Noted writer resurfaces in a tragedy Author: Gayl Jones, once heralded by Maya Angelou, turns up in a bloody confrontation in Kentucky.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In the mid-1970s, Gayl Jones turned a life in Lexington into shocking new American literature -- but the fictional violence she wrote about has exploded into her own reclusive life here.

Newsweek magazine called her "The Invisible Woman" in its Feb. 16 review of the author's first novel in 20 years and asked:

"Where oh where can she be?"

The answer: 440 Locust Ave. in Lexington's Castlewood Park area, a small frame house with water-streaked green siding and a chain-link fence.

An emotional hand grenade blew up there on Friday night. After a three-hour standoff with police, Bob Jones, Gayl Jones' husband, killed himself by cutting his throat.

The dark, soulful eyes of Gayl Jones reveal no clue about how it happened:

How did a celebrated African-American author forsake a decade of fiction writing -- leaving the literary world hungry -- for a husband whose mental decline would end Friday night in fatal drama?

The answer seems to date back to 1983, when Jones' husband, Bob Higgins, disturbed a Gay Pride rally in Ann Arbor, Mich., by denouncing homosexuality and ranting about AIDS.

His mental decline became apparent with that incident, Ann Arbor News articles indicate. The episode caused Jones to resign from an English professorship at the University of Michigan and sent the couple into hiding for the past 15 years, according to the articles.

And it was remnants of that incident that sent police, armed with a fugitive-from-justice warrant, knocking on the door of 440 Locust Ave. in Lexington about 6 p.m. Friday.

In 1983, although a marcher had punched Higgins in the face, causing a fight, it was Higgins who was charged with assault after he returned to the melee with a shotgun, News articles say.

Jones wrote to President Reagan protesting the charge and resigned from her position. While the couple lived across the ocean in Paris, Higgins was tried in absentia, the News reported.

The jury convicted Higgins in 1984, and the couple remained in hiding until Friday.

In a stroke of incidental detective work, Assistant Fayette County Attorney Lee Turpin took note of a Feb. 16 Newsweek article, which profiled Jones and her book, "The Healing."

In recent months, the office of the Fayette County attorney -- as well as the Lexington police, the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center and the Lexington Herald-Leader -- had received bizarre diatribes of conspiracies and threats by a man named Bob Jones, who noted he was the husband of a Lexington author, Gayl Jones.

But the Newsweek article had a different name for Jones' husband: Bob Higgins. A police check of that name, said Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn, revealed the outstanding fugitive warrant. And police went to serve it with caution, Kannensohn said.

Higgins slit his throat after refusing to surrender to authorities. He died an hour later at the University of Kentucky Hospital.

Gayl Jones, 48, was taken to Eastern State Hospital for observation because she was threatening to harm herself, police said.

An important writer

Gayl Jones had once been an associate professor of literature at the University of Michigan.

She is a writer who has been acclaimed by such major literary figures as Maya Angelou and John Updike.

But who is Gayl Jones?

"Nobody really knew Gayl," recalls Sue Ann Allen, who was Jones' English teacher at Lexington's Henry Clay High School in the spring of 1966, when Jones was a junior. "She was very quiet and private. But she was an absolutely extraordinary student. The other students would discuss a question, then always turn to her and say, 'OK, Gayl, tell us the answer.' "

Jones was born in 1949 into a segregated Lexington and grew up on Florence Avenue. Her father, Franklin, was a cook at Matthew Amato's Restaurant the year Jones was born. Her mother, Lucille, was an aspiring writer.

The Henry Clay English teacher who changed Jones' life profoundly was Anna Dodd, who saw Jones' brilliance and persuaded Elizabeth Hardwick to mentor Jones. Hardwick is a Lexington-born writer who had also gone to Henry Clay.

By 1967, Hardwick was a nationally known writer who had co-founded the New York Review of Books and was married to poet Robert Lowell.

Hardwick and Lowell arranged a scholarship for Jones at the University of Connecticut in 1967, Allen said. At Connecticut, she won the school's poetry award two years in a row. She later earned master's and doctoral degrees at Brown University.

Jones' first novel, "Corregidora," was published in 1975. It is a sexually explicit story of a black Lexington blues singer who is a ++ battered wife.

"Gayl was so shy, almost mousy, that I couldn't imagine her knowing about those things, much less writing about them," said Dorothy M. Todd, another Henry Clay teacher.

The critics raved about the book and called it a milestone in the history of African-American literature.

The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature says "her work graphically probes the harsh fusing of racism and sexism, documenting the ways in which sex can be used to degrade and brutalize primarily women [but also men]."

There were more books and more acclaim, but Jones became less a public figure, refusing interviews and declining to be photographed.

She communicated with her book editor by e-mail. She agreed to an interview with Newsweek, and it, too, was conducted by e-mail.

The Oxford book traces the author's reclusiveness to a statement she once made that she wanted to be like J.D. Salinger and other "writers who are known solely by their work, not their personal lives."

When Jones spoke at the University of Kentucky in October 1992, an article in the Herald-Leader described her as "elusive and mysterious."

All the mystique dissolved in a pool of blood Friday in the house on Locust Avenue.

Storming the house

Lexington police decided to rush the house where Higgins and Jones were barricaded Friday because they thought the situation was about to explode both physically and emotionally, police Chief Larry Walsh said.

Higgins had threatened to kill himself and Jones and had turned the gas on in the house after police arrived. "It was imminent something bad was going to happen," Walsh said. "They were either going to die from the gas or there was going to be a murder-suicide or double suicide."

Police first learned of Higgins when he alleged in February 1997 that Markey Cancer Center employees had killed his mother-in-law. A police investigation found no evidence of foul play.

But Higgins, convinced of a cover-up, began sending threatening letters to the police and the university. Walsh said police sometimes received as many as four letters a day from Higgins; in the past few months, the letters became more disturbing.

On Thursday, Higgins made a collect call to the police department and made more threats.

Two events late Friday afternoon triggered a response. First, University of Kentucky President Charles Wethington received a threatening letter from Higgins "mentioning guns," Walsh said. Then, police learned of an outstanding Michigan warrant against Higgins allowing for his extradition.

A police unit that serves warrants on suspects considered mentally unstable or highly dangerous was dispatched to arrest Higgins about 6 p.m. Friday.

Higgins barricaded himself when officers arrived, and the Emergency Response Unit was called in.

Police waited until Higgins' back was to the door, then rushed into the house and lunged at Higgins and Jones, Walsh said.

Police had been observing Higgins and didn't see a weapon. But before they got to him, he pulled a knife and sliced his throat, spraying his own blood throughout the room.

Jones was taken to Eastern State Hospital, a psychiatric facility.

"I think we saved her life," Walsh said. "I wish we could have saved his. We were trying to help him."

The relationship

The record is not clear about when Jones, whom colleagues describe as shy and withdrawn, first met Higgins, but articles in the Ann Arbor News indicate the two were at the University of Michigan in 1976.

Jones, who had just published her successful first novel, "Corregidora," was an assistant professor and Higgins was a student.

Higgins was an intelligent businessman who had pulled himself from the hard streets of Detroit to attend the respected school, News articles say.

The News reported that some viewed Higgins as impulsive, arrogant and paranoid -- a man who, more than anything, wanted to be recognized but failed.

"He never wanted to be an ordinary black, and here he was pumping gas," a social worker who once lived with Higgins told the News.

At some point, Higgins self-published a book called "Problems in Religion."

But in 1976, a professor at the University of Michigan gave him a D in a German class. Higgins accused six professors of "conspiratorial malice," the News reported. His claim was dismissed.

Back in Lexington

After fleeing the country and spending about five years in Paris, the couple returned to Lexington in 1988 to tend to Lucille Jones, Gayl's mother, who had cancer, Fayette County Attorney Kannensohn said. They lived in Lexington without notice until Feb. 25, 1997, when Lucille Jones died.

That's when the couple started the Lucille Jones Foundation, which was dedicated to exposing the alleged wrongful death, Kannensohn said.

Higgins accused the Markey Cancer Center of kidnapping Lucille Jones and killing her. Higgins -- going by the name Bob Jones -- implored the news media and authorities to investigate. Nothing improper was found, Kannensohn said.

Higgins became agitated that people were not agreeing with him.

He said he had begun a "villains-rats-(expletive) list" of corrupt officials and citizens. Besides Kannensohn, Lexington Herald-Leader medical reporter Jim Warren was on the list.

Soon, Kannensohn began to notice the anger in the letters intensifying. Moreover, she noticed the approach of the anniversary of Lucille Jones' death.

It worried her -- and the staff at the cancer center.

Then, police received letters threatening Maj. Anthony Beatty, Chief Larry Walsh and University of Kentucky President Wethington. Discussions began about whether Bob Jones could committed.

Meanwhile, police noticed that Jones had a wife who kept to herself.

Kannensohn wondered whether Higgins controlled her.

"She was just a silent character to us," Kannensohn said.

At some point, the Lucille Jones Foundation approached former Lexington Mayor Jim Amato about becoming its attorney, Fayette Circuit Judge Lewis Paisley said. It was in Amato's restaurant that Gayl Jones' father had once worked as a cook.

But the Joneses ended up suing Amato over a dispute about representation.

Paisley dismissed the charges during a hearing Tuesday.

Days later, Turpin, the assistant county attorney, read the Newsweek article, and the strange situation began to make sense.

"You're not going to believe this," Turpin told Kannensohn.

"When we realized this brilliant woman was living with someone who was angry and confused, we were concerned," Kannensohn said.

Kannensohn said she was astonished that Bob Jones was legitimately married to Gayl Jones, referred to in one of Bob Jones' profane diatribes as "Kentucky's greatest born novelist."

Pub Date: 2/24/98

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