Hearing today in granddad's fight to keep three kids

This is the third in a series of stories about Napa artist Don Hatfield and his quest to win guardianship of his three young grandchildren. To read earlier installments, go to:

NAPA – A large white calendar on the wall behind Don Hatfield's easel reads like a soccer mom's dream.

"Ariel: Dance," he has scrawled in black ink in one of the boxes.

"Eva: Tap," in another.

"Ariel: doctor."

"Teeth clean."

"School meeting."

Next to the jampacked calendar, along with a small photo of Mother Teresa, are children's drawings, in red and purple crayon, of little girls and princesses.

But Hatfield is no frantic young mother.

He is a widower who will turn 65 today, and his new life is caring for his three young grandchildren. He has had them since Feb. 27, the day their mother – his daughter – was killed and their father jailed in her death.

"When I had money I lived in the forest, away from everyone," Hatfield said, in the four-bedroom home he rents in Napa to accommodate the children. He spoke as he put final touches on a painting of women flying kites, a rare quiet moment while Eva, 5, and Ariel, 3, were at school and baby Alex was asleep.

"Now, it's me and all of the moms and kids. I'm one of them now."

This morning Hatfield, a noted impressionist artist, is likely to find out whether he will be given permanent guardianship of his grandchildren.

Since Rachel Winkler was killed, Hatfield has been caring for the youngsters. Their father, Todd Winkler, is in the El Dorado County jail, charged with her murder.

For the past 2 1/2 months, Hatfield has worked to prove to authorities that he is capable, financially and otherwise, of raising the children. He enrolled them in school and therapy, takes them to dance class and medical appointments, and reads to them before bed.

With the help of baby sitters, he has juggled daily parenting duties. He has done so while resurrecting his painting career, which he put on the back burner after his wife, Janey, became ill and died last year.

But his guardianship of the children is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Their paternal grandmother, Janeth Winkler, is bidding to bring the children to her home in Iowa to live with her and her husband, George, a retired farmer. Winkler, also in her 60s, will be in court today to discuss a potential resolution to the guardianship dispute.

Ultimately a judge will decide where the children will stay while their father's criminal case goes forward, based in part on investigations of the lives of the Hatfields and Winklers and what the court deems is in the best interest of the youngsters.

If the two grandparents, with the help of a mediator, cannot agree on a solution today the matter likely will go to trial, said Hatfield's lawyer, Wendy Coghlan.

"Everything is up to the courts, but I feel like these children are my life now," said Hatfield. "God gave me direction, opened the door and here I am."

As normal as possible

Janeth Winkler declined to talk with a reporter this week. Her attorney, Lilka Martinez, said her client believes the youngsters would be better off with her. Todd Winkler has said in court papers that he would like his mother to care for the children.

Todd Winkler, 45, described by his lawyer as a successful businessman who attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, has pleaded not guilty to killing his wife. He has said he stabbed Rachel, 37, in self-defense after she attacked him with a pair of scissors following an argument at their home in Cameron Park.

In a brief jailhouse interview this week, Winkler said he desperately misses his daughters and son.

"It's heartbreaking not to see them, not to be able to talk to them," said Winkler, declining to elaborate on the case. An imposing man with salt and pepper hair, he spoke from behind a barrier, dressed in a jail-issued orange jumpsuit.

The children were home at the time of the slaying, police said, but it remains unclear what they saw that day.

Hatfield has three adult sons from his first marriage and was dreaming of a retirement of travel and golf before his wife became ill. But on the day his daughter was killed, he rushed to the scene, and petitioned for custody.

Now his life revolves around grocery runs, wiping dirty faces and comforting children in the night. A high chair sits next to the dining room table. A bassinet stands in the living room. The floor is scattered with toys, and the DVD titles on a bookshelf include "Shrek" and "Mulan."

Hatfield said he is once again making a living with his art and is financially sound. In addition to income from sales of his work, more than $51,000 has poured into a bank fund established for the youngsters.

"I'm OK," he said. "Money is not going to be a problem."

He is most concerned now, he said, about making the children's lives as normal as possible. He grieves for his daughter "on the fly, when the kids are gone and I have time to think about it," he said.

'What else could I do?'

Free time is fleeting.

Each morning, Hatfield bundles up the girls and their Hello Kitty lunchboxes and backpacks and drives them to St. John's Lutheran School, a few minutes from their home.

After an afternoon of errands, painting and looking after Alex, he arrives at school along with throngs of young moms to pick up Ariel and Eva.

"Did you make this?" he said on a recent day, admiring their drawings and egg-carton gardens while cuddling Ariel. "Very nice."

He coaxed Eva from the playground before taking each one of them by the hand and back to the car.

Once home, he emptied the garbage, fed the family's ancient Siamese cat and washed down vitamins with a swig of carrot juice. While baby sitter Jessica Ramirez dressed Eva in a pink outfit for her dance class, he grabbed her silken ballet shoes and headed out the door.

At the dance studio, he joined another gaggle of young parents who watched through the window as their youngsters performed to plinking piano music that played on a boom box.

Wearing a white ball cap and dark sweats, Hatfield held Ariel in his lap and sat quietly, rubbing her back. He made small talk in the viewing area, and he counted his blessings.

Hatfield has concluded, he said, that his unexpected parental duties late in life have changed him.

"I've been a judgmental jerk in my life," he said. "But that's gone out the window. I have been so inspired by the people around me, some of them people I would have judged in the past, who have helped me get through this."

He is a bit puzzled, he said, as to why his case has drawn so much media attention.

"It's extremely unusual, I guess, for a guy my age to raise three young kids under these circumstances," he pondered. "But what else could I do? It's going to be me and these kids now."

He hopes, he said, that the court will see things that way.

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