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McCandless mother ruled unfit for trial, sent to state hospital

| Monday, April 7, 2014, 11:55 a.m.
Laurel Michelle Schlemmer, 41, is accused of drowning her two youngest sons in the bathtub of her family's home in McCandless in 2014.

Laurel Michelle Schlemmer is depressed, psychotic and suicidal, making her unfit for trial on charges that she drowned her two youngest sons in a bathtub in their McCandless home, an Allegheny County psychiatrist said.

Three months of treatment in a state hospital could change that, a judge and forensic psychologists said on Monday.

“Most people with psychiatric disorders, with adequate treatment, improve or have a full recovery,” said Dr. Lawson Bernstein, a Pittsburgh-based forensic psychiatrist not involved with the case.

Dr. Christine Martone, chief psychiatrist for the county's Behavioral Assessment Unit, declared Schlemmer, 40, incompetent to stand trial and diagnosed her with major depressive disorder. Martone, who evaluated Schlemmer on Thursday, said she is psychotic and has “suicidal ideations.”

“Competence to stand trial means you have a factual and rational understanding of the charges against you and that you're able to cooperate with your attorney,” Martone told the Tribune-Review.

Martone said a “very small percentage” of people cannot be helped, and many of those who cannot have some traumatic brain injury, such as from a bullet wound, tumor or beating.

At a six-minute hearing on Monday, Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ordered Schlemmer to receive up to 90 days of treatment at Torrance State Hospital in Derry. Doctors will place her on medication.

Manning granted a request for a gag order by attorney Michael Machen, who is representing Schlemmer, that prohibits attorneys from talking about the case.

Dan Hendley, pastor of North Park Church where the Schlemmers are active members, could not immediately be reached.

No one would talk about Schlemmer's mental health history, how long she has been sick or other incidents that might have signaled mental illness.

Hospitalization at Torrance, operated by the Department of Public Welfare's Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, generally is ordered to restore a patient's competence, psychiatrists said. Most patients are prescribed medication so they can better understand charges against them, they said.

“She's not just going up to Torrance to watch TV. In some period of time, she will be well enough to be transferred to the Allegheny County Jail to participate in a knowing and competent way,” Bernstein said.

Schlemmer appeared in court by video teleconference from jail. She wore a red jumpsuit in place of a black vest she wore for a videoconference last week. Authorities described the vest as a precaution against suicide attempts. County officials would not say whether she remained on suicide watch, citing the gag order.

Schlemmer called police April 1 to report that two of her children appeared to have drowned in the bathtub of their Saratoga Drive home. Her husband, Mark, was not home, and their oldest son was at school. Luke, 3, died that day; his brother Daniel, 6, died on Saturday.

Schlemmer told investigators that “crazy voices” told her she'd be a better mother to her oldest child if the other two “weren't around,” according to court records.

Schlemmer told Northern Regional police last April that she accidentally hit the same two boys while moving her vehicle at the home of her parents, Donald and Virginia Ludwig, on Aviary Court in Marshall, police Chief Robert Amann said last week.

UPMC Passavant-Cranberry contacted police to report the incident, Amann said, but he couldn't say how seriously the boys were hurt. Police and hospital staff determined the incident was an accident, and employees of the county Office of Children, Youth and Families found no signs of abuse or neglect. Hendley said the injuries were “orthopedic” and said one child had trouble walking afterward.

Schlemmer is charged with homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault and other counts related to Luke's death. She will not be charged with counts related to Daniel's death until she returns from Torrance, a spokesman for the district attorney's office said.

A 1992 graduate of North Allegheny High School and a former teacher, Schlemmer worked in Dorseyville Middle School and Kerr Elementary School in the Fox Chapel Area School District from 1999 to 2004, a district spokeswoman said.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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