This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
Helen Schafer was a woman who always gave more than she ever expected to get back. She was a dedicated hospice nurse, serving her patients with all she had so they wouldn’t die alone.
But Helen died completely alone, in the middle of the street, her killer fleeing the scene unnoticed.
On most Friday nights, Helen and her grandkids would be on the couch watching movies. Helen would often walk across the street to get snacks for movie night. The Snappy Food Store, the neighborhood corner store that claimed to have the “coldest beer in town” was her normal stop.
On July 2, 2016, at around 9 p.m., as she was crossing Merrill Road in Jacksonville, Florida, Helen Schafer was struck by a dark SUV traveling at a high rate of speed. Authorities said she died at the scene.
The following day, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office received a call from a woman believing her car was involved in a hit and run, but she didn’t know who was driving at that time. Officers identified the vehicle and brought it in for analysis.
Christopher Schroeder, Helen’s son, believed that the police had found, in his words, the “smoking gun” to solve the case. However, the SUV came back inconclusive because police were unable to determine who was driving it at the time of the incident.
Even though the vehicle that hit Helen was located, the case is still unsolved almost four years later because the driver has yet to be identified. Christopher’s wife, Cat Schroeder, is reminded of her mother-in-law’s death every day. She and other family members are constantly searching for the truth in order to find justice for Helen.
Helen was born in 1955 and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “You could tell that she was a ‘50s girl and she was very old-fashioned,” Cat said. Helen often used phrases from long ago. “Go suck on an egg,” her family heard her say more than once, when she wanted someone to be quiet.
Helen was very active and creative as a child. She found joy in riding horses and doing ceramics. “She crocheted till the day she died,” Cat said.
After high school, Helen studied at the Pittsburgh School of Nursing. Helen always knew she wanted to help take care of people. “She didn’t do it for recognition; it was something that her soul needed,” Cat said.
“Just being in the same room as Helen made you feel relieved and calm,” Cat said, comparing her mother-in-law to a Catholic person seeing a cross of the Blessed Mother in the room.
Helen loved being a nurse, but once she started having grandkids, they became her world. “Being a grandmother meant everything to her,” Cat said. “Nunna” is what Helen was called by her seven grandchildren.
Cat grew up in Lebanon and was unfamiliar with American dishes. Helen taught her all about the dishes she still cooks to this day. “I can see her in the kitchen showing me what to do when cooking one of those dishes,” she said.
One of Cat’s most cherished memories of Helen revolves around how much she loved to take care of her family. After Cat gave birth to her second child, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent a full hysterectomy.
Helen couldn’t sit idle during this time, so she left Pittsburgh to take care of Cat and her newborn grandson in Jacksonville. It cost Helen her job in Pittsburgh because of how much time she spent in Jacksonville, but she didn’t care. She just knew she had to be there to help take care of them.
“That was just who Helen was – she loved giving comfort,” Cat recalled. When Cat looks back, she can’t even fathom the lengths Helen went to take care of people. “She always went above and beyond, giving 155% to help,” Cat said.
Helen brought this mentality to her work as a hospice nurse. Helen would try and fulfill her patient’s last dreams – she took one to Hawaii and another to the Grand Canyon because they wanted to experience visiting certain places before they died. Helen was also able to help one of her patients elope and took her dress shopping so the woman could experience a wedding.
Helen’s family continues to reach out to police regarding the case. The lack of answers is frustrating. The investigating detectives have already changed at least once, Cat said.
Cat and her family are continually reminded of Helen “multiple times a day.” She wonders why it happened and why it remains unsolved. The case being unsolved leaves the family with more questions than answers.
During the hardest moments, Cat remembers one of Helen’s favorite sayings: “Man plans and God laughs.”
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Helen Schafer, please call the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at (904) 630-0500. To remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a $3,000 reward, call First Coast Crime Stoppers at (866) 845-TIPS.
Research and Impact
Education of victim’s rights is vitally important to ensure awareness of cases and receiving assistance for families.
For many of the families Project: Cold Case works with, discussions of mandated rights is often times surprising, as many have been left with feelings of despair and hopelessness in justice and process. We work diligently at providing our families with consistent and updated information regarding changes and amendments in their rights as victims. The right to be kept included and informed with the process concerning their loved one’s cold case is one of the rights that we see a notable lag in.
The reoccurring echoes heard from survivors reveal a disparity in how information is exchanged or updated. This could unfortunately be caused by many oversights on multiple parties. To ensure that our survivors are doing their part and staying engaged, we offer tips that could help, such as routine calls to law enforcement. While there is a need for reaching out routinely to check-in with the investigating agency on a loved one’s case, it offers opportunity to also ensure that all contact information for the survivor is updated and accurate.
Often, a survivor will move or make changes to how they can be reached after a tragic loss, most not considering how that affects the ability for ensuring they are consulted and informed during the process. This pops up more than not when dealing with cold cases, where years have potentially lapsed since last contact.