Father, Stepfather Both Want Custody of Tenn. Arson Suspect

April 18, 2013
He is accused of killing his mother by setting a fire in the stairwell, blocking her.

April 18--The fight for custody of a 14-year-old charged with the premeditated murder of his mother during an arson began in court Wednesday, but isn't over.

Jonathan Ray's stepfather, security guard James Wallace, has filed to be the youth's legal guardian, but Shelby County Juvenile Court magistrate David Walker granted temporary guardianship to the father, Willie Ray.

The father, a home-remodeling construction worker, took a bus from Detroit to Memphis with his mother this week to assert his paternal rights.

Attorney James Sanders, the guardian ad litem appointed to represent the minor's interest, has cited concerns about the stepfather making legal decisions on behalf of the teen who is accused of killing his wife, mail carrier Gwendolyn Wallace, during an April 5 house fire.

The teen, flanked by guards, was allowed to attend a private viewing for his mother last week.

Outside court Wednesday, the suspect's paternal aunt, Mary Jones, said everyone should focus on the youth's needs instead of trying to best one another.

"You've got a kid who's in trouble," she said. "We've all got to walk this journey with him. Why is there fighting?"

During the hearing, which was closed to reporters and the public, Wallace accused the father of being absent from the youth's life, Jones said.

She said the boy used to spend weekends with her, summers with his paternal cousin and took trips to see his father in Michigan before his mother married Wallace nearly five years ago.

"He shut everything down," she said.

Willie Ray said he is thankful he will now get to spend more time with his son without interference, but is disheartened that those visits will be confined to a detention facility.

He said he has lost a lot of sleep over his son's uncertain future, with prosecutors planning to seek transfer to adult court on a charge of first-degree murder. On Wednesday, he and Wallace and other relatives met with assistant public defender Robert Gowen to discuss the criminal case.

Wallace has declined to discuss his petition for custody. Previously, he has said he considers the boy his own son.

State child welfare workers here and in Michigan are evaluating the father's home life. Unless he is deemed unsuitable, he would be expected to have the right to parent his biological child, attorneys said.

A sister of the victim also came to court to say she could take the teen in if needed. She sat beside Wallace.

A final decision on custody and legal guardianship is expected at a June 10 hearing.

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Copyright 2013 - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

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