His Sister's Keeper

Is Darrin McGillis a noble crusader for his late sister's kids, or a courtroom junkie who thrives on drama? Both, actually.

Vicky Gardner was Wendolyn's next-door neighbor. From her home in Salt Lake City the 42-year-old mother of five, whom Wendolyn had referred to as “Mom,” says Benge lived with Wendolyn against housing-authority rules. On top of that, Gardner claims he held a job for only two months in the almost two years he resided there. “Gerald was a total asshole,” says Gardner of her unwelcome neighbor. “Wendy was a happy person when he was nowhere around.”

The dysfunctional family of six survived on a total of about $1200 per month in food stamps and cash assistance from the government. Wendolyn's subsidized housing rent was $127 per month. McGillis believes the couple was spending the money on drugs and that his sister was prostituting herself to support her and Benge's habit. “Wendy would go out in the middle of the night with different men,” Gardner recalls. “Gerald would take off as well, leaving the children unattended.”

On three occasions between 1995 and 1996, Gardner reported to Utah's Division of Family Services that the children were neglected and that one of the girls had bruises on her upper thighs. “My daughters were changing her diaper when they noticed the marks,” Gardner says. The young child complained to her about the pain. “It looked like she had been grabbed in that area.” Around the same time, Salt Lake City Police were called to the house for a domestic-violence incident. Benge was arrested and charged with battery on both occasions.

Darrin and big sister Wendolyn hold hands
courtesy Darrin McGillis
Darrin and big sister Wendolyn hold hands
McGillis, his mother, nieces, and nephews
courtesy Darrin McGillis
McGillis, his mother, nieces, and nephews

On January 16, 1996, Wendolyn gave birth to Benge's second child, her seventh and her last. In November and December of that year, Wendolyn didn't pay her rent. The Salt Lake City Housing Authority evicted the family, and by the end of December they were out on the street. A Mormon bishop put the family up in a hotel for about a week and shortly thereafter Wendolyn was arrested on a bench warrant for stealing scraps of copper from a schoolyard. Benge moved into a friend's basement with the five children.

Wendolyn called her brother from jail, concerned about her children, McGillis says, and asked him to bail her out. He agreed to help if she left Benge. On January 29, 1997, McGillis flew from Miami, where he had been living since 1991, to Las Vegas, huddled with his parents, rented a car, and drove to Salt Lake City. He got Wendolyn out of jail, took the children from Benge, and rented a room at the Embassy Suites hotel for the family. Wendolyn called Benge and told him to meet her in Miami. But instead McGillis took Wendolyn and her five children to Janet Chaulklin's home in Las Vegas.

Wendolyn and her children lived in Janet Chaulklin's home for just three months before she returned to Salt Lake City. Chaulklin gave her daughter $900 and at Wendolyn's request drove her and her five children to the Greyhound bus station. With the help of some friends, Wendolyn rented a two-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile Benge was in Miami looking for her.

In June 1997, at the urging of her family, Wendolyn enrolled at the Center for Women and Children in Crisis in Provo, Utah. She lived at the refuge with her children until the end of July and reported that Benge had at one time “slammed my head 50 times against the bathroom tile and then he filled the tub with water and sunk my head in it.” Kimberly Kowallis, the center's director, recalls a shaky, nervous woman who was a little lost. “Wendolyn was appreciative of any help she got,” Kowallis says. “She had suffered a lot of abuse -- physical, emotional, and sexual -- and was very much in fear for her life.” Wendolyn also was undergoing counseling at the Wasatch Mental Health Hospital. In August she moved to Springville, Utah, with her children. Toward the end of the month, detectives entered her apartment, McGillis says, and found crack wrapped in aluminum foil tucked away in a hamper. McGillis says the police declined to press charges. His sister called for help and he flew to Springville and brought them back to his home in Miami. Together the McGillises flew into town on September 3, 1997.

Darrin McGillis is a domineering man who likes things to go his way. During the reporting of this story he attempted to exert control over how and what information was gathered. So it was with his sister. At first Wendolyn and the children lived with McGillis in his two-bedroom apartment in Kendall Lake Towers for a month. She agreed in writing to have McGillis administer her finances -- food stamps, housing, and welfare checks -- for three months. “I, Wendy McGillis, am giving my brother “Power of Attorney,'” the contract stated. Wendolyn signed it on September 24. McGillis helped her apply for subsidized housing, and she was granted Section 8 in the same apartment complex where McGillis was living so he could keep a close eye on her. Wendolyn was totally dependent on her brother. “She would tell me: “Darrin, don't forget to bring me my chocolate and my Coke,'” McGillis says. “She needed it for her [drug] cravings.”

Although McGillis claims he only used a tough-love strategy to straighten out his sister's life, he may have gone overboard. In October 1997 he left her and three of the kids stranded near Quail Roost Drive after they had gotten into an argument on their way to see a DCF caseworker, according to a police report. McGillis, it seems, stifled Wendolyn. In fact when she died in January 1998, the two hadn't talked in more than a month.

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