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Prosecutors will seek the death penalty if couple is convicted in horrific child abuse case


BRITTANY CROCKER   | Knoxville News Sentinel

Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against a Roane County couple accused in a horrific child abuse case after the death of at least one of their adopted children.

In separate notices issued to Shirley and Michael Gray Sr., the state said it will "seek a penalty of death" if either is found guilty of the first-degree murder of their adopted daughter, Sophie Heather Gray. 

Roane County authorities recovered her body in the backyard of the couple's Ten Mile neighborhood home on May 23. Deputies said she was about 11 years old at the time of her death.

In the documents, prosecutors called the girl's murder "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel in that it involved serious torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to cause death." 

According to warrants previously obtained by Knox News, deputies said Grays locked the girl in the home's basement in 2017 as "punishment" for eating food from the kitchen. She died after a few months. 

Investigators say Gray Sr. told deputies he kept Sophie's body in a cardboard box before burying her in the back yard.

The Grays each face 42 charges in Roane County under accusations of abuse that occurred during or after 2017 at their home on Dry Fork Valley Road.

The couple was indicted on four counts of felony murder, eight counts of aggravated child abuse, eight counts of aggravated child neglect, nine counts of aggravated kidnapping and six counts of especially aggravated kidnapping, according to the District Attorney General's Office. They also each face counts of abuse of a corpse, charging theft and falsification of educational or academic records.

Roane County investigation revealed horrific conditions

Roane County deputies began investigating the Grays after one of their adopted children was found walking alone on the roadside.

After authorities returned the child, Gray Sr. told the Department of Child Services he had a 15-year-old-child in his basement and another buried in his backyard. 

Arrest warrant paperwork detailed authorities' search of the house, which deputies said smelled of urine and feces, and their rescue of the Grays' three surviving adopted children.

Deputies found the 15-year-old boy in the home's unfinished and partially flooded basement, which had no electricity, running water or bathroom. The basement was full of human and animal feces, garbage, mold and exposed wires. 

Deputies said the Grays had locked the boy down there for four years, feeding him only bread and water, as punishment for "stealing" food from the pantry and refrigerator.

At least one other child periodically was kept inside a wire dog cage in the basement before the Grays built a small concrete room, measuring less than 3 feet by 4 feet, under the stairs for confinement, according to the warrants.

The three children rescued from the Grays' care appeared "to be stunted in growth," according to deputies, and none had received medical attention in at least six years. 

Shirley Gray claimed the children were homeschooled, but deputies said the children appeared "to have no formal education," and that they were "amazed by what a refrigerator does when they observed one in their foster home."

Couple and adult son face additional charges in Knox County

The couple, along with their adult son, Michael Gray Jr., also face charges in Knox County for the alleged child abuse and murder of another of their adopted children before they moved to Roane County.

Knox County authorities found the body of Johnathan Gray, who court records said was no older than 8 years old, buried in the backyard at Gray Jr.'s Halls home off Cedarbreeze Road.

The Grays also face charges for Tenncare fraud and theft. The couple kept the children's deaths secret and continued to collect between $15,000 and $61,000 in benefits from the state, according to court records.

2021 Mar 3