The Schilling Case,Part 1: Fighting the Windmills

August 6, 1987

[Editor’s Note: In late July 1987, the Sneak Preview in Grants Pass was officially one year old. We were twice a month back in those days, and one day while going to the Post Office to pick up mail, I was handed a flier by a man requesting support for a child custody case involving his granddaughter. The man’s name was Gregg Schilling, and I immediately invited him and his wife Thea to my office for an interview. It was an amazing tale, and their story ended up being a long, two-part series that appeared in the August 6 and August 20, 1987, Sneak Previews. I still consider it to be one of the best things I ever wrote. Enjoy.  –-Curtis Hayden]

“Take care, sire,” answered Sancho, “those over there are not giants but windmills, and those things which seem to be arms are their sails, which when whirled round by the wind turn the milestones.”

“It is clear,” answered Don Quixote, “that you are not experienced in adventures. Those are giants, and if you are afraid, turn aside and pray whilst I enter into fierce and unequal battle with them.”

—Don Quixote, by Cervantes

* * * * *

The Sneak Preview has made no pretense in the past to be a muckraking investigative newspaper. We will leave that pretentious title to hardier souls. Our position on government is that it is necessary for a democratic society to function, and that most government employees are honest, hard working citizens who take their jobs seriously.

We also believe, however, that an unchecked bureaucracy can get out of control, and that unless people are willing to stand up and fight for their rights, the system’s windmills will crumble them.

Gregg and Thea Schilling are modern day Don Quixotes. Since the January day in 1979 when their eight-and-a-half-month pregnant daughter, Marla, was attacked and threatened with a butcher knife by her former boyfriend and alleged father of her baby, the Schillings have entered into a fierce and unequal battle with the impregnable justice system.

As victims, they have refused to sit still and accept their fate, and as loving and devoted grandparents they will not take no for an answer when it comes to the welfare of their granddaughter, Eva.

The Schilling case (Gregg, Thea, Marla and Eva) has been dragged through the media and the justice system for the last seven years, and the end is not in sight. It is actually two cases. Newcomers to the Rogue Valley know about the custody battle over Eva, and the recent trial of Gregg and Thea Schilling, who were found not guilty of custodial interference by a jury when they unlawfully fled the area in November of 1984 with Eva in tow.

Others will remember the grisly day in 1979 when 9-month-old Eva Schilling was found brutally beaten and severely burned after sulfuric acid was forced into her mouth via a baby bottle.

To some, the cases are entirely separate, but through it all the Schillings, Gregg and Thea, have tugged on the common thread that has woven both cases through the judicial system back through Eva, Marla, her boyfriends, and eventually to themselves. They are still tugging on that thread and will continue to tug until justice has been realized.

Every Story Has a Beginning

Gregg Thea SchillingThe starting point for this saga is Hollywood, California. The Schilling family consisted of Gregg and Thea and their 16-year-old daughter, Marla. Gregg and Thea were struggling actors who worked various odd jobs to supplement the unpredictable acting profession. Marla, according to the parents, was doing fine in school and had adapted well to Hollywood High School, the self-proclaimed glitter capital of the world.

And then she met 17-year-old Robert Fordham, a troubled young man who had amassed a staggering criminal record as a juvenile in Florida, including extortion, armed robbery, assault and theft. The state of Florida breathed a sigh of relief when the boy moved to Los Angeles to be with his mother, Anne Fordham. He took L.A. by storm, where he was arrested and jailed on charges of destruction of private property while under the influence of narcotics.

During this time, the Schillings were distraught that their daughter was neglecting school and hanging out with Robert Fordham, and when she made known her intent to visit Fordham in jail, they capitulated and agreed to help get the boy out of jail and into a halfway house for rehabilitation.

It was not an easy matter. The judge in the case wanted to keep Fordham in jail till the age of 26, believing him to be incorrigible. Fordham’s parole officer couldn’t believe the Schillings would even want to help him. Eventually, a deal was bargained for and Fordham walked free, rejecting the help of the halfway house.

His relationship with Marla Schilling became even stronger, and the two were frequently seen at an apartment complex managed by Anne Fordham. The Schillings asked for the assistance of the police on a number of occasions and finally filed a complaint against the Fordhams for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The Fordhams failed to appear at the scheduled hearing.

Meanwhile, the problems the parents were having with their intransigent teenage daughter took its toll mentally. Thea became depressed and consulted a psychiatrist who recommended family counseling. Gregg, who suffered from chronic asthma and was on medication, also consulted a psychiatrist for advice on the effects of his medication and the anxiety he felt over his daughter.

Eventually, Marla ran away and the Schillings, after filing a Missing Persons report, decided to make the move to Grants Pass, Oregon, where both of their parents lived. That was June of 1978.

A Tearful Reunion

Three months later in September the Schillings received a call from Marla. She was pregnant and wanted to come home. The Schillings were elated. They were living on Gregg’s parents’ property, and they welcomed their daughter in with them. The subject of the father came up often.

“Marla said all along that Robert Fordham was not the father of her child,” Gregg said. “She would never say who the father was. Whenever Robert says he’s the father, it’s just wishful thinking.”

In October, Marla moved into her own house, a nice 2-bedroom bungalow on Fruitdale Drive in Grants Pass. Gregg and Thea helped her move in. She hoped to get her G.E.D. and attend Rogue Community College. Everything was fine … and then Robert Fordham showed up.

He moved in with Marla, and on January 4, 1979, when she was 8-1/2 months pregnant, a fight broke out and Fordham chased and threatened her with a butcher knife. The cops were called to the scene and District Attorney Robert Burrows issued a warrant for Fordham’s arrest with a $10,000 bail. Fordham left town the next day. Before leaving, he carved up baby clothes and brassieres and wrote obscenities on the bathroom walls.

Fearful that the man would one day return to disrupt their lives, the Schillings sought legal advice. Attorney Chris Mecca advised that they go to Support Enforcement, a division of the state Justice Department which collects child support, and have Marla swear that Robert Fordham was not the father of her child.

“We did exactly what he said,” Gregg noted. “Thea and I sat in Steve Horn’s office at Support Enforcement and watched as Marla raised her hand and swore that Robert Fordham was not the father. Horn then documented it. Later, when the State wanted to get child support money from Fordham, that document was mysteriously missing.”

A Child Is Born

Eva Schilling age 3On January 9, 1979, Eva Gabrielle Schilling was born. Marla, who had moved back with her parents, was assisted in the childbirth by Gregg and Thea Schilling. The only contact Robert Fordham had with Eva’s birth was that he had threatened her mother with a butcher knife two weeks previous.

Once again life returned to normal for the Schillings. “Marla was still living with us,” Thea said. “Gregg’s asthma was acting up and we took a trip to the southwest in February hoping to relocate. Nothing really opened up and we moved back to Grants Pass. Marla wanted to get into college and she moved back into town, got a car and a job, and everything was working out great. Gregg and I talked about moving to Hawaii.”

And then disaster struck. On Friday, October 1, 1979, Marla left word that she was going to Eugene for the weekend. So far so good. On Sunday she hadn’t returned, and on Monday morning Gregg checked again. Still no Marla!

On the way home he drove by Southern Oregon Hospital and saw Marla’s car parked out in front. He went in to inquire, and the attendants seemed apprehensive about telling him the truth. Finally, he was escorted to Pediatrics where he saw the beaten and battered face of his 9-month-old granddaughter, Eva. On top of the bruises was the disfigured and burned mouth which had been totally disintegrated by a caustic substance poured into her mouth.

Gregg Schilling was devastated. He held little Eva in his arms and cried for what had been done to a defenseless baby. From that day on, his life would revolve around the protection and welfare of his granddaughter. He has battled child abusers, lawyers, judges, district attorneys, police detectives, sheriffs, state agencies and the Fordham family with one purpose: the protection of Eva Shilling.

Battling the System

The first step in that protection was to bring the parties responsible for the abuse to justice. The police found out that the incident happened in a remote area on Taylor Creek Road near Galice. Present were Marla Schilling, her boyfriend Walter Durrel, and Durrel’s nephew, Ken Thomas. Each of the parties involved had different versions of what happened or what might have happened. The doctors on the scene were more succinct. It was an obvious case of child abuse.

“Durrel tried to make the ridiculous statement that Eva sucked fluid out of a battery that was on his living room floor,” Greg said. “At first I refused to believe that Marla had anything to do with it, but a lie detector test showed that she knew more than she was saying.”

The District Attorney and Sheriff’s Office, for reasons known only to God and a few select officials in Josephine County, proceeded excruciatingly slow on the investigation. The Schillings decided to appeal to others for help. They hired a private investigator. They pleaded with District Attorney Burrows and Sheriff Jim Fanning to arrest Durrel before it happened again; and when that didn’t work, they met with Governor Vic Atiyeh and his staff and requested intervention.

In the interim, the Schillings had ruffled a few feathers. Among those was Children Services Division (CSD), a state agency entrusted with the task of investigating cases of child abuse and recommending placement of the child.

After the brutal abuse of Eva, CSD awarded physical custody to the grandparents, Gregg and Thea. There was a movement afoot, however, to return the child to her mother.

“We would have been more than willing to see Marla take the responsibility,” Thea said. “But no one knew her involvement in the abuse. She wasn’t saying anything. We did know that she was still consorting with Walter Durrel, and we informed CSD. They wouldn’t listen to us. They still wanted to give Eva back to Marla.”

Two months later, Marla Schilling and Walter Durrel were arrested at a disturbance at a pizza parlor in Merlin, and CSD had to change its recommendation. Eva would remain with the Schillings.

The Press Comes to the Rescue

As the statute of limitations began to run out for the Schillings’ temporary custody of Eva, the grandparents had their backs to the wall. Getting no help from the local newspaper, they went to Pat Longo of The Review, a weekly newspaper published in the Rogue Valley in the late 70 and early 80s.

“When the Schillings came to me and told their story, I was impressed,” Longo said. “I could tell they were not putting on a show, and I had never met such a loving couple. I didn’t think I had the time or energy to do the story, but I sat down with my husband, Carl, and asked if he’d mind putting up with me for two or three years. He supported me and I decided to do the story.”

What evolved was a series of articles that helped bring the plight of the Schillings to public attention. Meanwhile, the Schillings’ private investigator, Don Cain, had uncovered a crucial piece of evidence—the baby bottle that had been used to force the sulfuric acid into Eva’s mouth. The bottle had been in the desk of Marla’s lawyer, Dennis James, for almost two years.

The Schillings’ meeting with the governor also produced results, as the Attorney General’s office sent investigators, and CSD was visited by an administrative assistant to the governor. The Oregonian sent its ace investigative reporter, Leslie Zaitz, to cover the story.

Finally, five days before the statue of limitations ran out, Walter Durrel was charged with assault on Eva Schilling. Marla was charged with perjury. Both had fled the county.

The Strong Arm of Children Services

Gregg and Thea Schilling considered it a moral victory, but Round Two of the battle was just beginning. Robert Fordham, who during all this time had succeeded in spending one year in prison in Florida for assaulting a policeman, and who had managed to become a paraplegic after a motorcycle accident, decided to sue for custody of Eva.

To every normal thinking human on the planet, the request bordered on the ridiculous.

“Here was a man with a criminal record a mile long,” Gregg Schilling said. “He was an alcoholic and drug user who had never spent one minute with this child, and who was now in a wheelchair with impaired faculties, asking to have our granddaughter, who had been subjected to the most horrible abuse possible at nine months of age, be taken from the only parents she had ever known. We began to get angry.”

And again they fought back. They hired independent child psychiatrists to examine Eva, and all four affirmed the fact that the child should not be taken from the Schillings. They hired Charles Porter, a noted Eugene attorney, who filed a petition to require Robert Fordham to submit to a blood test. Fordham had consistently refused to take such a test.

Finally, things came to a head. The Schillings’ motion to adopt Eva was denied. Judge Lawrence Cushing refused to submit Robert Fordham to a blood test, taking his word instead about being Eva’s father. And the Schillings heard a rumor that CSD was going to rule in favor of the Fordhams.

On November 5, 1984, they packed their bags, and the three of them left town on a Greyhound bus.

(Part II will be posted online in two weeks. It will include: The bus trip across America; life in Ft. Lauderdale; the arrest; time in prison; out on bail; the trial and its aftermath; the future.)