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Seizure of house protested Lawyer says government was too harsh on couple By DAVID DOEGE
Last Updated: Aug. 22, 2003
Waukesha - When the United States government filed a forfeiture action against a Big Bend couple charged last year with growing marijuana in their home, it went too far, the couple's probate lawyer says.
Ever since Dennis and Denise Schilling killed themselves rather than face prosecution, the debate over the scope of their marijuana-growing went unsettled in criminal court.
That didn't stop a federal prosecutor from concluding that "substantial drug activity" justified the government's effort to seize the couple's house.
But as the attorney for their estates is winding up his work in Waukesha County Probate Court, the final picture emerging of the pair depicts a middle-age couple who had little more than the roof over their heads.
Life was far from lavish They borrowed money and raided a retirement account to hire their lawyers, drove a pair of beat-up old cars and sent in rebate coupons for their wine.
"These weren't wealthy people," said estate attorney Irving Gaines. "When the government came in with their civil (forfeiture) action, that's what got them so depressed and pushed them over the edge. It looked like they were going to lose their property, and that was about all they had."
The deadline for filing claims against the estates of Dennis and Denise Schilling recently passed, and after Gaines is done paying their bills, the federal government apparently will have collected the biggest share, leaving relatively little for their five surviving adult children.
"It's a shame that these kids have to share with the government what little their parents had," said attorney Martin E. Kohler, who represented Denise Schilling. "It's the final chapter in a sad story."
The Schillings, both 48, were charged in June 2002 with several felony counts stemming from the raid of their home earlier that month. Their son Joshua, now 21, also was charged after the raid that yielded roughly 180 grams of dried marijuana - about 61/2 ounces - 21 live marijuana plants and 12 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Home seized In September, deputies from the U.S. Marshals office hand-delivered a notice of the forfeiture action against the couple's home, then valued at $118,000. The home, according to the government, was subject to seizure because it was used to commit a crime: growing marijuana.
Five days later, their bodies were found hanging in a motel room in Madison.
In a two-page suicide note, Denise Schilling insisted she grew the marijuana for personal use to fight chronic pain from a back injury.
In a statement to police, however, her son Joshua said he and his father grew the marijuana and harvested some for personal use, and he sold the drug to "10 to 15 people." Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to two felonies and was placed on three years of probation.
Dennis and Denise Schilling bought the two-story gray brick building they called home on a land contract for $60,000. It formerly housed a business.
In December, Gaines filed an objection to the seizure of the home, calling it "excessive" and "grossly disproportional to the claimed offense." At the time they died, the couple still owed $49,000 on the land contract.
In March, Gaines and the U.S. attorney's office reached an agreement in which the government would split the proceeds of the sale of the house with the estates for the dead couple after the land contract, real estate taxes and real estate agent's commission were satisfied. After the house was sold April 30 for $116,500, the government collected its share, $26,009.
Inventories filed in probate court in June showed the Schillings had little else of value when they died.
Estate's value: $143 The estate for Denise Schilling was valued at $143, the amount of an uncashed refund check she received from the state Department of Workforce Development.
The assets listed for Dennis included bank accounts totaling $1,500, an uncashed $7,300 bank check, an uncashed $629 payroll check from a graphics firm and an uncashed $3 rebate check from Gallo wine.
The couple's two cars were a 1991 Nissan with 188,000 miles worth $1,000 and a 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser with 117,000 miles worth $5,000. The latter had no radio, headrests, back seat or visors.
The dead couple still owe $4,000 to the state for back taxes and $6,800 for a revolving credit line Gaines said was tapped to pay a retainer to attorneys in the criminal case. He said Dennis Schilling made an early withdrawal from a retirement account to hire the defense lawyers and borrowed another $2,000 from a daughter for attorneys.
Gaines said the federal government is seeking an additional $12,000 from the estates to pay early withdrawal penalties on the retirement account and 2002 income taxes.
"I'm hoping the federal government will have a little pity and compassion," Gaines said.
The still-unpaid debts stand to exhaust the majority of assets of the estates.
When a reporter contacted the U.S. attorney's office in Milwaukee to ask about its decisions in the Schillings' case, William Lipscomb, a spokesman for the office, said it would have no comment.
Kohler said the modest value of the estates for the Schillings proved the government was "piling on."
"I stand by what I said when the government filed the foreclosure, that these people were not big drug dealers," he said.
He also suggested that the government should have abandoned its effort after the Schillings killed themselves.
"At some point in time, you have to say enough is enough," Kohler said. "It only makes it more difficult for their children to move on and start over."
A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 23, 2003.
i hope the prosecuter gets stabbed in the eye. what kind of person would go through such lengths to ruins someones life simple becasue they had a plant you did not like. the siezure of the house seems very uncalled for, 6 1/2 ounces is nothing.