Extract from The Kaslo Orphans, by Zoë MacKinnon (Crandall & Peters, 2007)

What could have motivated a person to set out to establish, as Janice Muttart described it, a “soldier hatchery” in the mountains of British Columbia? Full comprehension is likely beyond us, but any attempt to understand must start with her childhood.

Sandra Krejpcio was born Sandra Marion Gray on April 2nd, 1972, in Los Angeles, California, to Mona Gray (née Horwood), originally from Ridgecrest, California and Gareth Gray, from Warrington, England. Gareth Gray came from a prominent Deeside family of industrialists. His grandfather Emrys had founded Grays Paints & Dyestuffs, or GPD, which was absorbed by ICI in 1932.

Sandra was the couple’s only child. Although she would leave the family home and cut all ties with her mother and father at the age of 19, her father, who saw the end of a controversial career as professor of land economy at the University College of West Mercia, England, would leave her a profound and devastating legacy.

Gareth Gray was a pioneer in land economy, a new and broad academic field drawing on economics, geography, ecology, urban planning, law and other disciplines. After taking a BA in History from Bangor University, North Wales, in 1963 he enrolled in the London School of Economics, where he was among the first cohort to embark on the new MSc in Regional and Urban Planning Studies. He completed his Masters thesis on English New Towns in 1967. It was an exciting topic at the time, the first generation of 'new towns' such as Welwyn Garden City, Stevenage and Letchworth having been built just after the Second World War.

Gray had a gift for controversy even as a 23-year-old graduate student. His thesis argued that with only slight alterations to the physical layout of the first new towns basic food self sufficiency could have been achieved. He went on to trace the reasons for the omission of such a simple and patently worthwhile objective to unquestioned biases on the part of local authorities toward furthering the control and efficiency of remote state systems and corporate capitalism.

The paper is archived in the LSE library. It is unorthodox – passionate, polemical and veering, at times precipitously, among fields as diverse as meteorology and linguistics. While his peers groped faithfully along narrow lines of inquiry in the academic sub-disciplines of urban planning, Gray was clearly eager to tackle the big picture. Some in the Masters’ review committee called it little more than an hysterical tract, but his supervisor, the late Prof. Inderjit Darpeel, mounted a staunch defence, arguing that the paper was actually a bold delineation of what the new programme should be about. Gray got his MSc.

He must have felt like he was riding the crest of a wave. At any rate he was focussed and enterprising to an impressive degree. From London he went straight to the fledgling School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SAUP) at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) which had, in 1970, only just launched its Ph.D. programme. Here he rubbed shoulders with academics who would later become famous commentators, such as Peter Marcuse, son of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and author (with Ronald van Kempen) of Globalising Cities: A New Spatial Order? (Blackwell, 2000).

Here he also met Mona Horwood, a vivacious 22-year-old from suburban Ridgecrest, new to LA and working in SAUP’s administration offices. They married in 1971, and Sandra was born the following year. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1975, and continued living in LA for some years tutoring at SAUP and providing consultancy services occasionally on contract for the LA municipal authority.

Helped by a down-payment from Gray’s father, the couple bought a house at 1317 Ellesmere Avenue, which became unofficial headquarters to a high-spirited group that included academics, artists and intellectuals. The sculptor Januk Kunst and the psychoanalyst Anstice Werner were frequent visitors. Clive Horton, also doing his Ph.D. at SAUP during this time and a member of the ‘1317 set’, says the tone was distinctly radical. He said Gray was obsessed with the notion that the welfare state and corporate capitalism systematically eroded people's capacity for organic, bottom-up civil society, and that people could organise their environments very well if the right forums were provided for them to interact meaningfully. When Jürgen Habermas’ The Theory of Communicative Action was published in 1981, celebrating the power of interpersonal communication to achieve real deliberative democracy, Gray leapt on it like a personal creed.

Apparently he was not above using dubious means to promote this creed. Horton said he once hoodwinked City Hall into building an amphitheatre in a deprived neighbourhood for people to hold debates and performances in. Gray produced detailed results from an entirely fictional survey of residents showing overwhelming support for the idea. When I suggested that this showed an alarming tendency to deceive in an aspiring teacher and academic, Horton shrugged it off.

“It was a prank,” he said. “Also there was a feeling at the time that hitting back at the system however you felt like it was totally justified.”

Horton, a high-school teacher in LA, says the amphitheatre is now a weed-infested hang-out for drug dealers.

What was Gareth Gray like personally? Horton describes him as “fun”, “hectic”, “charismatic” and “domineering”.

“He came from a very straight-laced family background and I think you could say there was a kind of splintering of his personality going on. Maybe it was happening to all of us. This was California in the 1970s, remember.”

Gray returned to England in 1983, when Sandra was 11, taking up the post of lecturer in land economy at the University College of West Mercia in Solihull. He was made professor in 1989. After this he cultivated an openly subversive persona, criticising his own discipline, even colleagues in his own department, for propping up harmful and repressive social and economic patterns under the guise of scientific objectivity. He made enemies among the faculty but he was a highly popular lecturer, securing ‘star’ status on campus in 1992 for defying injunctions against trespassing in the protests over the Twyford Down motorway extension, and being imprisoned for three weeks as a result.

Gray also become a celebrity. 1987 saw the publication of his book England’s Dreaming: Travels in a Fascist Regime, which combined a popularising review of modern anarchist thinkers like Murray Rothbard and David D. Friedman with a scathing indictment of what Gray perceived as the British state’s profound incursion into every aspect of private life – a return to a favourite theme. Helped by the general furore over Margaret Thatcher's Community Charge, or Poll Tax, the book became a best-seller and for a time Gray was courted as a pundit, a role he assumed with enthusiasm.

The Gray household was not a happy one. From interviews with people acquainted with the couple, it appears Mona found the transition from free-wheeling LA to the comparatively parochial and stratified society of Solihull difficult. She began drinking heavily and was treated for periodic bouts of depression.

Toward Sandra, an attractive and gregarious teenager, Gareth Gray was psychologically and physically abusive. Sandra would often take refuge in the home of Dorothy Hulse, a close friend during Sandra’s teens. According to Hulse, while Gray promoted libertarian values in public, he was a tyrant at home. The flashpoint was Sandra’s education, in which he took an obsessive interest. He believed state schools merely churned out docile consumers and job-holders, fodder for ‘the system’. She had been enrolled at the independent St Alphege’s College for Girls, but he withdrew Sandra in December 1986 and started teaching her at home, using a curriculum he designed himself, drawing on history, economics, politics and whatever other subjects the day’s headlines inspired. Hulse said Sandra was forced to read material at a level normally encountered in second or third year at university, and Gray would use threats, slaps and humiliation if she shirked.

He was also subject to a sensational disciplinary hearing in 1994 over allegations of sexual misconduct. Two female students alleged he had sex with them and stalked them. Although the panel failed by a narrow majority to conclude he had broken the university’s code of conduct, he lost the support of his faculty superiors and he resigned in 1995.