By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
McGillis is convinced the DCF is partly responsible for his sister's death. He's even filed a wrongful death suit in civil court against the agency. Karen Gievers, a top lawyer from Tallahassee who has won multimillion-dollar cases against the DCF on behalf of kids all over Florida, is representing McGillis. “There are children with no mom, and if the State of Florida contributed to their loss, then I will seek justice for them,” Gievers promises.
McGillis had first reached out to the department when Wendolyn came to Miami in September 1997. He assisted her in drafting a letter to the DCF, which she signed, asking the state's welfare agency to refer her and her children to therapy and waive her welfare-to-work obligations. In the letter Wendolyn also expressed that she feared an unnamed man who had “threatened to kill me and my children if I ever left him, and he is presently looking for me, calling all persons associated with me, including my brother, Darrin McGillis, who is responsible for helping me escape from him with the help of the Salt Lake City Police Department.”
Two months later McGillis had pleaded with Imran Ali, director of the division of family support for the DCF, and Anita Bock, Miami-Dade's former DCF administrator, to intervene on his sister's behalf, something Ali confirmed in court that first day. “Mr. McGillis met with myself and Anita Bock about three weeks ago, and he had shared a lot of information with us,” Ali told the judge.
“They just brushed me off,” McGillis claims. Eventually Gerald Benge managed to locate Wendolyn's whereabouts through a private investigator and began living with her in Section 8 housing, against subsidized housing rules, until her death. Benge turned down a request for an interview.
Charles Auslander, current district administrator for Miami-Dade's DCF, explains that while the agency could not provide a “fortress” for Wendolyn, she at least was receiving economic services, and a protective investigator had been to her home. Furthermore, upon receipt of the September letter, the DCF had referred Wendolyn for a mental examination, but she missed her appointment, says DCF's chief legal counsel Linda Wells. “That's a bunch of crock,” McGillis comments. “They never took action.”
McGillis also has one hell of a conspiracy theory. He believes the DCF is responsible for current criminal charges pending against him for not returning a rental car and for purchasing about $22,000 in computer equipment with a false company name and not paying for it. McGillis asserts both charges are bogus, part of the DCF's plan to get him out of the picture. Alan Soven, his defense lawyer, claims the state agency may have used its clout to influence the charges. “DCF has been trying to stick it to him,” Soven contends. Auslander scoffs at the idea. “There is no cabal against Mr. McGillis,” Auslander says. “If things were organized enough around here to conspire, I would be impressed.”
To say McGillis is persistent in his jabs at the system would be an understatement. “I've advised him not to file so many appeals and to lay low,” says an appeals attorney who asked not to be identified. “He's so emotionally involved with the case that he appeals every order he disagrees with.” Yet, with the calculated determination of a skilled attorney, McGillis has been able to hit more than a few raw nerves.
The high school dropout spends hours researching legal precedents at the University of Miami School of Law library, picks the brains of attorneys whom he befriends, orally argues his own appeals, and has even made case law. He has filed a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) on his own against Benge, even though the DCF plans on reuniting the father with his kids, ages three and five. He has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to remove Judge Jeri Cohen from the dependency case because he thinks she's biased against him. (The high court turned down his request.) McGillis has even filed a bar complaint against DCF attorney Lucy Piniero for allegedly misrepresenting facts in court, though the Florida Bar concluded there had been no misconduct committed by Piniero. He also sued the paternal grandmother of one of the children for slandering him, and won. “He's not laying down,” says attorney Virginia Stanley. “A little gnat like Darrin comes along and points out there's a major screwup, and DCF digs in its heels. They've placed a lot of time and energy in trying to make Darrin look like the most sinister man to walk the Earth. I think it's basically been a smear campaign directed at him.”
Like Stanley, who believes McGillis is right to question Wendolyn's suicide given the history of domestic violence that existed between the mother of seven and Benge, Karl Hall, another attorney familiar with the case, contends McGillis's cynicism has merit. Hall asserts that in juvenile courthouse culture -- where most cases are brought to court by the DCF -- the relatives of minors who become litigants are generally discriminated against by the courts simply because the system is not accustomed to having family members present their cases. “If you're not with the program, then for some reason you're a troublemaker,” says Hall. “That's the problem with Darrin's case; he's not going with the program. The program being whatever the Department of Children and Families says it is.” Adds Stanley: “Darrin's style has cost him dearly.”
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 Timeswas 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.
McGillis, on the other hand, was moving up. He had dropped out of school in the ninth grade and began organizing parties such as “the Triple City Kickass Dance Party” at the Crystal Palace in Milwaukee. At age fifteen he began doing street promotions for teenage acts by passing out flyers and hanging up posters. Then he'd rent out the Palace, charge entrance, and turn a profit. In 1986 McGillis took out a loan and promoted his first major concert at the Eagle's Million Dollar Ballroom: The rap group World Class Wrecking Cru, Dr. Dre's first act, was almost a sold-out show.
In 1987 McGillis promoted a Christmas dance party at Milwaukee's 15,000-seat Mecca Arena. “Next thing I knew, a year later I booked a concert for Menudo,” McGillis recalls. Edgardo Diaz, the group's founder and manager, asked McGillis to become Menudo's concert promoter. McGillis accepted and put together a four-city tour. “I was like this one-man operation,” McGillis says. The Puerto Rican heartthrobs made headlines in San Antonio, when some of the 1200 squealing fans who had rampaged through the mall where the band was signing autographs began tearing off their clothes and earrings.
By 1989 McGillis had begun promoting other concerts by acts such as the Jets and Exposé. In 1990 he convinced Menudo's lead singer, Angelo, to record for a company he owned. The move set in motion a lawsuit domino effect. Menudo sued Angelo, but that didn't stop the teenybopper from recording three songs for one of McGillis's six companies, World Wide Entertainment. Then Angelo signed with Warner Bros. in Mexico and McGillis's lawyers in Puerto Rico filed for an injunction against the singer. The court denied it; McGillis appealed to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and the high court ruled in McGillis's favor. Time Warner (now AOL Time Warner, the parent company of Warner Bros.) bought Angelo's contract from McGillis to avoid a lawsuit. But he sued anyway, for lawyers' fees not included in the settlement. The company countersued, and in the end a new settlement was reached. McGillis also agreed to stop sending letters to Gerald Levine, CEO of Time Warner. As for Angelo, he released one album that flopped, and Warner Bros. dropped him from its label.
In 1991, after scandals involving drugs, sexual abuse, and financial scams broke up Menudo, manager Diaz formed a new Menudo out of Miami and asked McGillis to reverse the group's tainted image. McGillis appeared on Entertainment Tonight and Fox News, giving the new band a good rap. He claims he also purchased exclusive booking rights for Menudo in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Eventually the new Menudo produced five albums. McGillis says he owns the rights to three Miami Menudo songs, three Ruben Gomez songs (a singer who was in the band when Ricky Martin was a member in the late Eighties), three Angelo songs, a 30-minute Miami Menudo music video, and two CD compilations of all the songs he owns. Finally McGillis claims he also owns the rights to a group called Explosion, which recorded only one album in 1993.
In 1997 the Miami Menudo changed its name to MDO when Sony Discos signed them on their Spanish-language label. That year McGillis took a sabbatical from the music business and embarked on a new mission. During his ascent in the Latin teen-music scene, he grew apart from his sister. “Wendy was always part of my life,” McGillis reflects. “I just needed my own space to make it.” Suddenly in 1997 he was at the center of her very bleak existence.
By the summer of 1992, Wendolyn and Brian Backhaus were no longer together. She began living with Robert Jon Jones, the son of Janet Jones, Janet Chaulklin's best friend from Escanaba. Jones also was into cocaine, and it helped to reinforce Wendolyn's growing addiction, McGillis asserts. The couple got high often and argued constantly. “He's a very vicious, violent individual,” McGillis charges. In 1992, according to court documents from Nevada, Jones was arrested for beating and sexually assaulting Wendolyn. Four years later the State of Nevada convicted Jones on lesser charges.
Gerald Benge came into Wendolyn's life in December 1992, says Janet Chaulklin. He was Wendolyn's neighbor in Las Vegas, living in Section 8 housing with his wife and two kids. Wendolyn was about three months pregnant with Robert Jones's child at the time. A month after meeting her, Benge left his family and headed for Utah with Wendolyn. “He still owes us about $8000 in child support,” says Carolyne Benge, his ex-wife. The new couple moved in with Benge's father, Larry, and lived there for about eight months before the elder Benge kicked them out. Benge smoked marijuana every day and dabbled in cocaine, according to his ex-wife. Toward the latter part of Wendolyn's addiction, she began using crack, say family and neighbors.
In June 1993 Wendolyn gave birth to her fifth child, in Las Vegas. She returned to Salt Lake City shortly thereafter and by the spring of 1994, Wendolyn, her children, and Gerald Benge were in a homeless shelter, where they lived for eight months. While at the shelter Wendolyn and her babies were referred to the Salt Lake City Housing Authority. She applied for housing and a week after giving birth to another child, Benge's son, the family moved into a three-bedroom house in early 1995.
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.
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.
Gerald Benge, who for nine months had been searching for Wendolyn in Miami, slipped back into her life in November 1997, just as the siblings were having a falling out. According to the investigator hired by Benge to find Wendolyn, she was desperate to reunite with her ex-boyfriend. “She wanted to see him but said to me that her brother wouldn't let her,” says Lorin M. Jacobson.
When McGillis found out that Benge was again residing with Wendolyn, he took back all the furniture and appliances he had let his sister borrow. “It would have all ended up at the corner pawnshop if he hadn't done that,” says Janet Chaulklin, who also withdrew her financial support. McGillis called 911 to have police remove Benge from Wendolyn's apartment. But police could do nothing. He also called the DCF's 24-hour abuse hotline. In September the department had already received a letter from McGillis and Wendolyn explaining the circumstances that contributed to her inability to work for government monies.
On November 23, 1997, DCF protective investigator Nancy Cuevas arrived at McGillis's home. He informed her of his concerns and volunteered documentation supporting his claims. Cuevas then headed to Wendolyn's apartment, in the same complex, and spoke to her and Benge. Two days later the couple accused McGillis of sexually molesting one of his nieces. McGillis took two lie detector exams and passed them. The State Attorney's Office dropped the charges.
Two weeks prior to his sister's death, McGillis sat down with DCF's then-district administrator Anita Bock and her right-hand man, Imran Ali. “I gave her documents supporting my concerns about Benge,” McGillis says. “When Wendy died with high doses of cocaine in her system, they went into full force to discredit, slander, defame, and prevent me from exposing the truth in court.”
Darrin McGillis became a man with a single mission. “DCF knew that this guy was capable of killing her and did nothing,” McGillis claims. “They probably thought, Oh heck, it's just another woman on welfare. It's embarrassing for them. They never thought that I would take it to the level that I have.”
He is consumed by his sister's life and death and by the disdain he feels for those whom he says contributed to her untimely passing. Few other thoughts, it seems, cross his mind. His world is a lonely one. He relies on public transportation and recently moved in with a friend “from the music business” because he couldn't afford to pay his rent. He hasn't been working since 1997 and says he gets by on royalties from some of the Menudo music he owns, which mostly sells in Latin-American countries.
McGillis also faces many accusations. The state's welfare agency and juvenile court considers him a harasser and manipulator. A few days after Wendolyn died, McGillis videotaped her children answering questions about what transpired before their mother's death. The DCF claims McGillis brainwashed the kids into believing Benge killed their mother. McGillis denies the allegations. He's jammed up many fax machines. During a hearing in October 1999, Judge Jeri Cohen complained about it. “You are not to fax me anything else,” Cohen ordered. “If you have something. I'm warning you not to do it. Let me tell you something, Mr. McGillis. Look at me. That fax machine is my fax machine. I pay for all the ribbons in that, and since you have started faxing me information my bills -- and I'll call my secretary in here -- have gone up. It's costing me $85 a month in ribbons because of all the junk you've sent me.”
According to DCF's district administrator Charles Auslander, McGillis had harassed attorney Lucy Piniero by calling her office 50 times in a row. Judge Cohen entered an order prohibiting him from communicating with anyone from the Department of Children and Families, particularly Piniero. McGillis appealed. “Well, you know the problem with that was that maybe he only called 40 times,” says E. Joseph Ryan, Jr., an appeals expert who represented McGillis in the Third District Court of Appeal. “It sounded like a fantasy.” Once police even dragged him out of the Juvenile Justice Center in handcuffs because he wouldn't leave Piniero's office until he spoke to her. McGillis was charged with trespassing even though he was in a public building during business hours.
While McGillis clearly has crossed lines, those opposing him have as well. Judge Cohen has questioned his sanity: “Darrin is mentally ill.... You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that he's got severe psychological problems,” she said during a hearing in April 1999. Paulette Backhaus, one of the paternal grandmothers, spread rumors through e-mail that McGillis had been able to get certain documents because he was having “gay sex” with an attorney who worked for Piniero. McGillis sued Backhaus for slandering him and won. “This is not just about my sister and her kids, this is also about reclaiming my dignity,” McGillis declares.
The DCF is planning to reunite Gerald Benge with his two children soon. The agency even got him into housing through the HUD Family Reunification Program in preparation for the big day. “Those kids are his meal tickets,” McGillis says. “They're his Section 8 and his welfare. Wendy was his meal ticket when she was alive.” The 41-year-old Benge lives in Miami Beach in a three-bedroom apartment. In his housing contract with the Miami-Dade Housing Authority (MDHA), Benge is listed as having two dependents, although his two children currently are living with a foster family in Miami. “That's information we got from DCF,” says Sherra McCleod, communications director of MDHA. The DCF's Auslander says it was a mistake. “He should really be in a one-bedroom apartment.”
When New Times asked Auslander and Linda Wells, DCF's chief legal counsel, if Benge had complied with his case plan, they declined to answer. “Often times it's not possible to make a parent the perfect person,” Auslander says. “He's nothing but a leech,” Janet Chaulklin counters. “The state's turning him into their poster boy.” During the dependency proceedings involving his children, Benge tested positive for benzodiazepines, an illegal tranquilizer, and the child-welfare agency investigated allegations that he slapped his son in the face during an unsupervised visit in February. “They need to rehabilitate him to show that he's a great guy, so they can say, “Hey, he's had his mishaps but he's been rehabilitated,'” McGillis asserts.
The oldest of Wendolyn's children, now sixteen years old, has been through three shelters, three foster homes, and three group homes. She's now residing in a shelter for troubled girls in Homestead. Her second oldest, the only one not in the dependency proceeding, remained with his father until recently, when he moved into an aunt's house. Wendolyn's three remaining children are split between Milwaukee and Las Vegas. One of the girls lives with the Chaulklins. The other two are each with a paternal grandmother.
Darrin McGillis is going forward with his termination of parental rights case against Benge. He plans on deposing witnesses soon and is glad that Judge Cohen has at least recused herself from the TPR case. Meanwhile he has high hopes that Karen Gievers, a child-advocacy lawyer who specializes in suing DCF, wins for him the biggest battle he has ever waged. “I'm just one little guy going against a bureaucracy,” McGillis says. “When this is all over, no one is going to write me a check. I get nothing out of this except knowing those kids are safe and that they don't see the horrors my sister lived through.”