By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Gary Gates, whose retired Air Force pilot of a father was shot to death by a second wife, is an intensely focused man who believes in improvement, a practical man who likes to make bad things better, a studied man not prone to the waverings of doubt.
In Oklahoma, where he attended college, he bought his first house at age 19, a year after his father's death, and soon bought more, fixing them up and selling them for a profit. When he discovered there were better profits to be had in multifamily housing, he brought his wife, Melissa -- Gary was 17 when they married; Missy was 18 -- to Houston in the middle of the oil bust, and with a partner's money, began buying distressed apartment complexes and improving these too. Eventually he bought out his partners and snapped up even more units, starting his own management company, Gatesco, which has launched his income into the solid six figures and accumulated assets counted in the tens of millions.
Gary and Melissa believe also in sin, and they have strived to become better servants to their Christian God with good works and a long-followed regimen of twice-weekly churchgoing and Sunday school. Physically too, Gary buffed himself into shape, a college wrestler-turned-ultramarathoner-turned-iron man. He has raced roughly three triathlons a year over the past decade, testing himself in competitions from Italy to Korea to Canada, steadily bumping his rankings up to where he's now counted among the top 50 competitors nationwide in his age bracket.
Then there is the matter of family. Gary and Melissa have two kids of their own: Sarah, age 17, who is severely retarded, and Will, 14, an overachieving honor student. And as if that spectrum of responsibility weren't enough, in 1992, after a wrenching miscarriage, Gary and Melissa decided that they had been "led" to a new challenge, which soon became a mission: to adopt more children. First came Cassie, T.J. and Andy. A year later the Gateses adopted Cynthia and George. In 1995 Marcus joined the family. Gary and Melissa then decided to quit adopting babies -- infants were more likely to find a home elsewhere -- and went looking for the hard-to-adopts: older children and family blocs and the troubled. They found the sibling group of Raquel, Travis, Derodrick and Scott. Alexis, finally, brought the number of Gates minors to 13. Some of the kids are white. Some are black. Some are brown. Most have been in and out of foster care, and some have been categorized as "special needs." They may function a grade level below par, or struggle with the fallout of abusive histories. They may be gifted.
All 11 adoptees entered the Gates family through the bureaucratic channels of Fort Bend County. Judge Thomas Stansbury's 328th District Court is said to have erupted in applause the day the last five were adopted, by which time Gary and Melissa had moved to the outskirts of county seat Richmond, purchasing a large early-century farmhouse at the end of a cul de sac in a neighborhood so high on the scale it needed no gates. They bought 500 acres of nearby land too, on which Melissa began keeping horses and overseeing a small cattle operation, and then another big plot down the road, with a creek, for which the Gateses began designing a new home. The house will be, Gary says, a terrible investment, designed around the circumstance of 13 kids, and he'll never be able to resell it. But they have the resources.
The Gateses would use those resources to make the kids better, to improve them, with attention and discipline and a color-blind ability to love other people's children as well as their own that they consider a gift. Their neighbors and fellow parishioners saw it happen and called it a miracle, what Gary and Melissa were doing for those kids, the way they seemed to blossom under the care. The kids attended church with their parents. They learned to follow rules, to be accountable for their actions, to be polite, and they swam and ran races with Gary. Sometimes they won, which was not something they had been used to doing.
The Houston Chronicle, on page one, Christmas Day, 1997, headlined a profile of seasonal uplift thus: "Parents of 11 adopted kids give gift of love." The Gates family was so well rounded it rolled, and Gary described the linchpins of his family's success as church, exercise and discipline. He sometimes found it useful to combine the latter two. When punishment was called for, Patti Muck's article related, Gary might have the kids do push-ups, or carry lumber or bricks from the rear of the house to the front and back again. It was a technique that made its point just as well as spanking, and it was healthy.
The weakness of too many parents, Gary said, was that they didn't consistently follow through with threats of punishment. A kid has to have some stability. A kid has to know where the line is.
On Friday, February 11, of this year, Fort Bend County Children's Protective Services personnel, accompanied by local law enforcement, arrived at the Gateses' idyllic home and loaded 11 kids into a bar-windowed paddy wagon and took them away from Gary and Melissa. Travis didn't have to be herded into the van, and neither did Will. Travis was already in CPS custody, having been picked up from school that morning, and Will had been snatched earlier that evening from a National Honor Society-sponsored Valentine's Day dance.