Authorities conduct a quiet siege

Dallas Morning News / August 19, 2000
By Scott Parks

Case calls up specter of Davidian tragedy

TOOL, Texas - John Joe Gray, an anti-government fugitive, and more than a dozen heavily armed members of his family are holed up on their 47-acre homesite in rural Henderson County.

Law officers say the last thing they want is "another Waco," alluding to the deadly 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidians, but the defiant, hand-painted signs posted at the driveway leading into the property are clear and unambiguous.

"We are the militia and will live free or die!" "No trespassing. ... Survivors will be prosecuted." A wooden plank hanging from a noose attached to a tree limb says, "Public employees beware" on one side and "The answer to tyranny" on the other. Mr. Gray, 51, is the family leader. He's charged with assaulting two state troopers during a traffic stop last Dec. 24. Court records say he was carrying a pistol in a shoulder-holster and refused to get out of the car. When troopers tried to remove him, the charges allege, he resisted and tried to grab one of their pistols.

Mr. Gray was arrested, jailed and released on bond. An Anderson County Grand jury in Palestine, Texas, indicted him on two felony charges. When he failed to show up for subsequent court hearings, the court issued arrest warrants in May.

So far, the Texas Rangers and the Henderson County Sheriff Department have chosen not to enter the property to serve the arrest warrants. They believe as many as 10 adults and six children live in two houses nestled deep in the Trinity River bottoms just west of Cedar Creek Lake.

Well-armed family members, including Mr. Gray's wife, Alicia, regularly patrol their property and monitor traffic on the road that runs alongside. They have declined invitations to be interviewed. "We are told there are children on the property and the last thing we want is another Waco," said Ronny Brownlow, chief deputy sheriff in Henderson County. "Time is on our side."

But Keith Tarkington is tired of waiting. He believes Lisa Gray, his ex-wife, is holding his two pre-school sons on the property. Ms. Gray is one of Mr. Gray's six grown children. No one is quite sure how many of the children are living on the family property.

Mr. Tarkington said he last saw his two sons, 4-year-old Joe and 2-year-old Samuel, on April 9, 1999. His wife had taken them to live with her parents. Three weeks later, Mr. Tarkington filed for divorce.

Ms. Gray never attended court hearings. Last August, the couple were finally divorced and the court awarded custody of the boys to Mr. Tarkington. When Ms. Gray did not respond to the court's order, state District Judge Carter Tarrance of Athens, Texas, signed a new order commanding the sheriff to bring the boys into the custody of the court.

Chief Deputy Brownlow said officers tried to serve the court order at the Gray property by leaving it on a fence post. Since it is a civil matter, officers had no legal authority to enter the property, he said. "We don't even know for sure that Lisa is there or that the kids are there," Chief Deputy Brownlow said.

But Mr. Tarkington is not consoled. "I haven't held my babies for 17 months," he said. "No one wants to do anything. It looks to me like she's kidnapped them. I think they [sheriff's department officials] are just waiting for them to move out of the county so they can wash their hands of them."

John Joe Gray has undergone a spiritual and political transformation in the last five years, according to Mr. Tarkington. Mr. Gray and his wife wanted to join a church but could not find one that they believed taught the Bible properly, Mr. Tarkington said. "They ended up sitting at home reading the Bible to each other on Saturday night and watching R-rated movies on the VCR," he said.

Then, sometime in 1996, Mr. Gray became active in the Texas Constitutional Militia, an anti-government group. Neighbors said they often heard gunfire coming from the Grays' property during militia training exercises. "They bragged about not paying taxes and tearing up their social security cards and that kind of stuff," Mr. Tarkington said.

Mr. Gray and his family also began professing membership in the Oregon-based Embassy of Heaven, an off-beat Christian group that issues fake driver's licenses, car tags and ID cards to its members. The Embassy of Heaven movement maintains that each member is a church unto himself and, as such, is free of government regulation.

Rachael Gray Dempsey, Lisa Gray's sister, was arrested in November 1998 for driving without a valid license, car tags and vehicle registration. At the time of the traffic stop, she was using Embassy of Heaven license plates and driver's license.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization that tracks anti-government extremists, estimates that between 300 and 400 people are loosely affiliated with the Embassy of Heaven.

Mr. Tarkington, who is Catholic, said his wife left him because he would not join the group with her and her father. In a telephone conversation after their break-up, she criticized him for belonging to a religion that "places the Pope between God and the people." "That's just stupid," she told him.

Finally, after almost four years of marriage, she returned to her parents and adopted their beliefs, Mr. Tarkington said. "Personally, I think John Joe is crazy, but he's still smart enough to get his kids to follow in his way," he said.

The specter of the 1993 standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI hangs over the Gray case like a looming storm cloud. Law officers say they fear that anything can happen when you mix religious zealotry, anti-government sentiment, firearms and children.

Chief Deputy Brownlow, 56, a former Texas Ranger, is the Democratic nominee for sheriff this year. So, add local politics to the brew. The low-key standoff has been going on all summer. It was virtually invisible to the public eye until Mr. Tarkington became frustrated with what he saw as a lack of progress in the case and began talking to news organizations.

Law officers say their "go slow" strategy has not been influenced by growing publicity about the holed-up family. More troubling, they said, is the constant drumbeat about the case on the Internet and on short-wave radio broadcasts favored by a subculture that believes Americans are victimized by too many secular, anti-Christian government regulations.

The internet postings and shortwave broadcasts are filled with rumors that the U.S. military and the FBI are poised with tanks and soldiers to attack the Gray property.

"All those rumors don't help any," Chief Deputy Brownlow said. Law officers say utility companies have cut off the Gray's electricity and phone service for nonpayment of bills, but they believe the family uses cell phones and a ham radio to communicate with the outside world. A portable generator provides home electricity.

Rumors about an imminent attack may be fueling what officers called the family's already-paranoid anxiety. "To tell the truth, I think the only ones who want another Waco are the Grays," said Chief Deputy Brownlow. "I don't know his [John Joe Gray's] mental state, but his actions indicate he wants to be a martyr."

Behind the scenes, the sheriff's department and Texas Department of Public Safety continue to gather intelligence about the Grays and their movements within their property. The FBI says it is not involved in the case. Earlier this week, late at night, a DPS surveillance team hauled a horse trailer into a cow pasture across from the Grays' property. Inside was a remote-controlled camera hooked up via a microwave transmitter to a television monitor at a distant command post.

At about 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, law officers said, three armed men emerged from the Gray property, crossed the road and entered the trailer. They smashed the surveillance equipment, which officers valued at about $6,000. "I'm convinced there would have been a firefight and someone would have got killed if we had had officers with that camera," said one law enforcement officer, who asked not to be identified.

Chief Deputy Brownlow said the destruction of government property is yet another charge that the Gray family must face some day. He said the use of an unmanned camera illustrates the police commitment to avoid an armed confrontation and settle matters in court.

"To date, we have not made any plan for any kind of assault on that property," Chief Deputy Brownlow said. "Our first concern is for those children. We're not afraid of John Joe Gray. All we're asking is for him to go through the process like anyone else."

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