing contest sponsored by the Tattered Cover Bookstore. In everything, Suzanne was intensely competitive.
"Suzanne always had to be Number One," says Carole McNeilly, a former neighbor who's known the Wahrles since Suzanne was just eighteen months old. "If someone did something, she was going to bust her butt to make sure she did it better." And Suzanne, she notes, was particularly competitive with Steven.
Sharon believes the sibling rivalry was rooted in the amount of attention devoted to Steven. Suzanne was often forced to accompany her brother to his therapy sessions, cooling her heels in a continuous stream of doctors' waiting rooms. And back at home, Sharon spent much of her time tutoring Steven, since she was determined that he attend public school. "I knew he had abilities, and I wasn't about to put him in a special program where I thought he didn't belong," she says.
Suzanne herself could sometimes be difficult to handle. "Suzanne constantly tattletaled," McNeilly says. "We had so many time-outs I can't count them, because she'd tattle and tattle and tattle on anything and anybody. And sometimes I would have been standing right there, and I knew it didn't happen."
Suzanne and Steven were only four and five when their competition developed into biting, scratching fights. "Suzanne always won," McNeilly says. "He was afraid of her. You could see it from the time they were little."
Steven started the fights about half the time, Sharon says, and Suzanne instigated the rest. But no matter who started it, Suzanne always had to have the last word. She would slug her brother, hightail it to her room and slam the door, Sharon remembers. Sometimes, Steven would follow and pound and kick the door in frustration. Between the two of them, Bob had to replace a number of bedroom doors.
Bob wasn't much of a disciplinarian, Sharon says. He traveled a great deal, and when he was in town, he'd sometimes put in sixteen-hour days at work. "I was the one who stayed home and held the family together," she says. "He saw his position in the family as being the provider, and that was it. He was not the type of father who played a lot with his kids."
When Bob got home from work at night, Sharon continues, "it was like his bag was full, and his frustrations would come out in verbal and emotional abuse. He was emotionally and verbally abusive toward Steven and I. He probably was emotionally detached from all of us."
The kids felt the sting of their father's rejection so much that Suzanne later testified in court that the two of them hatched a number of plots to kill their dad. Some plans never came to fruition, she said, "because we'd fall asleep or something." But once, she added, Steven put some sort of "poison stuff" in their father's drink and it made him ill. (Sharon says her son put food coloring in Bob's soda.)
When Suzanne was older, she spent a great deal of time trying to convince her mother to leave Bob. And if the family split up, Sharon says, Suzanne wanted Steven to go with Bob.
Both Wahrle kids grew up interested in science, a result of their mother's own interests and her teaching abilities. When they were still quite small, Sharon would entertain her children by showing how certain household chemicals reacted with one another.
After Steven's fourth-grade class experimented on meal worms, Steven began dissecting maggots and bugs at home. Sometimes, he says, he and his sister would go down to a nearby pond and catch crayfish. Then the two of them would incinerate the creatures in a little mud "crematorium" they'd built underneath the back porch.
As he grew older, Steven began experimenting with fungus and algae, building a crude "lab" complete with aquariums in the basement of the Wahrle home. He was, he says, "trying to develop a kind of fungus that would break down things a lot faster--like for compost."