The Schilling Case,Part 2

August 20, 1987

(Editor’s Note: Part I of this story followed the saga of Gregg and Thea Schilling. In the early 1980s they were given temporary custody of their granddaughter Eva, who had been horribly abused and disfigured by her mother’s boyfriend. When the Schillings demanded justice and began rattling some bureaucratic cages, the authorities ruled in favor of the alleged father, a felon and a paraplegic, and planned to remove Eva from the Schillings. They took matters into their own hands by fleeing the state in 1984 with their granddaughter. Part II was published in the Grants Pass Sneak Preview on August 20, 1987.)

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Schilling Blast from the PastLooking out the window of the Trailways bus, Gregg Schilling read the sign, “You are now leaving the state of Oregon.” Seated next to him were his wife, Thea, and his 6-year-old granddaughter, Eva. Although he did not feel they were criminals, they were now officially fugitives escaping the long arm of the law which planned to separate Eva from the only parents she had ever known.

Greg Schilling said goodbye to Oregon and wondered how it ever came to this. They had come to Grants Pass in June of 1978 at the invitation of his father, George, who wanted them to help open a family business. At the time, the move seemed like a good idea. Their teenage daughter, Marla, was going through a rebellious stage in Los Angeles—skipping school, taking drugs and hanging out with questionable company, particularly a young hoodlum named Robert Fordham, whom they felt was leading their daughter astray.

Marla herself supported the move to Oregon, but two weeks before the move she ran away. She was 17-years-old. Frustrated, Gregg and Thea moved to Grants Pass and onto the property of George Schilling on Jump-Off-Joe Creek Road outside Merlin.

The Prodigal Daughter Returns

Gregg sat back in his seat and watched the California landscape roll by. He thought back to those days on his father’s property, about how the family business never materialized, and how the Oregon climate wreaked havoc on his chronic asthma condition. After four months of unemployment and asthma attacks, he and Thea were prepared to move back to California. And then they received a phone call that changed all their lives—Marla was pregnant and wanted to come home to them.

They stayed in Grants Pass. They subjugated their own desires for their daughter whom they loved and wanted desperately to help. But it was not easy. They fought off Robert Fordham, who attacked Marla three weeks before childbirth. They provided her with money and moral support after the daughter, Eva, was born. Everything appeared to be fine as Marla attended Rogue Community College in the fall of 1979.

“On the Road Again”

They were in Los Angeles now, and Gregg stood at the counter to get transfer tickets to Miami. In Grants Pass, they had naively registered under their real names, and by now the police would be hot on their trail. The tickets in Grants Pass were registered to Miami, and he realized his life as a criminal had gotten off to a stupid start. Little did he know that the Oregon police would never check with the bus terminal, and the whereabouts of him and his family would remain a mystery for the next two years.

He glanced at the bench where Thea and his granddaughter were sitting. He gazed at Eva and tears came to his eyes as he recalled the horrible day in October of 1979 when he held the battered infant in his arms after she had been brutally abused with sulfuric acid.

“This is not happening,” he thought. “I have sacrificed everything for five years to protect my granddaughter, and the State of Oregon wants to take her away and give her to strangers.”

The fact that the strangers were the Fordham family, people who had never shown the remotest interest in Eva and who, he thought, were responsible for his daughter’s delinquency, made the situation even worse.

Why were they suddenly thrust into the role of fugitives? He ran the sequence of events through his mind. He and Thea were given physical custody of Eva two months after the tragedy. Their own daughter was implicated in the abuse, a fact they didn’t want to believe but which became obvious after she flunked a lie detector test and continued to consort with the prime suspect, Walter Durell. Whoever was responsible, the Schillings wanted justice, not only for Eva’s injuries but for her future. Again they subjugated their own needs for those of their granddaughter and stayed in Grants Pass.

The Long Arm of the Law

Gregg Schilling thought of justice, Josephine County style, as they pulled into the sleepy border town of Del Rio, Texas. He had made friends with the bus driver, Steve, as they rambled 95 mph across U.S. 90 in the dead of night. Gregg asked if it would be all right to reroute their tickets through Brownsville, a 700-mile detour. No problem, Steve said, not knowing that Gregg was beginning to worry. He and Thea had foiled Josephine County’s warped sense of justice, and he pictured a county sheriff barreling down U.S. 90 that very minute in pursuit of the bus. The detour would foil them.

Locking horns with the justice system was the last thing on Gregg Schilling’s mind the day his granddaughter was abused. No district attorney or sheriff in his or her right mind would let a crime like that go unpunished, and he cooperated with the law to the fullest extent. As the weeks and months rolled by, and the investigation stalled through government inaction, Gregg and Thea took the matter into their own hands, and it was there that the justice system branded the Schillings as troublemakers. Co-conspirators in the cover-up was Children Services (CSD), a state agency which looks after abused children. Wanting to give Eva back to her mother and forget the whole mess, they were opposed by the Schillings, who eloquently proved that their daughter was unfit and, in fact, was still consorting with Walter Durell, the perpetrator of the crime.

In the midst of all that hoopla, Gregg and Thea parted ways with Gregg’s parents, who elected to side with their granddaughter, Marla, in the custody case. It was only after Marla and Walter Durell were arrested at a disturbance at a pizza parlor that George Schilling said in court on March 10, 1981, “There are many things in the future for Eva. I think Gregg and Thea are capable of handling it, and I am quite proud of the fact that they have done as much as they have done. I feel sure that they are ready to carry on from here.”

A New Life in Miami

They arrived in Brownsville five days after their escape from Oregon. The bus tickets said Miami, but they were willing to settle anywhere warm and dry where Gregg’s asthma would not be aggravated. They spent a day touring Brownsville, waiting for their baggage, which they had left on the other bus at Del Rio. Brownsville was hot and dry and barren ... and Texas. They moved on to the sunny skies of Florida.

There were other stops along the way, and they measured each of them as possible homes. New Orleans was too dirty. Pensacola wasn’t big enough. They almost made a home in Orlando, but decided to move on to the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Their money and the time limit on the ticket was running out.

Finally, they departed the bus at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, with $60 in their pockets. They rented a Motel 6 for the night, and the next morning awoke early to watch the sunrise. As the three of them sat on the beach, Gregg watched a cathedral of clouds surround the rising sun, and he felt the rays of hope.

They were in a new land with a new future, but still he worried about the past, confused as to why they had suddenly become criminals. Thanks to his and Thea’s efforts, Walter Durell had been charged with the abuse of their granddaughter three days before the statute of limitations ran out in 1982. Their efforts had been vindicated but along the way they had gathered some enemies, influential people who wielded a lot of power.

The way to the Schillings’ heart was through Eva, and the little girl who had been abused by her mother’s boyfriend and then raised by her grandparents would be used as a pawn in the bureaucratic game of putting the Schillings in their place.

A Bureaucratic Nightmare

At first the game involved money. Support Enforcement, the arm of the Justice Department which collects child support money, decided to sue Robert Fordham, the alleged father, despite the fact that Marla Schilling made a sworn statement to the contrary. The State of Oregon did not want to listen; they had a potential father, and they were going to collect money from him.

Unfortunately, Robert Fordham succeeded in planting himself in a Florida prison from March 1980 to March 1981 for assaulting a police officer with a knife, and the State of Oregon put their money collection on hold. Later in 1981, Fordham returned to Grants Pass to take a blood test, which he later refused.

“We let Robert Fordham into our house to discuss the matter,” Gregg said. “After a while he asked to use the phone, and when he came back into the room he said in a rehearsed monotone, ‘I will get custody of Eva and give her to my mother.’ We were shocked. It was like she was some kind of toy. We told him to get out of our house, and we cut them out completely after that.”

Fordham returned to Los Angeles and within months had gotten into a motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic. And once again the evil specter of money crept into the scene. Support Enforcement wanted to divert Fordham’s disability checks into the state coffers for child support, but there was an even more sinister plot: CSD recommended that Eva be ripped from the Schillings’ loving arms and placed with a crippled Robert Fordham.

It was a plot that a few bureaucrats figured would avenge their honor and would rid them of the Schilling case forever. The plot was exposed quickly. Doctor Jerome Vergamini, a child psychiatrist from Eugene who examined Eva numerous times, wrote in a September 6, 1984, letter to Joe Murray, State Director of CSD:

“It is inconceivable to me how an agency that is set up to protect children could possibly come up with a harebrained scheme like this, unless the decisions are being made by accountants and not by mental health professionals. However, I am reluctant to say this because the accountants I know would have much better sense.”

Dr. William Kohn of Grants Pass wrote, “In my opinion, as the family physician for Eva through the years, Gregg and Thea are in actuality Eva’s parents as far as Eva is concerned. I feel that if Eva were taken away from Gregg and Thea and placed in another environment, this would cause a separation as emotionally damaging as a child being taken away from a normal, nurturing and loving environment directed by two natural parents.”

In a 1982 hearing, even CSD caseworker Scott Hampson testified about the importance of the Schillings to Eva’s well being. Hampson said, “I believe there’s a close and meaningful bond between Gregg and Thea and Eva. I’ve observed that directly.”

Eva Becomes Sally

And here the parents were, on the Florida beach and uncertain about their future. Before leaving Grants Pass, they had learned through the local grapevine that CSD planned to take Eva away and give her to Robert Fordham. The Schillings then made the conscious decision to leave Oregon, not knowing how the State would react. It was their only recourse for the protection of their granddaughter.

Gregg looked at Eva running on the beach and recalled the two court-ordered visits that she spent with the Fordhams. On both occasions he remembered how Eva returned totally devastated and how she would cry and sob in her relief to be away from them. He vowed that would never happen again, and he began his search for a job.

It did not take long. He landed a job that day painting and remodeling the motel where they stayed, and after two months they moved to a similar situation at another motel. Thea got a job as a waitress and nightclub manager, and on December 20, 1985, they moved into an influential condominium complex, where Gregg worked as manager.

Meanwhile, the normal family life continued as always. Gregg and Thea took Eva everywhere—to museums, parks, the beach, shopping. She wore the best of clothes, was well fed, and was popular with other children wherever they went.

After one year, the Schillings decided to change their names for safety.

“It was something that just happened,” Thea said. “I became Chris Hayes at work, and Eva thought that was really funny. One day she came in and said, ‘My name is Sally.’ It was no big deal. Gregg then became Peter, but it was all kind of tongue-in-cheek. It was very amusing to Eva.”

“Eva knew all along why we left,” Gregg said. “We told her CSD was going to give her to the Fordhams, and she was as anxious to leave as we were. You have to remember that we are a family, and we will do anything to protect each other.”

Ripping the Family Apart

The days in Florida ambled on, and the family bonds became stronger. Eva instituted “Me and Mom Day,” in which only she and Thea would go shopping and be together. Gregg regularly took Eva to tai-kwon-do lessons.

Marjo Zelinsky, a neighbor of the Schillings for one year and who runs a Day Care Center, said, “They were perfectly normal parents, and Eva was great. She was fun-loving, bright and outspoken, and they always kept her busy. She had school time every day until noon, and that’s one thing I never understood, why they didn’t have her in school. I understand now, and I really hope they get her back. It just isn’t right.”

On November 8, 1986, disaster struck again. Eva had casually mentioned to some kids that Gregg and Thea were not her parents, and the police visited at 9:30 that night. Eva was still in her tai-kwon-do outfit, and when Gregg failed to show an ID, they took them downtown. Eva hysterically began kicking the air, thinking the family would be destroyed. Thea, who was at work, was also brought in for questioning.

For the next five hours, the Schillings were grilled in separate rooms. Neither had seen each other during that time, and both refused to say anything until they were reunited with Eva. Detective Kevin Allen later remarked that in 20 years of police work he had never met two people who refused to break under such interrogation.

Finally in desperation the police reunited the family, and Gregg and Thea calmly told them the whole story. The police were mesmerized when they heard that Gregg and Thea were the grandparents. One officer mentioned that it was the most bizarre story he had ever heard, and that if they weren’t on the computer, he was going to send them home that night.

But they were. As Eva was ripped from their arms howling and screaming and begging for mercy, tears streamed down the faces of all eight detectives in the room. It was 4 o’clock in the morning.

Justice Is Once Again Thwarted

For the next 100 days, the Schillings spent time in the Broward County Jail, but during that period they learned to survive and become masters of their own destiny.

“It was a modern jail with glass instead of bars,” Gregg said. “It was like a giant fish tank. We were in there with dope smugglers, murderers, violent offenders, and you had to be cool. It was a lesson in primal behavior.”

Thea agreed. “One time I stood up to an enormous black woman who was going to use the cleaning solvent,” she said. “This woman was so mean even the guards shied away from her. After she threatened me, I scared her off with the threat of the electric chair. You had to stand your ground in prison to survive.”

For two months they were media darlings, appearing on the front pages and on the evening news practically every night. The inmates continually joked about the famous Schillings, but quite a drama was unfolding outside the prison walls.

Unlike Josephine County, where the Schillings had offended every public official with their pleas for justice, they had gained the support of everyone in Florida. Police officers were going on record as saying they wished they had never arrested them. Bus drivers called in saying they had seen the family on their bus and thought they were a loving family.

Alberto Garcia, caseworker for Health & Rehabilitative Services (HRS), said he was concerned about Eva’s welfare. “She is totally distraught,” Garcia said, “and wants to see only Gregg and Thea Schilling.”

Robert Fordham’s mother, Ann, had other plans. She flew to Florida with officials from Josephine County’s CSD in order to retrieve Eva. The State of Florida balked. The Schillings’ attorney, Williams Cassel, prepared an eloquent statement outlining the history of the case and the inherent injustice in the Oregon decision. The Florida judge, Arthur Birken, agreed, and on Monday, November 24, ruled Eva should stay in the state.

HRS, however, was under pressure to honor an interstate compact agreement, and they “reluctantly” allowed CSD to spirit Eva out of the state on Sunday, November 23, before the restraining order hit the streets. Ann Fordham would get custody, and once again CSD got their way with the life of Eva Schilling.

Gregg and Thea, meanwhile, were convinced that the road to Eva led through Grants Pass. Although incarcerated under hideous prison conditions, they rejected all plea bargain attempts by Josephine County Assistant D.A. Clay Johnson, and allowed themselves to be extradited. On February 11, 1987, they returned to Grants Pass in handcuffs, assisted by two detectives as they traveled via airplane. They had come full circle and were now prepared to do battle.

An Incredible Act of Kindness

It was Saturday, February 28. Gregg Schilling sat on his bunk in the Josephine County Jail and contemplated the road ahead. His wife Thea had been out on bail for three days, the beneficiary of a $3,000 loan from her mother, Fay Wiedle. The Wiedles had only enough money for one of the $30,000 bails that were set, and Gregg insisted Thea be released.

Gregg had just returned from a morning church service where he had volunteered a silent prayer concerning his release. His father, George Schilling, could not come up with the bail money and things looked bad. He was on the phone with Thea when a guard slipped him a note. A man had called and wanted to talk to him. Schilling did not recognize the name but made the call anyway.

“I’ve been reading about you,” the voice said. “And I want to do something. I want to get you out of there.”

Gregg was overwhelmed. He had been accustomed to unusual acts of kindness since their arrest 105 days previous, but this had been unprecedented. Within hours he was free on bail. The donor, who wished to remain anonymous, shook Gregg’s hand, wished him good luck, and walked away.

“It was an unbelievable act of faith and kindness,” Gregg said. “He is a successful businessman and he believed in our cause.”

The cause! The protection and happiness of Eva Schilling. That is the thread that motivates Gregg and Thea Schilling through every turn in this admittedly bizarre case. Their next hurdle was a criminal case for custodial interference which the brain trust in the Josephine County District Attorney’s office decided to pursue. If found guilty, it would mean ten years in prison and $100,000 in fines and court costs.

The Case Goes to Court

The Schillings immediately went job hunting, placing ads in the paper, and pounding the pavement. After two weeks, they both secured positions at Royale Gardens Nursing Home. For two months, Gregg worked a second job as assistant manager of the Golden Era Health Spa. They were now established and making money and planning their defense.

The state had appointed Loren Huertz of Rogue River as the attorney for Thea Schilling, and Peter Thompson of Grants Pass for Gregg. Together they planned to use the “choice of evils” defense, a rarely used stratagem which has the defendant admit to the crime but rationalize it because of the harm it would have produced if they had followed the law. It was risky but the Schillings and their attorneys believed it to be the truth.

Two weeks before the trial, the defense was thrown into disarray. Huertz was involved in an automobile accident and broke his arm, but he adamantly refused to step down despite the pain. Thompson was replaced by Medford attorney Lee Werdell, who Gregg personally hand picked, citing irreconcilable differences with Thompson.

They pushed for a postponement but Judge Allan Coon decreed that the trial would begin June 23 as scheduled. As the trial date approached, the Schillings became more confident that their defense was flawless, and that their attorneys were exceptional.

“Werdell was incredible,” Gregg said. “He picked up this case, and in two weeks knew it inside out. He would get up and explain things to the jury, and it was like listening to poetry. Loren Huertz delivered the law, and it was like hammer blows that were nailing the case shut. They were a beautiful team. It was a great trial.”

The state, led by Clay Johnson, did not have to work hard; the Schillings were admitting to everything. They flew two detectives from Ft. Lauderdale, who described the arrest. In a surprise move, Clay Johnson produced Eva Schilling and had the officers identify her. Surreptitiously, Eva slipped a wave of the fingers to Gregg and Thea. After seven months of captivity with the Fordhams, the bond was still there.

As the trial progressed, Thea noted that the spectators had taken seats behind the team they were siding with.

“By the end of the trial, no one was sitting on the prosecution side,” she said. “The State was making fools of themselves. They were trying to discredit doctors, even our family doctor who knew Eva for five years, who said she should never have been taken from our care.”

Gregg was more specific. “When Lee Werdell told Clay Johnson out in the hallway that this whole case sounded like fraud on the part of CSD, Johnson’s whole face just went white,” he said. “And it’s true. In 1984, CSD was withholding information from Judge Cushing’s custody trial. Johnson kept saying through the trial that CSD was not on trial, but he was wrong, and everyone in that courtroom knew it.”

The jury certainly knew it. After Thea Schilling’s testimony and a brief appearance by the Fordhams, the jury spent 45 minutes and returned their verdict. Judge Coon asked the Schillings to rise, and according to both of them, their hearts were beating wildly.

“All I can remember,” Gregg said, “is Judge Coon saying, ‘I pronounce you,’ and there was a short pause, ‘NOT guilty.’ And he said the ‘not’ very clearly. I can still hear that ‘not’ today.”

The courtroom turned into pandemonium, as well-wishers and family, even members of the jury, flooded the Schillings with congratulations. One member of the jury slipped them $20 as a donation to their fund. The verdict had been unanimous, and there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind as to the innocence of Gregg and Thea Schilling. It was also a public denunciation of Children’s Services Division and the Josephine County District Attorney’s Office, neither of whom ever apologized to the Schillings for the injustices foisted on them.

Fighting the Good Fight

And now the future. What next for Gregg and Thea Schilling, and most important, Eva Schilling?

“We have been abused by the State just as Eva was abused by Walter Durell,” Gregg said. “But we have stepped out of the pack and have done something about it. We are out on the streets every day telling our story and we are telling the truth. People meet us and shake our hands because we stood up to the system and fought for what is right. We are not self-righteous. We are just asking people to understand what is happening here. We’re not trying to be heroes. We are very tired. We work, we hit the streets, we see lawyers, doctors, anyone who will help, but it all has a purpose. We are doing this all for Eva.”

(Epilogue, May 12, 2017: After transcribing Part I of this article last month, I tried to track down Gregg and Thea Schilling on the Internet. A Google search came up empty, but at Zabasearch I found Thea Schilling in the Novato area. The phone number was disconnected, but there was a Post Office box number, so I sent her a short note. Three weeks later a card came back. Here is part of what she wrote:

“A few facts. Gregg and I separated in 1997. I moved back to the California north bay, and Gregg remained in Ft. Lauderdale. We had only minimal contact since then. Eva was in touch with him until 2 or 3 years ago. I understand he was living in poverty and died last year. I have had only brief contact with Marla. She traveled to Florida for Gregg’s ashes. Eva now has a master’s degree and recently moved to southern California and works for UCLA. She has done quite well, and we are very close. In fact, she was visiting this weekend. She is a beautiful woman ... well-educated, 5’10”, big blue eyes, and in terrific shape.”)