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Novelist Jones Institutionalized

February 23, 1998

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ Police in Kentucky didn’t know Gayl Jones was an acclaimed writer whose recently released novel ended more than a decade of public silence.

They knew her husband, though.

For months, Bob Jones had written rambling, increasingly threatening letters alleging all sorts of racist conspiracies about his mother-in-law’s death from cancer last March.

The campaign ended Friday with the black couple barricading themselves in their home for three hours and Jones slitting his throat as police stormed in. He died later at a hospital.

Ms. Jones was taken to a state mental hospital because authorities feared she, too, would harm herself.

``You must kill me! Or, give me justice,″ her husband had said in a letter to police here in September. ``Truly, truly believe me. There is no other way! I will force you to kill me or give me justice.″

Ms. Jones, 48, could be released from the hospital this week or, if medical personnel believe she remains a danger, she could be committed involuntarily for up to a year.

The standoff began when police came to the house to serve a 14-year-old warrant on Jones _ also known as Bob Higgins _ for a Michigan weapons charge.

Jones, 51, had threatened to kill himself and his wife, and the house was filled with natural gas when police went in.

``It was imminent something bad was going to happen,″ Fire Department Chief Larry Walsh said.

Gayl Jones burst upon the literary scene in 1975 with her first novel, ``Corregidora,″ a sexually explicit story of a black blues singer. Two years later, a series of short stories titled ``White Rat″ brought critical acclaim from Maya Angelou and John Updike.

Under the guidance of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Ms. Jones earned a doctoral degree from Brown University and began teaching at the University of Michigan, where she met her husband.

There, he got into an argument with a marcher at a gay rights rally and was charged with assault after he returned with a shotgun. Ms. Jones resigned, claiming racism, and the couple moved to Paris. Her husband was convicted of assault in absentia in 1984.

Newsweek said that in 1983, ``when she seemed poised to become a major voice in American fiction, she disappeared, moving to Europe in self-imposed exile.″

Publicity notes for Ms. Jones’ new novel, ``The Healing,″ say she left the United States after ``an incident of racial injustice of a perennial mode.″

In 1988, the couple quietly moved to Lexington, where she had been born in 1949, to care for her mother, Lucille Jones.

After Mrs. Jones died last year, the saga took a disturbing turn.

The couple started the Lucille Jones Foundation, which was founded on the notion that the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky had kidnapped the woman and killed her.

Jones began accusing officials around Lexington of a vast conspiracy. Police investigated and found no wrongdoing. But then the letters began accusing the police, and threats were made against police and UK President Charles Wethington.

Jones sued a lawyer he claimed had agreed to represent him and then reneged. In a letter dated the day he died, Jones told Wethington he refused to take part in a court hearing on the lawsuit.

``You see I’d be yelling in a very short while, and who knows, maybe somebody will be killed in the encounter?″ Jones said in the letter.

University officials declined to discuss the matter.

Despite her husband’s letters, Ms. Jones remained a literary recluse. Even after her return to the United States, she communicated with her publisher mostly by fax or e-mail. Her current editor said she has never met her in person and talked with her on the phone only once.

The publication of ``The Healing″ changed that.

Newsweek last week hailed the story of a young woman who discovers she has a gift for healing as ``a major literary event.″ But the magazine’s article also mentioned her husband’s conviction in Michigan.

An assistant in prosecutor Margaret Kannensohn’s office saw the article, and a computer check of criminal records turned up the outstanding warrant. Police then went to the house, and the standoff began.

When Jones’ back was turned, officers rushed in. He slit his throat before they could subdue him.

``I think it was handled perfectly,″ Kannensohn said. ``Given when they went in, they were sitting on a bomb, I think it’s a miracle.″

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