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Meanwhile the dependency court case that will ultimately decide who gets to keep which of Wendolyn's kids drags on. It's been playing itself out for more than two and a half years. E. Joseph Ryan, Jr., who represented McGillis on an appeal, refers to the case as a black hole. “I wouldn't even begin to speculate where this is going,” Ryan says. McGillis's mother was fed up a long time ago. “It's never going to end. Every little thing is going to be an emergency hearing every time we turn around, and I can't take it any more. I just can't,” she told Cohen during an April 1999 hearing.
The convoluted case has taken on a life of its own. Other lawsuits have sprung from it. From afar the scene is like a dense, enveloping cloud. Even New Times was pulled into the fray when Judge Cohen called an emergency hearing in May to find out if McGillis had leaked court documents to the press. The back-biting, harassment, and legal threats have added more of an edge to a case born from violence. “There's plenty of black humor in this thing,” Ryan comments. “A Hollywood screenwriter could take this and make it into something bizarre, I'm sure. It doesn't seem like it's connected to reality at all.”
And Darrin is the star of the show. He's made friends. “The guy is as good as some lawyers,” Stanley notes. And it seems, a number of enemies. “He doesn't threaten,” says DCF counsel Wells, “he suggests.”
McGillis was named Darrin Hardwick at birth. His teenage mother was six months pregnant with him and already had one-year-old Wendolyn when she married her first husband, Leroy Hardwick. Hardwick wasn't their father, but he gave the children his last name. The young mother spent most of her marriage escaping the abusive relationship, Janet Chaulklin claims. She traveled back and forth between Milwaukee and her hometown of Escanaba, Michigan, near the Canadian border. “I remember living in a small apartment in Escanaba where me and Wendy shared a king-size bed and our mom slept on the couch,” McGillis recalls. The union between the Hardwicks, which had produced no children, ended in divorce after seven years. Darrin and Wendolyn took their mother's maiden name, McGillis.
Peace and stability came to the McGillises in the form of George Chaulklin, Janet's current husband of 26 years. Darrin and Wendolyn McGillis were eight and nine years old respectively when George entered their lives. He was an old friend from Escanaba, population 3000.
The Chaulklins made Milwaukee their home. They moved into a three-bedroom, two-story house and George and Janet Chaulklin eventually had four children together. Later they moved to Florida, and then to Las Vegas. McGillis says for him, family life was pretty normal. But rarely for Wendolyn. She reported to a therapist that her mother had emotionally abused her as a child and one time beat her with clothes hangers. Janet Chaulklin denies having done either. “Wendy would say whatever the hell it took to get what she needed,” Chaulklin asserts.
McGillis and Wendolyn went to school together and developed a close bond while growing up in Milwaukee. “She wasn't the sharpest pencil in the box but she was a goodhearted person,” McGillis says of his sister. “She liked to talk a lot and was very outgoing.” In 1982 Wendolyn dropped out of high school, headed to Louisiana with her boyfriend, James Bultynck, and two years later had her first child with “Jimmer,” as the family calls him. After a run-in with the cops (Bultynck apparently had stolen a pickup truck and then left it in quicksand), the couple returned to Milwaukee, and in 1985 had their second child, a boy.
According to Wendolyn's parents, Bultynck was abusive to their daughter. “One time I let him borrow an extension cord; I come to find out he had used it to tie her up,” George Chaulklin says. “She had a gift for picking losers.”
Wendolyn and Bultynck split up when she was eight months pregnant with his third child. In November 1987, when that baby was born, Wendolyn already had begun dating Brian Backhaus. The 21-year-old mother gave up custody of her other two children to Bultynck (the oldest daughter, however, later moved back in with Wendolyn and currently is part of the custody cases).
According to Backhaus's mother, Paulette, Brian and Wendolyn shared a cocaine habit. “They were out of control with the drugs,” Paulette says from her home in Milwaukee. The couple, she describes, would go on robbing sprees. Throughout 1990 Brian Backhaus held up cashiers at two Subway shops and a restaurant at knifepoint, says Kris Lawrence, his parole officer from the Department of Corrections in Wisconsin. He served two years and was released on probation. In 1998 he robbed an Amoco gas station and was sent back to prison. Backhaus will be released May 13, 2001.
Prior to giving birth to Backhaus's daughter in Las Vegas on March 17, 1991, Wendolyn had been living in a car in Milwaukee. Darrin McGillis, who was living in New York, christened the child over the phone. Wendolyn was now the mother of four children, three girls and one boy, and her prospects were sinking fast.