By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Darrin McGillis doesn't believe his sister committed suicide. On a warm afternoon in January, his eyes beginning to tear, he expresses his skepticism. “No one saw her hanging,” he says, having just ordered a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch at the Oasis Café in Miami Beach, an item not on the menu. In the morning he had attended a hearing and is still dressed in his usual courtroom garb -- a black plaid vintage suit that clashes with his boyish looks and the earthy décor of this Mediterranean restaurant. “There's a break in the ligature mark on her neck,” McGillis explains. “It looks like someone came from behind and she tried to pull on the rope. It's impossible to even tie a knot with that jump rope.” The 33-year-old is speaking about his sister, Wendolyn McGillis, and her boyfriend, Gerald Benge, the man he believes had something to do with her death.
When McGillis swept into dependency Judge Jeri B. Cohen's courtroom at the Juvenile Justice Center for the first time on January 9, 1998, a day after Wendolyn's death, he carried with him a black legal briefcase full of documents detailing the troubles that plagued his sister. McGillis says the judge was impressed with his appearance. “She wanted to know what business I was in,” he recalls. The onetime concert promoter describes himself as the machine behind entire arenas full of screaming, prepubescent girls. His sister, in contrast, depended on welfare during most of her adult life, was hooked on cocaine, and in the course of about fourteen years had been emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by the four fathers of her seven children, according to police reports, social workers, and family members. Six of those children are now in Florida state custody, temporarily living with foster parents and various grandparents.
Although he's not seeking to raise all the children himself, Darrin McGillis is determined to make sure they don't end up with any of the dads, particularly Gerald Benge, the last man in his sister's life. That's why he has been in court for well over two years.
The paper trail McGillis has collected on Wendolyn's case, and that of her children, is immense. He seems to know the details of his sister's life better than his own. There is literally little else that occupies his mind or consumes his energy. McGillis has gone from being a concerned brother to an obsessed litigant, shoving his point of view down the system's throat. “He's given up his life,” says Virginia Stanley, an attorney who was briefly involved in the case. But then again, she adds, “maybe he never had one.” Indeed while McGillis's tenacity is impressive, he's no stranger to litigation. He's sued six different people and entities, racked up about twenty out-of-court settlements concerning civil disputes, and has threatened to sue on at least thirty occasions. He seems to thrive on legal battles and courtroom drama.
“We believe that this was not a suicide,” McGillis expressed on that first day in court back in 1998, after stating his name and relation to the deceased. “The boyfriend [Gerald Benge] had something to do with it.” Lucy Piniero, a lawyer for Miami-Dade's Department of Children and Families (DCF), the child-welfare agency that wants to reunite Benge with his children, protested. “For the record I am going to object to him being heard, unless Your Honor has specific questions,” Piniero said, outraged at the accusation. “He has no standing.... We have some very serious concerns about the family dynamics, about him....”
McGillis's mother and stepfather, Janet and George Chaulklin, stood silently against a side wall, near the courtroom's entrance (they have temporary custody of one of Wendolyn's children). They had just flown in from Las Vegas and were still in shock; Janet Chaulklin had thrown up on the freeway as the family drove to court that Friday afternoon. A total of about ten lawyers, caseworkers, and protective investigators from the DCF shuffled papers and swarmed around the judge. About fifteen people sat in the courtroom gallery, three rows of hardwood benches in front of which this traumatic and tangled case would unfold.
McGillis is not only fighting to keep the children away from the fathers, he's also battling the DCF. The department's job, McGillis says, was to protect his sister and her children. He claims it didn't. Despite having spoon-fed the DCF with details about Wendolyn's hardships and potentially violent ex-boyfriend, McGillis says the state agency acted negligently by not referring her to counseling and by allowing Benge to live with her while she was dependent on government assistance.
Benge, a lanky blond man, told police he had discovered Wendolyn's body hanging from a yellow jump rope tied to a wire shelf in the upstairs bedroom closet of her apartment at around 11:20 a.m. on January 8, 1998. Benge, the father of the 32-year-old's two youngest children, told police he took her down and then ran to a neighbor's apartment and called 911. In the meantime her four-year-old daughter, Wendolyn's third-youngest child, went upstairs and found her dead mother on the floor.
Benge told police he had argued with Wendolyn earlier that morning and that she had been suicidal for about a month. Yet according to Piniero during the January 9 hearing: “Mom had been doing very well with her kids.” The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide. Toxicology reports revealed that before dying, Wendolyn was high on cocaine. Benge denied knowing anything about his mate's drug habit, according to Miami-Dade police reports. But according to others, he has used drugs. “He did everything you can think of and then some,” says Charles Scholl, Benge's ex-father-in-law. According to documents from the Department of Human Services in Utah, the couple's first son was born addicted to cocaine.