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Pa. Senate candidate Sean Parnell’s wife testified that he choked her and hit their children

The testimony by Laurie Snell cast a harsh light on Sean Parnell, a leading Republican candidate endorsed by Donald Trump.

Sean Parnell during a campaign rally last year for then-President Donald Trump at the Pittsburgh International Airport. With Trump's support, Parnell, a decorated veteran, is now seeking the Republican nomination for one of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seats.
Sean Parnell during a campaign rally last year for then-President Donald Trump at the Pittsburgh International Airport. With Trump's support, Parnell, a decorated veteran, is now seeking the Republican nomination for one of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seats.Read moreKeith Srakocic / AP

BUTLER, Pa. — The estranged wife of Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell testified under oath Monday that he choked her until she bit him to escape, that he hit their young children, and that he lashed out at her with obscenities and insults.

In tearful testimony, Laurie Snell told a family court judge that her husband once called her a “whore” and a “piece of s—” while pinning her down. On another occasion, she said, Parnell slapped one child hard enough to leave fingerprint-shaped welts through the back of the child’s T-shirt. And she said he once got so angry he punched a closet door with such force it swung into a child’s face and left a bruise. She said Parnell told his child: “That was your fault.”

She also testified that after a Thanksgiving trip in 2008, he briefly forced her out of their vehicle alongside a highway after raging at her, telling her to “go get an abortion.”

In a statement released by his campaign, Parnell, a decorated Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and was endorsed this summer by former President Donald Trump, vigorously disputed his wife’s claims, calling a number of them “lies” and said he was looking forward to rebutting them when he presents his case next week.

”Let me emphatically state: I have never raised a hand in anger towards my wife or any of our three children,” the statement said. “What happened today in court was not justice, nor did it have any basis in fact or truth.“

Still, the sworn, public testimony — which took place after Parnell had tried and failed to win a court order closing the proceedings to the public and placing a gag order on his wife — seemed certain to significantly damage his ambitions, after he had emerged as the likely front-runner in a critical U.S. Senate race, one of a handful that could decide control of the chamber. The state’s incumbent Republican senator, Pat Toomey, is not seeking another term.

Parnell’s campaign website prominently displays photos of him smiling alongside the couple’s three school-age children. The site also describes him as an abortion opponent who “will always vote to protect the unborn.”

In a cramped, hot hearing room in this city north of Pittsburgh, Snell cast him as a man filled with intense rage and post-traumatic stress disorder, saying the abuse began even before they were married, in 2010, but became worse in 2018, the year he “started hitting the kids.” That was a breaking point, she said, and they separated that year.

Once, she testified, “He tried to choke me out on a couch and I literally had to bite him” to get free. “He was strangling me.”

He would rage at her during long car rides to visit family, she said. “He would go off on me and I wasn’t sure why.”

Wearing jeans, leather boots, and a black Under Armour jacket, Parnell watched just feet from his wife as she testified. His expression was not visible to reporters in the room.

Monday was the start of a three-day custody trial. Snell, who is seeking primary custody, was not subjected to cross-examination Monday, so her account went unchallenged. Parnell’s campaign noted that despite all of the accusations, the couple currently splits custody of their children, aged 8 to 12.

Snell and two of her siblings, a brother and sister, testified before a judge overseeing the case Monday. Three reporters, along with a member of Parnell’s campaign team, watched from a small bench in the back.

» READ MORE: Sean Parnell’s wife sought protective orders against him. Pa. Senate race rival Jeff Bartos says that makes him ‘unelectable.’

Parnell’s personal conduct amid the couple’s ongoing acrimonious divorce has become the most glaring question around his candidacy. He had already faced attacks from one GOP rival, Jeff Bartos, over temporary protective orders issued against him in 2017 and 2018, though neither of those became permanent and both were later expunged.

But until Monday there was little public information about Snell’s specific allegations.

In her testimony, she said her family grew to be terrified of her husband.

At times he would scream at her, sometimes holding her down in what she called “Sean-a-logues.” ”It was just Sean and no one else got to talk,” she said.

She said that she considered calling police, but that Parnell warned her not to. The family was then relying on his income as a public speaker and television commentator.

“He said it would ruin his image,” if she called police, she said.

“We were all walking on eggshells,” when he would return from trips, and take out frustration on the family, Snell said. “The minute he walked back into the house we were petrified.”

Parnell was diagnosed with PTSD and 90% disabled, she said, after his serving in Afghanistan, seeing heavy combat in 2006 and 2007 and receiving two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He later published a book about his time in the war. His publisher says he lectures in part about PTSD.

» READ MORE: Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell sought a gag order against his wife and her attorney as their dispute spilled into the campaign

In a statement released Monday night, Parnell accused his wife of “a number of false allegations” on the witness stand. He did not specify them but called them “complete fabrications; not distortions or misrepresentations — just flat-out lies. The truth is I love my family and I love my children more than anything.”

He also hinted that he planned to continue his campaign for Senate, saying he looks forward to getting back to raising his children and “talking with you about the critical issues facing our nation.”

But at least one Republican, former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, from Chester County, immediately called on Parnell to drop out of the race.

After this testimony “he’d lose to a golden retriever by double digits,” Costello tweeted. “He should write books & play hero on Fox & [get out] of the race. He’s a disaster of a candidate.”

Costello has in the past suggested he might run for Senate himself.

Temporary protective orders like the ones previously issued against Parnell are granted before the defendant has a chance to respond, and are commonly approved. In 2020, almost nine out of 10 requests for temporary protection from abuse orders were granted, according to Pennsylvania court figures.

Permanent protective orders are only issued after a joint hearing involving both parties. Neither of the temporary orders against Parnell became permanent. The first ended after an agreement between the couple, according to court records supplied by his campaign, and a judge dismissed the second order after a hearing.

Snell said Monday she agreed to end the first temporary order in hopes she and Sean could reconcile.

Parnell also sought a protective order against Snell in 2018, but was denied even a temporary order.

For Trump, the flurry of charges from Snell meant that he has now endorsed two Republican candidates shadowed by domestic abuse allegations.

In September, the former president had urged former NFL star Herschel Walker to run for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, endorsing him one day after he gave Parnell the nod and campaigning with him.

Walker’s ex-wife has testified that he was physically abusive and threatening toward her. A judge in Texas issued a protective order that prevented him from possessing a gun for a time.

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.