Photography by Dan Bishop Snow. The kids wanted to see snow. So, in the dead of winter, four rootless adults and four misbegotten children began drifting north with a vague, wintry destination in mind, until landing in the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells. Candace Clark and her boyfriend Michael Sisk had taken up together more […]
Photography by Dan Bishop
Snow. The kids wanted to see snow. So, in the dead of winter, four rootless adults and four misbegotten children began drifting north with a vague, wintry destination in mind, until landing in the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells.
Candace Clark and her boyfriend Michael Sisk had taken up together more than three years ago. They had ricocheted
across the country with Clark’s baby daughter, from Kentucky to Colorado to Florida, stealing identities and robbing bank accounts, and eventually adding a second child, a baby of their own. The entourage grew after Clark hooked up with a lesbian couple and two more kids in central Florida. It was this peculiar menagerie that then drove north to Wisconsin.
For the snow.
A newspaper ad in the Dells sent them down the interstate to Portage, a quiet little town known both as the 17th century landing place for explorers Marquette and Joliet and as the setting for a novel by native daughter Zona Gale, who dubbed it “Friendship Village.” With a population of just under 10,000, violent crime was rare in friendly Portage.
Arriving in February 2007 and using aliases, Clark and her group rented a four-bedroom brick house. Both Clark and Sisk were wanted for crimes in other jurisdictions. Portage was to be a hideaway, a temporary home.
But then something went wrong. Crazy wrong. In June, according to police, the roommates turned on one of their own, stomping and strangling 36-year-old Tammie Garlin to death and burying her in a backyard grave. For weeks before the murder, they had tortured Garlin’s 11-year-old son, scalding him with boiling water and locking him naked in a closet with little food. Perhaps most shocking, Garlin’s own daughter, 15-year-old Felicia Garlin, was involved in both the murder of her mother and the torture of her brother.
Police detained the entire group and charged Felicia and the three adults with a long list of crimes: child abuse, false
imprisonment, aggravated battery, causing mental harm to a child, hiding a corpse, even mayhem.
And first-degree intentional homicide, the first in Portage since 2004.
“I’m not a monster, Jesus Christ. I’m not,” Candace Clark insisted, giving her side of Garlin’s murder to the press. “The truth is, I didn’t kill her. I didn’t bury her in the backyard.”
Clark had been locked in solitary confinement on a suicide watch at the Columbia County jail, with not much more than a Bible and a copy of The Bridges of Madison County.Wearing a standard-issue orange jumpsuit, her black hair long and wild, her eyes cast downward in shame, she presented the picture of victimized womanhood. She needed to set the record straight, she said, and for three days she sang like a bird to reporters from Portage, Milwaukee, even Orlando, Florida.
She was a victim, Clark said. It was her control-freak boyfriend, Michael Sisk, who was the instigator. When Tammie Garlin blurted out that she had sexual fantasies about Clark one day, well, Sisk just came unglued.
“That’s when all this started,” Clark told the newspapers. “Everything turned for the worse.” It was like a cult, she said, and Sisk was its leader. Clark was forced to go along.
The story had a ring of truth to it, and anyway, it made good copy: A young, waif-like woman bullied by her brutish boyfriend into committing unspeakable acts in what reporters had dubbed the “house of horrors.”
But in fact, Sisk was more patsy than kingpin. He was one of a long line of people who’d been manipulated by Clark and had never been in trouble with police before taking up with her. His girlfriend, however, had lied and cheated her way across half the country, preying on the vulnerable, betraying her friends, even kidnapping her own daughter from a Florida foster home.
At age 23, Clark had added a long list of aliases to her name – Kandace Feris, Candace Sisk, Sarah Whyte, Ruth Porter – and claimed to be a witch as well. With her smooth southern draw, she had become a master of identity theft, a petty Ma Barker arrested over and over for running up credit cards and emptying the bank accounts of her many victims. Indeed, if anything was clear in this murky tale of group murder, it was that Clark was surely the leader, the woman whose broken moral compass had led the group on this strange journey that culminated in horror and homicide.
U.S. Highway 41 cuts arrow-straight through the western counties of Kentucky, linking Indiana with Tennessee, the north with the south. This is Bible Belt country, a region once dominated by coal mining and tobacco farming whose economy now is fueled by tourism, factory jobs and military dollars from the U.S. Army’s massive Fort Campbell.
This is home to Candace Clark and Michael Sisk.
Candace Leeann Farris grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, population 29,000, the seat of Christian County. It’s also the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederates States of America – and one of the first soldiers assigned to Fort Winnebago when it was established in Portage in 1829.
According to her mother, Candace had a healthy and happy childhood.
“She came from a religious home,” says Ruth Farris. “She had a good upbringing, she had loving parents and loving grandparents, she got good grades… When she hit about 18, she started running with the wrong crowd.”
But in statements made over the years to child welfare investigators and police, Candace paints an uglier picture. Quitting school after ninth grade, she was home-schooled by her mother. They often tangled. At age 12, claimed Candace, she was molested by a family member, but her mother refused to prosecute. Against her will, she was sent to a mental health center for an evaluation. Years later, she told a caseworker she would never forgive her mother for covering up the abuse.
Candace became a mother herself at just 18. Judging by child welfare reports, she was overwhelmed. Health care workers alleged that Candace suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a bizarre psychiatric disorder in which she fabricated symptoms of a child’s sickness in order to gain attention or support.
The responsibilities of motherhood finally became too much, and Candace gave custody of her daughter to her mother, Ruth.
Candace’s problems continued. She was arrested in two domestic violence cases in Kentucky. In one case, police couldn’t locate the victim, a man from Candace’s hometown named Billy Trautman – the same name used a couple of years later as an alias by her boyfriend, Sisk. According to a police detective, Candace got her hands on Trautman’s checkbook and ID, and forged checks in his name.
In early 2004, Candace was hauled in for fraud with a man named Brandon Lee Clark. The two had scammed the local Red Cross, pretending to be victims of a house fire to get financial assistance. Candace was pregnant with Brandon’s child, and as soon as they were released from jail, they got married. She was 20; he was 19.
Candace took Clark’s name. But Brandon walked out before their baby was born, and soon after was arrested and sentenced to three years in a Kentucky prison for a slew of felonies.
Pregnant and alone, Candace befriended Ruth Porter, a Hopkins County jail worker she had met when she was locked up. Porter, in her mid-20s, had undergone surgery and was off work. Candace was willing to help, so she invited her to stay at her home. “She was taking care of things, running errands. I’d have her go and pay bills for me,” Porter told a Kentucky newspaper.
Candace Clark, though, had slyly taken over Ruth Porter’s identity. She started by forging Porter’s checks. She would borrow her car, buy merchandise in nearby towns with checks and an ID she’d stolen from Porter. Then she’d return the merchandise for cash refunds.
Clark emptied $3,000 out of Porter’s account. According to police, she also stole Porter’s gun, filed for income tax returns with her forged signature, and later used Porter’s name on two of her children’s birth certificates.
It became a clever MO: Clark would feign vulnerability to win the sympathy and trust of strangers – usually women, at least two of them lesbians – and then take over their identities.
“Not only did she steal my identity, she was living her life as me,” Porter says.
Ruth Porter wasn’t the first. Clark had done the same all across western Kentucky, in the counties of Hopkins, Henderson, Christian and Caldwell, amassing dozens of criminal charges that date back to 2002.
It took months before Porter realized she’d been cheated. In December 2004, 23 warrants were issued for Clark’s arrest.
But by then Candace Clark was gone. She had taken up with Michael Sisk, who she had known since junior high. With two purloined identities and a newborn baby in tow – a daughter to Candace and Brandon Lee, born Dec. 18, 2004, and named Courtney – Clark and Sisk were on the run, heading to Colorado.
Like Clark, Michael Sisk was Kentucky born and bred. When he was a baby, his mother and father moved in with his paternal grandparents in Henderson, a coal-mining town on the bluffs of the Ohio River. “He was a loving little boy. He didn’t make demands on anybody,” says Bennie Jean Loveless, his grandmother.
Sisk’s parents soon moved south on Highway 41 to the tiny town of Slaughters, Kentucky, and divorced by the time he was 4. He split time between homes as both parents remarried, his mother five times over.
Like Clark’s mother, Sisk’s grandmother tells a story of a good kid led astray. “He played football, he liked to hunt and fish,” Loveless says. “No drugs, no drinking or fighting. He was brought up in a religious background, more or less. His stepgrandfather is a minister.”
Sisk quit school in 11th grade and worked as a welder and laborer at an auto parts plant. At age 20, he moved back to his grandmother’s place and began to study for his GED.
A heavy man at 230 pounds, Sisk injured his back at work and had surgery. He’d planned on going back to work. Then suddenly he disappeared. “It was like he dropped off the face of the earth,” says Loveless.
“He wasn’t in any trouble with the law until he started running with Candace,” she says ruefully. “She ruled the roost.”
The morning sun paints the flat-topped mesassurrounding Grand Junction, Colorado, giving the sheer rock walls the appearance of orange potter’s clay against a cobalt sky.
Named for the place where the Gunnison and Colorado rivers meet, Grand Junction is the unofficial capital of Colorado’s western slope, a high-recreation destination that boasts 300 days of sunlight each year, and the last stop on westbound I-70 before the Utah border.
Sisk and Clark and daughter Courtney settled in Colorado in the summer of 2005, choosing the Rocky Mountain State only because it was a place Candace had always wanted to see. It became a fresh place to work her schemes.
The couple rented a house in the center of town, signing a one-year lease under the names Ruth Porter and Billy Trautman. “They said they were coming from Kentucky and eventually wanted to go to Alaska,” says the owner of the house, Josh Guajardo. “They always had some kind of story going.”
Guajardo once entered the house to make repairs and saw what he believed was an altar made out of two wooden
shelves. Hanging above a candle was a Wicca prayer – the “White Witch Prayer,” he recalls.
The couple got along fine with next-door neighbors Larry and Sandy Hartle, “until they started acting weird,” says Larry Hartle. One day Clark told the neighbors she ran an online sex business. “She said she was a witch, too, and read tarot cards on the Internet.” Yet Clark and Sisk told him they didn’t have a computer and often asked to use the Hartles’. On one occasion he saw them print out a personal check in someone else’s name.
The Hartles knew their neighbors as Ruth and Billy. “But I nicknamed him pinhead,” says Hartle. “He wasn’t the brains of the outfit, she ran things. She wouldn’t let him out of her sight.” Clark had a mean streak, he says. Hartle’s wife once caught her slapping the Hartles’ 4-year-old son.
Ruth and Billy were always late with their rent and, after just two months, their landlord was ready to see them go. ”I gave them back their security deposit and said, ‘Leave,’ ” says Guajardo. And they did, taking pots and pans and window curtains, along with a rose bush they dug out of the yard.
Sisk and Clark found another house to rent, but as they made plans to move to the Northwest, their fake identities tripped them up. On Dec. 1, 2005, Sisk was arrested trying to cash fake checks. He had used false identification bearing the name Jeremy Gunther, yet another one-time friend from Kentucky. Sisk and Clark were charged with theft, forgery, check fraud and criminal impersonation.
The couple posted bond to get out of jail, then rented a U-Haul truck and loaded it with their possessions. When their landlady refused to return their security deposit, they trashed the house, smashing raw eggs against the wall and dumping dog feces in the heating ducts.
Five days later, Sisk was arrested for auto theft along an Idaho highway, headed to Washington. The U-Haul was two days overdue. Clark, meanwhile, was on her way to Florida with her daughter in a car she had rented with a counterfeit check.
Extradited to Colorado, Sisk posted bail and fled to Florida. Clark was pregnant again, this time with Sisk’s child.
Loveless still believes Clark was her grandson’s ruination. “His own brother begged him to stay away from Candace,” she says. “She’s devil-possessed, that’s for sure. The girl is just mean through and through.”
The state of Florida claims to be the biggest tourist destination in the world, welcoming more than 80 million visitors every year. Many of them flock to the unbroken string of Gulf Coast communities on Tampa Bay. Stretching from St. Petersburg to Tampa to Clearwater, this metro area boasts the second-largest population along the Gulf of Mexico.
It has a laid-back lifestyle, a year-round Margaritaville along white beaches under perpetually sunny skies. Yearly average temperatures hover around 73 degrees.
But the Sunshine State wasn’t very welcoming to the two nomads from Kentucky. Unable to come up with enough cash for an apartment, Clark and Sisk hopped from motel to motel with Courtney, living on the cheap, feeding the baby fast food and slices of pizza. In January 2006, they checked into the Econo Lodge in Clearwater, just another couple in one of the thousands of motels along Florida’s palm-lined Gulf Coast.
But trouble soon followed. An anonymous complaint sent a child protection investigator to the Econo Lodge. The room smelled foul, the investigator reported. Dirty diapers and half-empty cartons of Chinese food littered the room. Even in cool temperatures, the baby was dressed only in a diaper. What seemed to be ant bites covered her ear, hand and foot.
On Feb. 21, 2006, a day after Clark’s 22nd birthday, the couple was arrested in Clearwater for forgery and identity theft after trying to cash a bogus check for $250. Once again, Sisk was sent back to Colorado, where he would be convicted of the auto theft charge and sentenced to a work-release program. The baby went into emergency foster care under the name “Courtney Porter.”
Clark was eight months pregnant by this time. She was booked into the medical ward of the Pinellas County jail. She claimed she was “Ruth Porter.” But police found a second license among her belongings bearing the name “Candice Farris.” She told them Farris was an ex-girlfriend from Kentucky. But in a telephone call to her mother, police confirmed her identity by a tattoo on her ankle – “Alexis,” the first name of her first daughter.
Clark had been found out. She needed a new identity. And suddenly, appearing before her like a guardian angel, stood a woman named Sandy Shaner. Shaner had gotten into a domestic brawl with her husband and landed in the Clearwater jail.
“I felt sorry for Candace,” Shaner says today. “She was telling everyone she wanted to get out because the doctor in the jail wanted her baby. I fell for it. I bonded her out and took her under my wing.”
Separated from her husband, Shaner, 57, agreed to let Clark stay at her home. She lent her cash and gave her the keys to her Ford Ranger and Mustang convertible. She shelled out $534 for a new laptop so Clark could get back to work, helping college students find scholarships online, as Clark told her. When Clark went into labor, she took her to the hospital and home again with the newborn, another baby girl, this one named Alize.
One day, Shaner and Clark went to a beach on Treasure Island. They walked along the sand collecting shells. “She loved it there,” Shaner says. “She’d cry and say, ‘You’re the mother I never had.’ And I’d say, ‘You’re the daughter I never had.’ One minute I was her mother. The next minute she was outsmarting me.”
Clark bought a long black wig, the same color and length as Shaner’s hair. Unbeknownst to Shaner, she had found Shaner’s strong box in a closet.
“She had my birth certificate, Social Security card, cancelled checks,” Shaner says. “She had my marriage license, my divorce papers, my mother’s birth certificate.” Clark charged cash advances on Shaner’s MasterCard. She activated a dormant Bank of America credit card and maxed it out. She rang up $3,000 on an American Express account. She charged merchandise at one Wal-Mart and returned it to another for cash. She wrote checks and made withdrawals from two bank accounts. She activated four cell phones with Verizon and made calls totaling $2,800.
And then one day, she vanished. Poof.
Shaner says Clark took her for $17,000. “I’m not a stupid woman,” she says. “But I’m telling you, Candace is a pro. I have an S on my forehead – for sucker.”
Meanwhile, inland from the Gulf Coast in Sanford, a northern suburb of Orlando, Michaela Clerc and Tammie Garlin had just moved into a new house with Garlin’s two children. Clerc was 16 years younger than Garlin, who was in poor health and suffered seizures. But the two had been lesbian partners for years, says neighbor Maddie Bonafe. Bonafe remembers cooking dinner and playing dominoes with the couple. “We were the best of friends.”
Clerc had grown up in Florida and only finished 11th grade. She worked at Walgreens for $6.50 an hour and had a history of mental problems. Garlin occasionally worked for Clerc’s father hanging aluminum siding.
Garlin and Clerc’s relationship cooled, though, and Clerc moved out. Around that same time, Clerc met a woman on a lesbian chat room, someone named Candace.
Clerc fell head over heals. She moved into Candace Clark’s St. Petersburg apartment in the spring of 2006. Clark was out on bail, but the two women decided to get out of town. Clark pleaded with authorities to let her go to Kentucky, saying her father was on his death bed. She was given a 10-day travel order. But it was another phony story. Instead, Clark and Clerc drove to North Carolina and New Jersey.
Back in Florida, Clark got her daughter Courtney out of emergency foster care. Ordered into parenting classes, she failed to show up. A claim that she hit Courtney with a Coke bottle was dropped, according to child protection records. Despite doubts about her mothering skills, the Florida Department of Children and Families agreed to reunite Clark with her daughter on April 13, 2006.
Two months later, Clark was evicted from her house in St. Pete. She and Clerc beat a path to Tammie Garlin’s house in central Florida, and Garlin was willing to take back her old lover – along with the new friend. “They started living there,” says neighbor Bonafe, “and that’s where everything got crazy.” Candace took control over Garlin and Clerc, Bonafe adds. “Whatever Candace said, they had to go her way.”
The awkward living arrangement lasted only a few weeks. On July 21, 2006, Candace Clark was arrested again on identity theft and fraud charges. Again, she had befriended a woman and stole her personal records.
Clark’s daughter Courtney, then 2, was placed in the Sorrento, Florida, home of another foster parent – Cynthia Martell, Michaela Clerc’s mother. Clark posted bail, and in September 2006, headed for Sorrento. She convinced Martell that it was OK for her to take the girl out of the foster home. Then she illegally absconded with her own daughter.
It was two whole weeks before Martell told a caseworker that Clark had grabbed Courtney, and another two-and-a-half months before Florida placed Courtney in its missing persons tracking system. The snafu would eventually lead to a state inquiry and reforms to the system.
Meanwhile, Clark had somehow convinced Garlin, a mother with two children at home, into leaving her suburban residence in Sanford and hitting the road. Candace Clark, Michaela Clerc, Tammie Garlin and Garlin’s two kids, 11-year-old Andrew and 15-year-old Felicia, who was then three months pregnant, would go on the run together, along with Clark’s daughters, Courtney and Alize.
They left in a hurry, clothes and trash and dog feces scattered throughout the house. “They abandoned everything,” Bonafe says. “To this day, everything’s the same way they left it.”
Did Clark sweet-talk Garlin into joining forces? Or was fear behind Garlin’s decision? Before she left, she confided in her neighbor. “She felt they were going to kill her,” Bonafe says of Tammie Garlin, “that they were going to overdose her with her own medication… I’ll tell you one thing, if Candace Clark had never come into her life, Miss Tammie would still be here.”
Clark was due to appear in court in Grand Junction on Oct. 27, 2006. She never showed up. Michael Sisk had been sentenced to 90 days for stealing the U-Haul. On September 21, he walked away from work-release.
Fleeing Colorado, Sisk hooked up with Clark somewhere on the road and joined her odd entourage. The two lovers were fugitives again, this time running in a pack.
Along Highway 16 in Wisconsin, a marble monument marks the spot where Marquette and Joliet entered the Wisconsin River on June 14, 1673. They had portaged across a narrow neck of land from the nearby Fox River, dragging their canoes to the Wisconsin River, where they paddled west to the Mississippi and then south down the waterway.
That narrow neck of land grew into the city of Portage. Founded in 1854, Portage was the childhood home of Sierra Club founder John Muir and several well-known writers. Most notable was Zona Gale, whose novel Miss Lulu Bett depicted small-town life in Portage. Adapting it into a play, Gale became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1921. Every August, Portage celebrates “Zona Gale Day” with tours of her home, readings of her work and an ice cream social at her gravesite.
The town’s slogan is “Where the North Begins,” and that’s where the northern journey ended for Clark and her companions. They stopped first in Janesville, then drove on to Wisconsin Dells, where a newspaper ad listing a home for rent drew them to Portage. On Feb. 26, 2007, they took up residence in Portage at 304 W. Oneida St.
“They gave me $700 cash,” says the landlord, Rex Taylor.
The neighborhood along Oneida Street once bustled with activity. Classy hotels and fine restaurants served tourists after they arrived at the railroad depot. Today, 304 W. Oneida St. shows signs of wear and tear. Paint peels from the window frames. Charred bricks above the doorway reveal traces of a fire. But the house was a perfect hideaway for the drifters.
Sisk took a job at a truck wash just off the interstate, while Tammie Garlin found work at the local Wal-Mart. Clark and Clerc, meanwhile, stayed home with Clark’s kids Courtney and Alize. On some days, the two women would push the children around the block in baby strollers. Soon there was another child, as Felicia gave birth to a baby girl a month after the group arrived in Portage.
Occasionally, Sisk, Clark and Tammie Garlin would stop into Sal’s Friendly Tavern a block away for a cheeseburger and a beer or to use the ATM.
But most days, the tenants were all but invisible. “They even had tinfoil over the bedroom windows,” says Taylor. “I wondered if they were making porno movies or something.”
According to statements later given to police, the house was swirling with bad vibes. The dynamics of the accidental family were steamily complicated. Clerc had once been the lesbian partner of Garlin, only to become Clark’s lover for a time. But Clark was also Sisk’s lover. And in Portage, Garlin had made advances to Clark, who later told the press that Clerc “hated Tammie” for it. Meanwhile, Sisk had become so jealous that he hit Garlin over the head with a folding chair, according to Candace and Felicia.
In the midst of this jealous turmoil, 11-year-old Andrew Garlin endured savage punishments. As the investigation would later show, he was imprisoned in a locked bedroom closet, with finishing nails driven into the door frame and bent sideways so he couldn’t get out.
The doctor who later examined him said he was malnourished and sustained injuries from “serial beatings.” An upper tooth was missing. Burn scars marked his arms, legs, hands and feet. He couldn’t walk, and the skin on his fingers had mummified.
The boy told the doctor that he was burned with boiling water by Clark, Sisk, Clerc and his sister Felicia. His own mother also had taken part in early scaldings, he said. They hogtied him and threatened to drown him. They whipped him almost every day with a belt and extension cords. They choked him until his eyes would roll up into his head, pulled on his penis with a pair of pliers, and forced him to drink gallons of water until he vomited and passed out.
Taylor remembers seeing the boy only twice: when he was shoveling snow one day, and when paramedics carried him out of the house on a gurney. His head was bandaged, his skin a sickly shade of blue.
As the savagery against Andrew continued, police reports show, the roommates turned against his mother, kicking her in the chest and head and scalding her with boiling water. By June 4, Tammie Garlin was in such bad shape that she was too weak to get from an upstairs bedroom to the bathroom downstairs.
Candace was fed up, Felicia told police. She was tired of Tammie and her son “shittin’ all over the floor” and said she was going to buy a shovel and bury them alive. So Michaela and Felicia dragged her mother down the stairs, dropping her head hard onto the bathroom floor. Tammie had soiled herself. They lifted her into the bathtub to wash her off, clothes and all, and then dumped her back onto the floor. She didn’t move.
According to Felicia, Sisk went into the bathroom and kicked Tammie in the chest. But as Clark tells it, Clerc kicked Tammie, screaming at her to “Get off the damn floor.” Sisk then went into the bathroom alone and shut the door. A few minutes later, the door opened. “She’s dead,” said Sisk. And Clerc laughed, the report says.
An autopsy would show that Tammie Garlin suffered a collapsed lung, broken nose and fractured hyoid bone in her neck. Her cause of death was manual strangulation.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles away in Lake County, Florida, a fax had come across the desk of Detective Jim Vachon. The details were sparse: A toddler named Courtney Clark had been taken from her foster home by her mother without permission from authorities.
Detective Vachon opened a missing person file and posted Courtney Clark’s description and photo with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Tips came flying in. But none checked out.
Four months later, in early June, a crime analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement called Vachon with a curious bit of information: A credit report update had been requested in Portage, Wisconsin, by a “Michael Sisk.”
The name matched police records: Sisk was the boyfriend of Courtney Clark’s mother.
Vachon rushed to the teletype to punch out an alert.
A rail line carries westbound passenger trains from Chicago to Milwaukee and on across central Wisconsin, into Minnesota and along the northern tier of the United States. Once a day, the westbound train rumbles through Portage, cutting through the center of town before coming to a stop at a tiny Amtrak station, which is located just across from the house at 304 Oneida St.
On the afternoon of June 14, 2007, two police officers knocked on the house’s front door.
A woman with long black hair answered.
“Does Michael Sisk live here?” the officers asked her.
She told them no.
“What is your name, ma’am?”
Ruth, she said.
“Do you know a Candace Clark?”
Again, she said no, and showed them a tax refund bearing the name “Ruth Porter.”
The officers noticed small children and a teenager inside the house. The teenager said her name was “Felicia Gailand.” Her mother was at work, she told them. “She comes and goes.” From upstairs, another young woman appeared. Her name was “Raechle Smith” and she was from North Carolina, she said.
As the officers questioned the women, Portage Police Chief Kenneth Manthey and Detective Mark Hahn arrived at the house. In their hands were photographs of Candace Clark and her daughter, Courtney.
The guessing game was over. The officers helped the women and children into squad cars. They would sort things out at the police station.
As the questioning commenced, it was Michaela Clerc who dropped the bombshell: There was someone else in the house, an 11-year-old boy locked in an upstairs closet.
Police went to the house and found him sitting on the floor of a bedroom closet with his knees pulled to his chest. He wore only a pair of shorts. His body was streaked with blood and covered with open wounds.
The boy was taken by helicopter to UW Hospital in Madison. “I don’t want to hurt no more,” he told the doctor.
As the interrogation continued, the suspects told the grisly tale of Tammie Garlin’s final days: After the strangling, her body was lifted through a kitchen window and loaded into the trunk of a car. Before shutting the lid, Felicia said she saw her mother’s legs twitch. The killers then drove to Wal-Mart to buy a shovel, a rake and a hacksaw, with Tammie still in the trunk. And as they drove, Felicia said she heard sighing from the trunk. When they returned to Oneida Street, they parked the car behind the house, and Tammie’s body remained in the car overnight.
The following evening, as the roommates watched, Sisk dug a hole behind the house, wrapped the body in a blanket, and, with Felicia’s help, laid the body in the hole. With Clark standing as lookout, Sisk covered the grave. Candace and Felicia then planted flowers.
The next day, Sisk asked the landlord if it was all right to put a flower garden in the back of the house. Sure, Taylor said. But a day later, Sisk had changed his mind. Could he build a patio instead?
“That’s gonna cover up the flower garden,” said Taylor.
“Oh, that’s okay,” said Sisk.
Sisk never got around to building the patio. Police found Tammie Garlin buried in a shallow grave next to a lilac bush.
The next day, police arrested Michael Sisk at the Greyhound station in Milwaukee. In his pocket was a one-way ticket to Madisonville, Kentucky. He was going home.
The children of Candace Clark and Felicia Garlinwere placed in foster care in Wisconsin, where, under a court order, they remain, despite attempts by relatives to have them returned to Kentucky and Florida.
The 11-year-old boy remains in hospital care. Likening him to “a concentration camp survivor,” his doctor says he would have died if the abuse had continued.
A Columbia County judge in November ruled that Felicia Garlin, now 16, would be tried as a juvenile. She could still face charges of homicide. Prosecutors dropped murder charges against Michaela Clerc, 21. Yet she stands charged with enough related felonies to put her in prison for more than 100 years.
Michael Sisk and Candace Clark have been bound over for trial for first-degree intentional homicide. If convicted, they’ll receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Every day, the Amtrak train passes just behind the Columbia County Jail where Clark and Sisk are housed. The train is headed for its final destination of Seattle, where the two lovers had once hoped to travel from their place in Colorado.
Across from the Amtrak station, new tenants have moved in to 304 W. Oneida St., a husband and wife and their two young kids. Some toys and furniture were left behind when they got there, and the husband had to fix a leak in the roof above an upstairs closet. But no, they hadn’t heard a thing about any previous tenants, says the wife. Not a thing.
At least, not until an electrician stopped by one day to make some repairs. The electrician told her everything, about the Wicca witch and the lesbian love triangle and the burned boy in the closet. And the part about a mutilated woman being buried in the backyard.
“That creeped me out,” says the new tenant, standing in the front doorway, her children playing behind her with the abandoned toys. “That hole is still there.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor with Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at