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After jury award, battle lines drawn

A dispute over money grew into a lasting schism between Michael Schiavo and his wife's parents.

Published March 23, 2005

[Times file photo]
The Schiavos pose on their wedding day with the Schindlers and Terri's sister Suzanne.

ST. PETERSBURG - Once, Mary Schindler spoke in glowing terms of her son-in-law, Michael Schiavo, and the way he cared for her invalid daughter, Terri.

"Without him there is no way I could have survived all this," Mrs. Schindler said.

Then, on Valentine's Day 1993, Terri Schiavo's husband and parents quit speaking to each other. That was the day a $1-million malpractice verdict helped trigger a family conflict that has made its way to Congress and the White House.

Mary Schindler's words these days for her son-in-law:

"How can you starve somebody to death?"

Michael Schiavo says he wants to respect his wife's wishes.

Mary and Bob Schindler say they want to care for their daughter and try to rehabilitate her.

Even those close to the case can only speculate as to the motives of Terri Schiavo's family.

But in the shadow of a monumental right-to-die standoff is a feud muddied by that money.

"I frankly don't know what really happened," said Richard Pearse, who once served as Terri Schiavo's court-appointed guardian.

"In the weeks and months after the money was paid, this rift developed."

* * *

Terri Schiavo was in a Largo nursing home when her husband, Michael, arrived with an armful of Valentine's roses. Two dozen of them.

He set them down and started studying for college classes next to his wife's bed. The former McDonald's manager wanted to become a nurse so he could care for her on his own.

It had been nearly three years since Terri had collapsed and lapsed into a vegetative state. A heart attack, thought to have been caused by an eating disorder, left her brain-damaged and helpless.

Michael sued the Clearwater gynecologist who had been treating his wife for a year because he never asked about her medical or nutritional history.

Despite his wife's grim outlook, Michael had taken her to California for experimental treatment. He insisted on daily baths for Terri, not the usual twice-weekly standard.

As Schiavo studied that day, he awaited dinner with Terri's parents. But soon after the Schindlers showed up, a fight erupted. Michael Schiavo was on one side, throwing books and pushing a table. His father-in-law was on the other, his fists clenched.

Mrs. Schindler, in the middle, kept the two men from coming to blows.

"The parties have literally not spoken since that date," wrote Pinellas-Pasco Judge George Greer in a 2000 ruling ordering Terri's feeding tube removed. "Regrettably, money overshadows this entire case and creates potential of conflict of interest for both sides."

From the $1-million malpractice verdict, Terri Schiavo had received more than $700,000, which was put into a trust fund for her continuing care.

Another $300,000 went to Michael.

The parents got nothing.

Schiavo said the Schindlers grew angry because he would not share the settlement money.

The parents said the argument was about an infection Terri had contracted that Michael did not want to treat.

The son-in-law said they said he owed them at least $10,000 for rent and moving expenses. They had helped him financially over the years.

When the settlement money came, the Schindlers said they believed Michael would use it to buy a house, where they could care for Terri. But that didn't happen.

In testimony, Schindler said he asked Schiavo if he remembered their "agreement" to share the jury award.

"Michael, you made an agreement with my wife and myself that you were going to share that money with us," he said.

Schindler said he wanted to be his daughter's guardian because he didn't approve of the way Michael Schiavo was using the money.

"We're fighting for her," Schindler said. "We want her to live. It's as simple as that."

The Schindlers argued that Schiavo wanted to remove his wife's feeding tube so he could inherit the rest of the $1-million settlement money.

Schiavo said the Schindlers were motivated by greed. He alleged that they planned to become guardians and then ask for Terri's feeding tube to be removed.

The Schindlers questioned why Schiavo aggressively pursued treatment for his wife for years after her 1990 accident, and then, after the malpractice award, he changed his view.

"He's having my daughter put to death to get her money. That burns me up," Schindler testified in 2000 before bursting into tears.

Two weeks ago, Schiavo turned down a $1-million offer from a California businessman to walk away as his wife's guardian and let her parents take over. In 1998, Schiavo offered to donate the settlement to charity if her parents agreed to let her feeding tube be removed. They refused.

Schiavo has repeatedly said his wife did not want to live in a vegetative condition.

If the fight began about money, cash is a moot point now.

Schiavo attorney Deborah Bushnell told the Associated Press only $40,000 to $50,000 remains.

Times staff writer Lauren Bayne Anderson and researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 23, 2005, 00:56:13]

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