Six-year-old Alexis Storkson emerges from her first-grade classroom, scanning the greenery that surrounds her Arvada elementary school in search of a familiar face. She soon finds one: Chris Perry, her father, is standing beneath a small tree, wearing a broad smile and holding out his arms. Within five seconds, a grinning Alexis has thrown herself into them.

The moment is picture-perfect, as Perry had anticipated: Knowing how Alexis reacts when she sees him after school, he'd readily agreed to let a newspaper photographer capture the image.

In many ways, Alexis is accustomed to this type of media scrutiny. She's been in the public eye since last year, shortly after her fifth birthday. In the six months that followed, she appeared in countless print and TV news reports and was the focus of an episode of The Montel Williams Show. Although Alexis did not appear on stage, a still shot of her looking forlorn was intercut with images of the men and women fighting for a piece of her. Alexis came into the world an accident--the product of a six-week relationship between two people who wound up at each other's throats--but she became a pawn in a custody battle royale.

The tug-of-war over Alexis began shortly after her 1988 birth in Denver to Julie Storkson, a young woman who supplemented her income as a phone-sex operator by littering bad checks from one end of the country to the other, and Perry, a frequently unemployed sort who a year later would be charged with stealing copper from an abandoned Central City mine. But the public didn't take notice of this scrap until April 1993, when Julie, her live-in lover and their two-year-old daughter, Gloria, were brutally slain in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, print shop that Julie managed. Julie and her lover were clubbed to death with a claw hammer, while Gloria died of smoke inhalation as the result of a fire apparently set by the killer.

Alexis, then five, was at the scene. The attacker used the hammer to punch a hole in the top of her skull. When firefighters found her, she also had wounds on her hands--she may have regained consciousness after the murderer left and then burned herself trying to put out the flames consuming her mother.

The next day, Clarence Reaves, a machinist at the print shop who'd been fired just before the murders, was charged with the crimes. Meanwhile, as Alexis was struggling to survive in a Philadelphia hospital, the seeds of the custody fight were being sown. Four days after the murders, Debra Buck, the owner of the print shop, and her husband, Don, filed for temporary custody of Alexis, claiming that they were "the only family friends" the little girl had. The Bucks soon moved to make this status permanent, saying that Julie had asked them never to let Alexis slip into Chris Perry's hands. They at first failed to mention that Don had slept with Julie a few months before her death, or that Debra had paid for Julie to abort what she said would have been Julie's second child by her live-in lover.

The scrap that followed pitted Chris Perry, who said he'd been searching for Alexis for more than three years, against the Bucks, who objected vociferously to publicity given the matter unless it was instigated by them. Among the accusations tossed back and forth was a suggestion by Julie's father, Robert Storkson--a 300-pound-plus truck driver with a quick wit, a fierce temper and a willingness to say practically anything to anyone--that Don Buck could have been involved in the killings.

Finally, in October, Perry won the custody case and brought Alexis back to Colorado with him. But the case didn't end there. The Bucks appealed the decision, setting the stage for nearly another year's worth of legal sniping. A New Jersey appellate court is expected to consider the appeal later this month; it has the power to reject the Bucks' argument, reverse the initial judgment or set new hearings. It's unclear if Alexis would be made to testify in the custody case if new hearings are ordered, but she's likely to be asked to appear whenever Reaves finally goes to trial in the murder case, in late 1994 or sometime in 1995. After all, she's believed to be the only person still alive who saw the killer of her mother, her half-sister and the man she knew as her father.

All of which means that Alexis may soon be attracting the attention of even more photographers like the one her dad is letting snap her picture. But when she sees the camera, Alexis doesn't smile. She buries her head in Perry's chest. And leaves it there for a long time.

Chris Perry first saw Julie Storkson in 1987 at Lakeside Amusement Park, where he and his sister Sandra were working. Chris was twenty at the time and had been entrusted with supervising the crowd at the Scrambler, which he describes as "kind of an orbital buffing pad." About Julie he says, "She was a customer, and I was just talking to her dad. And her dad gave me her phone number."

"Yeah, I did," confirms Robert Storkson, in his throaty rumble of a voice. "She was riding the ride, and he asked me for her phone number. Now, I'm not going to give out her phone number to just any idiot. Hell, I've been around carnies, for crying out loud. So I asked her, and she said, `Yeah, I don't mind.' So I gave him the number." He adds, "We had differences later on, but right then he seemed like a nice young man."

Although Julie was almost nineteen when this exchange took place, she was just forging her relationship with her father. Julie was born in Butte, Montana, in July 1968, the fruit of the first of Robert's three marriages. Two years later, he says, his wife kicked him out of the house and began a relationship with another man--and a few months after that, Julie was removed from the home by Montana officials for reasons of suspected abuse.

Robert says his attempts to get custody were for naught. Julie became a foster child and was placed in the care of James and Denise Kenny, who eventually adopted her and moved to the East Coast. Robert claims that he subsequently was told by someone he regarded as reliable that Julie had been killed while riding a bicycle when she was ten years old. "I had been actively searching for my daughter up until then," says Robert, who does not go into details about this quest. "I think the intent was to ease my pain."

When she was eighteen, Julie began to grow curious about her biological family; she tracked down Robert's Colorado address and wrote him. Robert recalls, "I said, `Somebody's having a hell of a good joke at my expense, because my daughter's dead.'" But after several months of correspondence, Robert became convinced that Julie was his little girl. He sent her a plane ticket and, following her arrival in Colorado, she decided to stay with him. A month later she and her dad went to Lakeside.

At first, Chris Perry says, the match with Julie seemed prom-ising. They went out on a date a few days after meeting and frequently thereafter. "I didn't even sleep with her until I'd known her for a week," he boasts. But he began to suspect her of lying to him--"She told me she was a Mafia princess," he claims--and romancing other men. Approximately six weeks after their first get-together, he ended the relationship.

But only a few days later, he says, he saw her again. Down on his luck, he was sleeping in his car when Julie rapped on his window and informed him that she was pregnant with his child and wanted him to marry her. "I said, `Yeah, right. It probably belongs to one of those guys you were sleeping with.'"

Chris's decision not to put a ring on Julie's finger didn't sit well with her father. "I told him when he started dating her that where I come from, a guy who gets a girl pregnant marries her or otherwise he gets shot dead," says Robert. "Well, Mr. Perry put me to the test, and if my daughter hadn't stopped me, he'd be dead right now."

More forgiving were members of Chris's family. Sandra says she thought her brother's actions were "pretty small," but his father, Doug, a heater/air conditioner service technician, and his homemaker mother, Cleta, both refrain from criticism. They've grown accustomed to this type of situation: Sandra and Chris's two other sisters, Jennifer and Jamie, have all borne children out of wedlock. When Julie discussed her dilemma with her, Sandra says, "she was talking about having an abortion, but I talked her out of it. Because it was going to be my niece or nephew."

When the child was born in April 1988, Julie dubbed her Alexis Theodora Storkson; owing to her middle name, Alexis was nicknamed "Teddy," or "Teddy Bear." Julie listed Chris as the father on the birth certificate, but he didn't see the child until six weeks later, after being cajoled by Sandra. "When I saw Alexis," he says, "I knew she had to be mine. And I acknowledged paternity. I said she could stay with me on my days off and that I'd help take care of her."

Even Robert Storkson agrees that Julie wasn't the ideal mother. "She didn't have any experience with taking care of a kid," he says. "But I can tell you that the child was never mistreated in my presence. If she had been, I would have been on top of my daughter like a ton of bricks. I may not have done anything except yelled at her, but believe me, when I yell, people say I could put the fear of God into a statue."

Sandra recalls that she and Julie, both underage at the time, would sneak into bars together and Julie would bring Alexis along in a baby carrier while they partied the evening away. Julie also had what Robert confirms was a marijuana habit. She did not cover these expenses with a steady salary, however. During the first eighteen months of Alexis's life, Julie was briefly employed only once, as an operator for a phone-sex service. "I don't think she made much money at it," Robert says. "Instead of giving the customers what they wanted, if you know what I mean, she'd call upstate New York and talk to her girlfriends for three or four hours."

Robert believes Julie made most of her money passing bad checks. "The kid knew how to write her name at the bottom of a check," he says, chuckling. "She passed bad paper from Texas to Alaska, Hawaii to New York, and if she could have gotten into Europe, she would have done it there, too. About half a million dollars' worth altogether. If she was still here, she'd probably be doing 25 years in prison." At the time of her death, Julie was wanted for passing bad checks in Colorado.

Chris, who was then working as a clerk for a U-Haul outlet in Aurora, says he was giving Julie $50 a month to be used toward the care of Alexis--"which was about $20 a month more than I could afford." When he discovered months later that Julie was blowing this money on booze and cigarettes, Chris adds, he instead began converting his monthly donation into $50 worth of diapers, food and other baby products.

Of course, Sandra was with Julie during many of the times when she was spending her cash on partying instead of on Alexis. Today, however, Sandra insists that she stuck close to Julie not because she was enjoying herself, but because she was worried about Alexis. On one occasion, she claims, Julie casually mentioned to her that blond-haired, blue-eyed babies were fetching a pretty penny on the black market. "Some of the things Julie said worried me," she says.

These concerns came to a head, according to Chris, when Julie brought Alexis to his home one day "and she was dirty everywhere--dirty diaper, dirty hair, a terrible, bleeding diaper rash. She was in sad shape. I said to Julie, `I'm taking custody of her full-time until you straighten your life out. You can come and visit her anytime you want, no problem. But you need to get yourself together.'"

According to Chris, Julie left Alexis with him and took off. Chris had custody of his daughter for two months; then, in mid-September 1989, his babysitter told him that she couldn't take Alexis on a weekend when Chris was scheduled to work both days. With no one else available, Chris advised her to contact Robert Storkson and his second wife, Linda. After agreeing to care for Alexis, Robert called Julie, who had moved to Alaska. She immediately flew back to Colorado, took possession of her daughter and returned to Alaska before Chris knew anything was amiss.

Chris discovered what had happened late that Sunday. He confronted Robert, who refused to reveal the whereabouts of either Julie or Alexis.

The Perrys wound up conducting a haphazard search for Alexis. They failed to get her photograph on what Chris refers to as "those `Have-you-seen-me?' fliers they have for carpet cleaning." And they couldn't get the Wheat Ridge police interested in the dispute. After hearing through the grapevine that Julie was in Alaska, they contacted a relative there, but he unearthed no useful clues. Linda Storkson told them that Alexis had been treated for an insect bite she'd received at an East Coast beach, but they failed to check hospitals. "I didn't have a lot of money," Chris says, "so there wasn't much I could do."

Unbeknownst to Chris, Julie and Alexis bounced from Alaska to Hawaii to Texas to Louisiana, leaving whenever money got short or questions about bad checks began to arise. According to Robert, they finally landed in Atlantic City, where Julie met Ron Massey, a chef at Caesars Palace casino. Alexis, Julie and Ron soon moved into an apartment on Ocean Avenue, which Don Buck describes as "the worst street on the worst block. In fact, it's one of the worst streets in the state for drugs and prostitution."

The apartment itself was little more than a single room in a building crawling with roaches. The main piece of furniture inside it was a waterbed. Alexis slept on a futon--really a cushion--on the floor. When Gloria came along, she slept on the futon, too.

Massey paid for most of the family's expenses with his wages from Caesars Palace. For a time, Julie attended Atlantic City Community College, taking computer courses, but she did not complete the program. She was also a calligrapher, and it was through her efforts to find freelance work that Don Buck says he first met her.

Don and Debra Buck say their relationship with Julie and her family remained fairly casual for a year or two; they enjoyed talking with her when she would come into their print shop and occasionally gave her and the kids rides home. Still, the Bucks thought of her as a potential employee when they were preparing to launch Cape Atlantic Print Emporium. Together they chose Julie to serve as office manager. And they hired Clarence Reaves--the man later charged with murdering Julie, Ron and Gloria--as pressroom manager.

Today the Bucks refuse to discuss Reaves, but in a deposition before the custody trial, Don said he and the accused killer became friends as well as co-workers--Reaves often stayed overnight at the Buck residence. Don and Julie became closer still. In fact, Don admits to having had sex with Julie once. Debra, in her deposition, said that Don's confession of his tryst with Julie had caused a rift in their marriage, but she claimed to have forgiven him this transgression, as well as the four others she'd learned about during their marriage of more than twenty years. "My wife is an incredible person," Don notes.

Debra added that she remained close friends with Julie even after Don's confession to her, and she volunteered to pay for her to have an abortion in early 1993. Don insists that Ron Massey, not he, had made Julie pregnant. He adds that it was Julie's choice to have an abortion. "I hate to speak for Julie," he says, "but an unwanted pregnancy would have only caused more severe deprivation to their existing family unit. Ron wanted to get them out of the neighborhood they were in--he was looking at a nice house near ours. They wouldn't have been able to afford it if a fifth person came along."

The Bucks, who paint their office manager as a devoted mother who put her daughters before everything else in her life, say Julie told them numerous times that if anything ever happened to her, she wanted them to take care of Alexis and Gloria. Don concedes that "it did strike me as odd" that Julie, still in her early twenties, would be so obsessed with her own mortality that she'd be concerned with lining up guardians for her children. "But she had a lot to fear," he says. In a joint deposition from 1993, the Bucks wrote that Julie had told them that she had been a victim of abuse at the hands of both her birth father and her adoptive father, and in a separate deposition, Don said Chris had raped Julie--allegations all of the accused parties deny.

In one of her last letters to Janet Storkson (Robert's current wife), Julie did seem to display a notable sense of doom. Writing in December 1992, Julie told Janet about her feelings for Ron and another man with whom she was having an affair; the second man was neither Don Buck nor Clarence Reaves, but he did work for a time at the print shop. "I feel [like] one of Bo Peep's sheep that can't find its way home (and not really knowing what home is anymore!)," Julie wrote. "The way I look at the whole situation is this--let them all pile all their crap on the bed that I so nicely made for myself and when they are done--up in flames it goes (I will make it a `funeral pyre')!"

Less than five months later Julie Storkson was dead, her body partially incinerated in the print-shop fire.

When, in late April 1993, a pair of Federal Heights police officers stopped by Robert Storkson's home and asked if he was Julie Storkson's father, his first reaction, he says, was "Oh, great, she pulled something stupid and got caught." Instead, he was told that his daughter had been murdered and that Alexis was clinging to life.

Robert and Janet, whose address was found among Julie's effects, were already in mourning. Robert's mother had died of natural causes on the same day the print-shop attacks took place, and he and his wife were in the midst of making burial arrangements. Nevertheless, they promptly flew to Philadelphia and, while visiting the hospital where Alexis was recuperating, met Don and Debra Buck. Soon after Robert discovered that the Bucks wanted custody of Alexis, the relationship began to deteriorate. Don suggests these difficulties began when he and his wife, on advice from a therapist, said they didn't want Robert to share custody of Alexis with them. Robert responds (after citing "the First Amendment to the Constitution") by saying that Don Buck "could very easily have participated in, or knows individuals who participated in, the murder of my daughter." After all, he says, the Bucks took out a $50,000 insurance policy on each of their employees shortly before the murders. As Julie's daughter, Alexis became the beneficiary of the policy.

Don Buck admits he was questioned by detectives but says he was cleared by the Atlantic City police (the department refuses to comment on the case). About accusations of complicity, he says, "This is a shocking and appalling lie that Robert Storkson and Mr. Perry have put out for public consumption. Their statements of the possibilities of Deb's or my involvement are not only ludicrous but offensive, and a vivid dramatization of their character."

Robert and Don do agree on one thing: At first, no one wanted Chris Perry involved with Alexis--period. That changed, Robert says, when he learned about a peculiarity in New Jersey law. In most states, the rights of natural parents generally supersede those of other parties in custody matters, but not necessarily in New Jersey. When a third party can be found by the court to "stand in the shoes of the parent"--that is, if they are, from a child's point of view, "psychological" parents--custody can be awarded to them. The Bucks' lawyer, Arlene Gilbert Groch, interpreted this to mean that her clients could gain custody of the girl so long as they demonstrated that Alexis looked upon them as parental figures. Likewise, the Bucks needed to show that they could provide a better, more nurturing home for her than any of her relatives could.

"Our feelings for Alexis are genuine and are not based on lingering feelings for her mother or anything else," Don says. "We love her." Although Don admits that Chris probably loves Alexis "on some level," he adds, "I think Mr. Perry has let his obsession with `having' her get in the way of what's best for her."

On April 27, four days after the murders, the Bucks filed for temporary custody of Alexis. Even though the document they submitted was filled with jumbled names and other inaccuracies ("We were under incredible stress," Don says. "I was lucky that I got my name right"), a judge granted their request.

When the Bucks moved to make the custody permanent, Robert tried to reach Chris Perry. In the more than three years since Julie had taken Alexis, Robert had had no contact with the Perry family, but he remembered where Perry's parents, Doug and Cleta, lived, and he tacked a note to Chris on their front door. Chris, who was taking care of the house while his parents were out of town, found it and met with Robert.

After Robert told him what had happened, Chris says, "I didn't want to believe it. I said, `Yeah, sure. Now tell me what really happened.' And Robert said, `I thought this would be your reaction.' And then he brought out these pictures of Alexis in the hospital. And I just started shaking."

The shock was so great, Chris says, that he failed to fully grasp the importance of the upcoming June 1 hearing on the Bucks' request to keep Alexis. "I thought the judge was just going to give her to me," he says. "I mean, I'm her father." He arrived at the hearing without counsel and was promptly overwhelmed. He also made a serious tactical error. After Don and Debra eloquently described how well Alexis had adapted to their home following the death of her mother, Chris stated that he wanted Alexis to come home to Colorado with him even though he believed that, in the short run, she would be less traumatized if she stayed with the Bucks. Judge Albert J. Garofolo responded by allowing Alexis to remain with the Bucks until a full custody hearing could be held--and advised Chris to get a lawyer, telling him, "You're going to need one."

Chris tried to commute between Denver and Atlantic City for a few weeks, but soon realized this was not possible. After losing his job at a laboratory where he had been hired several weeks earlier to assemble iron lungs, he moved to Atlantic City and found a place to stay, paying his rent with money earned from parking cars at a casino.

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.


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