By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
The attorneys for both sides began sniping at each other--Chris had hired Seth Grossman, a fiery former Atlantic City politician who had never handled a custody case before. But the acrimony between Chris Perry and his family and the Bucks grew at an even faster pace. The Bucks said Julie had referred to Chris as nothing more than a "sperm donor." Later, according to court documents, they claimed that Chris bruised Alexis's arm and dragged her across a carpet during a court-ordered visit. They also hired a private investigator to follow Chris for several hours; the biggest discovery made by the P.I. was that Chris once failed to properly signal a turn while driving.
For their part, the Perrys criticized the Bucks' small, ranch-style house, noting that the seams of the Strawberry Shortcake wallpaper in the room where Alexis was staying were uneven and that the family's pet birds were allowed to fly free and defecate wherever they wished. They also accused the Bucks of poisoning Alexis against her father; Chris says she was told that he was a friend of "the bad man" who had slain her mother (the Bucks deny this allegation). Friends, family members, acquaintances and neighbors of Julie and Ron were deposed, and Alexis was repeatedly questioned and examined by therapists paid either by the court or by the opposing parties. Allegiances shifted, and shifted again, during the summer of 1993.
And then there was the press. Television stations in Philadelphia and Atlantic City kept viewers apprised of developments in the dispute, and the Bucks, who today criticize Chris Perry for cooperating with this article, were not shy about making their feelings known in the media. They also gave permission to at least two journalists to interview Alexis directly.
The anticipation and the arguments came to a head on September 20, when the custody trial opened and the characters' lives were laid bare. Chris was quizzed about a number of outstanding traffic tickets and the 1990 conviction for stealing copper from an abandoned Central City mine (he says he was railroaded). He was also taken to task about his work history. In spite of his claims that he had spent the previous several years mainly working for his parents, he was shown to have skipped from one low-income job to another--between several periods of unemployment. The Bucks had to speak about Don's affair with Julie, Debra's decision to pay for Julie's abortion and allegations that they were exaggerating the closeness of their relationship with Julie and Alexis.
Seth Grossman, Chris's attorney, argued that what the Bucks described in an early deposition as a "close, personal friendship" that lasted three years was genuinely intimate only during the last few months before Julie's death.
Each side accused the other of allowing Alexis to hear too much about the competition for her. On one occasion, the Bucks brought Alexis with them to court; Don says an associate of Alexis's psychologist advised them to let the child tell the judge why she wanted to stay with the Bucks. Judge Garofolo responded by criticizing the Bucks for bringing her. Alexis played in an anteroom elsewhere in the courthouse until the gavel was pounded at the end of the day.
Sixteen days and more than twenty witnesses later, Judge Garofolo handed down his verdict. He ruled that the Bucks had proven neither that they "stood in the shoes of the parent" nor that Chris Perry was a neglectful or abusive parent. Alexis was awarded to Chris--and because the Bucks had implied at the outset of the trial that they would not appeal a negative decision, the matter seemed closed.
But it didn't stay that way.
When Chris and Alexis boarded a train bound for Denver, he says, "she hated me. She thought I was the worst person in the world." He claims that she didn't begin to warm up to him until they pulled into Chicago. After that, he maintains, their relationship steadily improved.
A report by Deborah Garcia, a court-ordered psychologist who began seeing Alexis shortly after her arrival in Colorado, is more of a mixed bag. In a letter to Seth Grossman, Garcia wrote that Alexis slept and ate poorly and was "quite depressed and guarded" during her first weeks in her new home--actually, Chris's parents' house. Garcia also noted that Alexis's relationship with Chris was moving forward in fits and starts. One moment she would eagerly seek his attention and enjoy playing with him; the next she became "angry and oppositional, depressed and withdrawn." This behavior, Garcia wrote, was perfectly understandable given that Alexis was grieving for the loss of her loved ones even as she was adjusting to an entirely new environment.
The psychologist added that "a positive signal that [Alexis] is beginning to develop a positive relationship with her father occurred in our most recent session, when she decided to make a gift for her father--a house made of Play-Dough." She was also encouraged by Alexis's willingness to share her feelings about her dead mother and sister during sessions, and by the good reports she received from the girl's kindergarten teacher and school psychologist.
According to Chris, Alexis sank into funks only after speaking with the Bucks on the telephone. The custody order had included a requirement that Alexis be allowed to speak with Don and Debra weekly, but Chris insists that the Bucks used these conversations to belittle him--a charge the Bucks deny.
Late in 1993, Chris cut off phone contact between Alexis and the Bucks, and his decision to do so was later validated by Judge Garofolo. Garcia also recommended that calls be discontinued until Alexis was more capable of dealing with the deaths of Julie, Gloria and Ron. Contact through the mail had been okayed, but that, too, ended in a bitter dispute. As before, the warring parties were at each other's throats, with Alexis stuck in the middle.
In the meantime, Chris was getting regular reminders from Seth Grossman about thousands of dollars in outstanding legal bills. Fortunately, the attorney saw a possible solution. In a late October 1993 letter, he wrote Chris that he had been contacted by The Montel Williams Show. The program's staffers were interested, and while Grossman noted that "the program will not pay you," he added that "if we are serious about raising money to cover [your] expenses, this is a good beginning." In a matter of days, Chris agreed to fly with Alexis to New York to tape a show. Don and Debra Buck say they initially turned down an offer to appear on Montel but ultimately acquiesced because they didn't want the Perrys' point of view to go uncontested.
The program, taped in early November and broadcast shortly thereafter, was fiery. In addition to Chris and the Bucks, appearances were made by two friends of Julie's, including Pam Koch, who spent much of the show yelling at Don and Debra Buck. During the program, Koch claimed that Julie's sexual relationship with Don had been ongoing, not a one-time pairing, and that Julie had told her that Don was going to leave Debra for her. Koch also said that Julie had asked her, not the Bucks, to care for Alexis and Gloria in the event of her death, precipitating a heated exchange in which Don said Pamela "is even less capable of telling the truth than Mr. Perry is."
Just as blunt was Robert Storkson, who was seen via satellite from Denver. When asked who he thought was best suited to caring for Alexis, he said, "Me first, Chris Perry second, the other five billion people on Earth, and then Don Buck."
"There were definitely edits in the show, which gave a slant toward Mr. Perry," Don Buck says--and indeed, Williams and the studio audience seemed to side with Chris. Williams concluded the program by opining that a ruling had been reached and that everyone involved should simply step back and give Alexis a chance to go on with her life.
The Bucks did not take Williams's advice. In statements made before the trial, both had implied that they would not appeal the court's decision. Today, Don clarifies his comments: "What I said was that we would not appeal any decision made by the court providing it was in the best interest of Alexis. And we believe that the decision was not in Alexis's best interest. We waited until the last possible day, hoping against hope that a relationship of a positive nature would develop between Alexis and her father and that we would be proved wrong. Sadly, the opposite came to pass, and we were left with no other decision but to initiate an appeal."
According to Arlene Gilbert Groch, the Bucks' attorney, the appeal is based in large part on the argument that "the judge applied the wrong standard when he refused to decide the case on what was in Alexis's best interests." A deposition signed by the Bucks characterizes Perry as an irresponsible, neglectful, often unemployed man with little understanding about how to help Alexis deal with the loss of Julie, Ron and Gloria.
The document concludes, "We failed to give our lawyer and the court the name of Chris Perry right away out of our belief that it was necessary to do so to protect Alexis, i.e. to keep our promise to Julie. We were wrong. But, after all Alexis has been through in her short life, she deserves to be allowed to live with the people whom she loves, imperfect as we may be."
Predictably, reports about how Alexis is doing today vary widely, depending upon who is delivering them. Even though the Bucks haven't had any contact with Alexis since April 1994, they continue to believe that Chris is too deeply flawed to give Alexis everything she needs. Meanwhile, Alexis has received excellent progress reports. Garcia, in an updated report from March 1994, wrote, "Alexis appears to be adjusting to life with her father. Her mood has improved, although at times she still demonstrates sadness and irritability."
Among the things still weighing on Alexis, Chris says, is the prospect of having to testify against Clarence Reaves, who has been in jail awaiting trial for the murders for nearly eighteen months. As for Chris, he is not currently working. He claims that he decided to take the summer off in order to help Alexis deal with these issues. "I'm doing okay right now," he says, "but since Alexis is back in school, I'm sure I'll be getting a job really soon."
Chris acknowledges that he has received more than $50,000 from the insurance policy the Bucks took out on Julie, but beyond noting that "the only things that've been spent have been for Alexis's well-being, because it's her money," he won't talk specifics. He and Alexis are no longer living at his parents' place; Chris just bought a new trailer in Federal Heights. One wall there sports a photograph of Julie Storkson; the frame is slightly off-center and the glass over the picture is cracked.
New Jersey prosecutor Murray Talasnik declines to say whether Alexis will be called as a witness at the Reaves trial and won't discuss the possibility that she might testify via videotape. No trial date has been set, he adds, because a flurry of motions filed by the defense have not yet been ruled upon. Reaves's attorney, Kohath Shuler, confirms that he's filed "90 or 100 motions" on his client's behalf, including documents that question the manner in which members of the original grand jury that indicted Reaves in July 1993 were chosen. He believes that the case will not be heard until December at the earliest and says he would not be surprised by additional postponements.
Neither would Grossman. "This really says something about our justice system," he says. "No matter what anyone says, there's no trial date in sight. I guarantee you that the O.J. Simpson trial will have come and gone, and they'll probably be on the second one--and there still won't be a trial scheduled here."
And the New Jersey appellate court has not set a date to consider the Bucks' appeal--meaning that Alexis has two traumatic, life-changing incidents hanging over her head. And no one seems ready to raise the white flag.
"During the trial," Chris says, "the Bucks argued that even if they may have been wrong in obtaining custody of Alexis in April, it would be harmful to take her away from them because they'd been living as a family unit for nearly six months. Well, she's been with me for almost a year now. They claimed that Alexis required stability--so why are they doing this?"
"If the original trial court's decision is upheld," Don counters, "there are certainly other legal options. If the court decided it would be in Alexis's best interest to return her to us, we would be elated, but I would expect that Mr. Perry would probably initiate some kind of litigation. That's just the way it is."
By the time Chris and Alexis drive from her school to the trailer they share, most of the Perry family is there. Chris's father, Doug, is playing video games, his mother, Cleta, is cleaning up, and sisters Sandra and Jennifer are chasing their kids--Sharaya, 2, and Richie, 3. Alexis is brusque with Richie but extremely sweet with Sharaya. "We think she reminds her of Gloria," Cleta says. "Gloria was about this age when she was killed."
Alexis does everything in her power to avoid talking about her mother, her sister, the Bucks or the trial. Her kin are not nearly so reticent.
"The Bucks were trying to delay everything they could," Doug claims, "and I firmly believe they were trying to bankrupt us. And they damn near succeeded. We spent every dime we had, and a lot we didn't have, to get Alexis back with us, and if the judge hadn't ruled for us when he did, I don't know what we would have done." He adds, "Chris is family. The Bucks aren't. Chris is Alexis's blood."
Cleta nods vigorously. She'd never been a big fan of Julie, whom she describes as "a very loud person--kind of a Lucille Ball-type loud. She wouldn't have been my first choice for Chris. Definitely not." But she says she loves Alexis with all her heart and feels that the little girl, after being put through so much trauma, is starting to blossom. "She was quite spoiled when we got her," she says, "but now she's getting to be a pretty good little girl."
"She still won't say `I love you' to Chris," Sandra notes, "but she shows it, the way she runs and jumps in his arms and gives him kisses. And I think the reason that she's not saying it yet has a lot to do with--well, brainwashing isn't a very nice word, but that's what I think the Bucks did to her."
A few minutes later Alexis throws a tantrum and charges into her bedroom. When she's coaxed out by Cleta and Chris a few minutes later, she's wearing a bicycle helmet. She climbs aboard her bike, which is mounted with training wheels. Alexis rolls into the street that runs in front of the trailer and begins riding from one end of it to the other.
Finally, Chris convinces his daughter that it's time to talk with a reporter. Alexis coasts her bike up to him, her complexion red, her breathing labored. She's tired. Chris hugs her, then places the bicycle's rear tire over a slight gap in the curb at the edge of the street. Because the training wheels straddle this gap, the rear tire does not touch the ground. When Chris holds the front tire in his hands, Alexis is able to pedal in place without going anywhere. The tire spins, but she remains stationary.
What made you so angry a few minutes ago? the reporter asks.
"I want my toys," Alexis says, pedaling slowly. "I want my Barbies." The Perrys say the Bucks have refused to send Alexis her toys. The Bucks deny it.
Don't you have any Barbies here?
"Of course I do."
Which one's your favorite?
She looks at the reporter as if he's the stupidest person who ever lived. "Hollywood Hair Barbie," she answers.
And you've got your bike here, too. It's nice to see you wearing your helmet when you ride.
"I don't want the boo-boo in my head to get more deeper," Alexis explains. Suddenly brightening, she asks, "Do you want to see it?"
Still pedaling the bike, she quickly removes her helmet. "It's right here," she says, pushing her fingers into a dent in her skull. "It doesn't hurt anymore. I can't even feel it. Do you want to feel it?" The hole in her head is rectangular. The tips of two adult fingers easily fit inside it.
"I got hit with a hammer," Alexis continues calmly. "That was what happened to my mom and dad, too. In the fire."
Did you see the man who hit your mother?
Alexis nods but says nothing.
Would you tell a judge what the man did?
Another nod. No words.
How would you feel about going back to New Jersey?
"Atlantic City," Alexis corrects the reporter. She's holding the handlebars again and steadily pedaling, her eyes fixed on the road beneath her. Chris is having to work harder to prevent the bike from jumping off the curb and running him down. "Not New Jersey. Atlantic City."
You'd probably get to see Don and Debra there.
"It's Debbie--and she's not my real mom," Alexis says, pumping her legs furiously.
Did you like living there? Do you like living here?
Alexis looks at Chris, as if she's trying to guess what she's supposed to say. "I don't know," she finally cries, her brow furrowed.
She's pedaling faster now, as fast as she possibly can. Her face is flushed, but she shows no sign of stopping. She seems to be trying to get away--to escape from the questions, the lawyers, the people who've made her the prize to be won in a contest that's been going on for nearly as long as she can remember and may go on forever, for all she knows.
Someday she may leave this place, but not this situation. She's trapped.
end of part 2