What really took 2 lives in Schaefer case?

By Mark Davis mrdavis@ajc.com

TOCCOA — It is a mystery that may never get a satisfactory answer.

It will be discussed a while longer at kitchen tables, in chat rooms and other places where people ask questions. The names of the dead will resurface when cops discuss cases that stick with them. The funeral programs will be tucked away for someone else to find.

And when they turn up, so will the old questions. What happened? Why did he kill his wife of 52 years? What did the notes say?

Here’s what police say:

On March 26, Bruce Schaefer, 74, a longtime Atlanta stockbroker who’d retired to his boyhood mountain haunts, shot his sleeping wife, Nancy Schaefer, 73, a former state senator and a conservative political activist. Then he turned the .38-caliber handgun on himself.

The Schaefers were dead when their daughter found them in the bedroom of their Habersham County home. Investigators discovered a suicide note, as well as notes to each of the couple’s five children.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the case, is emphatic.

“This is as clear-cut a case of murder-suicide as you’ll see,” said spokesman John Bankhead. The state agency will close out its investigation after doing a few more interviews and running some toxicology tests — standard procedure in death cases, said Bankhead.

So case closed — or nearly.

And yet, people talk. They talk about a twosome that was rarely apart, about a woman who achieved renown for her unapologetic stands against abortion and overzealous child protective services. They talk about her husband, who tried, but never managed, to ignore his wife’s critics as effectively as she.

People talk, and they wonder.

A conservative voice

Nancy Schaefer was a multitasker before the term was coined. Married and living in Buckhead, she was busy with five children. But activism tugged.

In 1985, she organized an Atlanta rally for constitutional liberties. A year later, she created the nonprofit Family Concerns Inc., a foundation that champions display of the Ten Commandments, fights abortion and opposes what it considers overly aggressive child-custody agencies.

In 1988, she worked for Jack Kemp’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination. In subsequent years, she ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Atlanta and lieutenant governor and governor of Georgia.

Those campaigns raised her profile as a conservative capable of an elegant reply. In 2002, she was a regular in “Woman to Woman,” a weekly feature representing views from the left and right in the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Bruce retired in 1996. Like so many other well-heeled Atlantans, he and his wife left Georgia’s capital for the mountains. There, her political tenacity paid off.

In 2004, Nancy Schaefer won the first of two elections to the state Senate. In 2008, she lost to Jim Butterworth, who holds that seat now. In between, she remained active in other causes. She represented the Southern Baptist Convention at United Nations conferences. She started more nonprofit organizations and became a trustee at Toccoa Falls College. She sang in the choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Toccoa. She made devoted friends, and some bitter enemies.

Bruce? He was her amiable shadow. Photos depict a tall man with an athlete’s build — he played football at Clemson, then served in the Army — with a smile nearly as big as he.

“You hardly ever saw one without the other,” said Robert “Buster” Smith, whom Bruce often visited when Nancy came to town from their Clarkesville home to get her hair done.

A Toccoa native, Smith saw Bruce Schaefer on the last Tuesday of his life when he stopped by Smith’s furniture store. “He seemed like his old self,” said Smith. “I have a hard time believing it happened like it happened.”

‘Life happened’

The Schaefers lived in The Orchard, a gated country club community about 15 miles northwest of Toccoa in Habersham County. It’s located off a twisty road where ancient wooden barns silver in the sun.

Their home served as headquarters for some of Nancy’s activities. There she wrote frequent online articles on topics as diverse as the Obama administration’s health care program to the possible biblical significance of solar eclipses. Her last, decrying implanting microchips in humans, appeared Feb. 17.

Cleaning out the house won’t be easy for the Schaefers’ children, said Habersham Sheriff Joey Terrell, whose officers were first on the scene after the shootings. “There’s a house that’s full of stuff to take care of,” he said.

Full of memories, too.

“They were a part of life,” said Terrell, “and life happened to them.”

Mourners, memories

Ushers counted more than 800 people at the couple’s funeral service Wednesday afternoon. Mourners filled Ebenezer Baptist’s sanctuary, two choir rooms and an adjacent building. Thirty state senators came on a chartered bus from Atlanta.

They watched a slide show of family photos that highlighted happy times: Bruce in his Army uniform; Bruce and Nancy swirling across a dance floor; children; grandchildren. The images bestowed on her a calm dignity that comes from decades of living; he got a little wider, his hair a little whiter, but the smile remained the same.

The Rev. Andy Childs urged people to focus on how the Schaefers lived, not how they died.

“The tragedy of the last several days ... does not erase the testimony of their lives,” he said.

Charlie Wysong, a family friend, drove three hours from Chattanooga to attend the 70-minute service. “When I heard about it, I couldn’t believe it at first,” he said. “I said, ‘How out of character.’”

The news also brought the business of state lawmaking to a temporary stop.

“It’s just a terrible tragedy,” said Rep. Rick Austin, a Republican from Demorest. “I don’t think anybody will ever really understand what happened.”

Not what it seems?

That doesn’t stop people from trying. Rev. Childs, speaking during the funeral service, mentioned Bruce taking medication. Others talk about possible financial misfortune.

Conspiracy-mongers have been busy, too. The Schaefers, they suggest, paid the price for their conservative convictions and were silenced by shadowy forces. Whoever shot Nancy, they maintain, also shot Bruce.

Web sites buzz with comments about a reputed cover-up. A Facebook page, “We Demand An Extensive Investigation On The Death of Senator Nancy Schaefer,” had 988 fans Thursday afternoon. Friday morning, it had 1,116.

The people who may have the best idea of what happened, the couple’s children, are remaining quiet. Police won’t say much, either.

So people wonder, and talk. Mysteries with no satisfactory answers, like empty rooms, attract odd things.