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Roane County couple charged after child's remains discovered buried in back yard


HAYES HICKMAN   | Knoxville News Sentinel

A Roane County couple has been charged in the abuse of four children after the skeletal remains of a young girl were discovered buried in their back yard.

Authorities also found one of the surviving children, a boy approximately 15 years old, in the unfinished basement of the family home, where he apparently had been confined for several years, according to arrest warrants.

Michael Anthony Gray Sr., 63, and his wife, Shirley Ann Gray, 60, appeared at an arraignment via video conference Tuesday to face two counts of aggravated child abuse, two counts of especially aggravated kidnapping, three counts of aggravated child neglect and one count of abuse of a corpse.

Authorities initially were alerted when passers-by found one of the children walking alone along the road Friday evening near the suspects' Dry Fork Valley Road home in the Ten Mile community, 9th Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson said.

Michael Gray later admitted to Roane County Sheriff's Office investigators and state Department of Children's Services personnel he had buried the approximately 10-year-old girl in a pole barn in the back yard after she died in 2017.

He also admitted to confining a boy in the basement, which was partially flooded. Authorities later found the 15-year-old still locked inside without running water, amid human and animal feces, garbage and mold.

The girl's remains were located early Saturday under a pole barn behind the home.

The cause of the child's death has yet to be determined. The remains were taken to the Knoxville Regional Forensic Center for autopsy. Officials with the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department are assisting as well.

Children were confined, lacked education and medical care, documents say

The family, believed to be from the area near Meridian, Mississippi, has lived in the home since June 2016, Johnson said.

Within a month of moving into the house, the oldest child was locked in the basement as punishment for stealing food from the pantry and the refrigerator.

"(The child) was confined to the unfinished basement since this date and had no contact with anyone outside the basement, only given small amounts of food, being white bread and some water," the warrants state.

Two other children periodically were confined inside a wire dog cage in the basement until the Grays constructed a small, concrete room — measuring approximately three feet by four feet — under the stairs for confinement.

The girl also had been locked in the basement in early 2017 as punishment for stealing food, and given only bread and water. She died within a few months, the warrants state. The Grays kept her body in a cardboard box until a grave could be dug.

None of the four children, who were supposedly homeschooled, had received medical attention for at least the past six years. Michael and Shirley Gray admitted that all four had been diagnosed as "failure to thrive" during their last medical checkup.

Shirley Gray provided documentation that all four children were on pace with required educational assessments, even though the girl was dead and the oldest child was locked in the basement, the warrants note.

The three surviving children appeared to be "stunted in growth," the warrants read.

"(Two of the children) appear to have no formal education," according to the warrants, "and were, in fact, amazed by what a refrigerator does when they observed one in their foster home."

Johnson said they are not the Grays' biological children, although the couple had legal custody.

He said the investigation is ongoing and additional charges are expected.

2020 May 26