It's been more than two years since little Alexis Storkson witnessed the murders of her half-sister, her mother and the man she knew as her father. Now seven, she's been at the center of a cross-country custody battle for almost as long ("Little Girl Lost," October 12, 1994). Thanks to a recent court decision, she may finally be secure in the knowledge that she won't be uprooted--at least for the immediate future.
In April 1993, Julie Storkson, Ron Massey (Julie's live-in lover) and their two-year-old daughter, Gloria, were clubbed to death with a claw hammer in the Atlantic City print shop Julie managed. Alexis also suffered a hammer blow, which left a large hole in her skull, but she survived the attack, as well as a fire apparently set by the killer. While she was still in the hospital, Don and Debra Buck, the owners of the print shop, filed for temporary custody of Alexis, claiming that they were "the only family friends" she had. They later moved to make the custody arrangement permanent, even though Alexis's biological father, Chris Perry, wanted to take his daughter back to his Colorado home with him. The Bucks alleged that the mostly unemployed Perry, who said he'd been searching for Alexis since Julie had left the Denver area with her in September 1989, was an unfit father, but a New Jersey judge disagreed and awarded custody to Perry in late 1993.
The Bucks subsequently appealed the ruling because of their belief that the court had not ruled in Alexis's best interest. But on April 19, the appellate division of New Jersey Superior Court affirmed the original verdict. The eleven-page decision states that "while there may be evidence in the record suggesting that custody should be given to the Bucks, the evidence is not sufficient to establish Perry is unfit as a parent."
Whether this settles the matter is an open question. After the verdict, attorney Arlene Groch, speaking for the Bucks, issued a statement claiming that "Mr. Perry won custody because the court felt the Bucks had not proved him to be an `unfit parent,' regardless of whether he is the person best able to meet the needs of this child or whether awarding custody to him serves her best interests." Reached last week, Groch would not comment on the possibility that the Bucks would appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court; she said only that "the Bucks have done what they've done out of love for this child. It's heartrending that Chris Perry has cut her off from a source of unconditional love."
By contrast, Perry, who's shared a trailer in Federal Heights with Alexis since last year, describes his reaction to the appellate court's action as "relief" and says, "To me, it's over. And even if the Bucks do appeal, they won't have much of a chance. It was a unanimous decision by the appeals court." In his mind, the only reason Alexis might have to return to New Jersey would be to testify against Clarence Reaves, a machinist at the print shop who's been charged with the murders. However, no date for this trial has been set; because of a flurry of motions filed by his lawyer, Reaves has remained in an Atlantic City jail for more than two years, and no end to the incarceration is in sight.
During that span, the hole in Alexis's skull failed to heal as completely as doctors had hoped. As a result, she entered a Denver-area hospital in late March for a cranioplasty--an operation in which an undamaged portion of her skull was removed, split in half and fixed in place over the opening. "She's just fine," Perry reports. "She's already acting like nothing ever happened, and she caught up with the schoolwork she missed in, like, a day and a half." He adds that physicians will re-examine Alexis in four to five months to judge the success of the procedure. If it doesn't take, she'll have to wear a helmet whenever she's engaged in certain physical activities until she reaches age eighteen, at which point she'll go back into the hospital and have a metal plate put in her head.
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In the meantime, Perry, whose intermittent employment history was criticized by the Bucks in their custody filings, is at loose ends again. He was jobless for much of 1994--he said he wanted extra free time to get reacquainted with his daughter--before landing work in early 1995 at a plant that makes parts for motor homes. But last month, after taking four consecutive sick days, he was laid off. He hasn't looked for another job since then, he explains, because of the death of his grandmother and his parents' request for help in the sale of their house. The sale was made necessary, he claims, because of the cost of the various custody fights. He puts the family's current debt at $140,000.
But, Perry insists, money problems and their possible consequences pale in comparison with Alexis's development. "She's not really showing any anger toward anybody anymore, and she'll say `I love you' to everybody in the family but me," he notes. "She shows that she loves me, but she won't say it--I think it's because she's afraid that if she says it to me like she said it to her mom, she'll lose me, too.
"But if I ask her if she loves me, she'll kind of shrug and say, `Yeah.'