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His Sister's Keeper

Page 5 of 8

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.

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Lissette Corsa