'We will live free or you will die': Meet the gun-loving, God-fearing family who shun modern life and have been in a standoff with police for the last 11 years

Mail, UK/November 15, 2011

They are the gun-toting, scripture-spouting, government-hating Texan family who warn anyone daring enough to approach the fencing around their home: 'We fear no man. We believe in an eye for an eye and a bullet for a bullet.'

Led by grandfather John Joe Gray, the tribe of a dozen or so men, women and children have been waging a war against both local sheriffs and federal agencies for an incredible 11 years.

Welcome to America's longest-running police standoff. It shows no signs of ending.

The family have been holed up in their patch of rural land in Trinidad, Texas, living a pre-20th-Century existence, since January 2000 – waiting for a siege which, in truth, has never really materialised.

Gray and his clan have been living on 47 acres behind a fence without running water and electricity but with plenty of guns, challenging authorities to arrest the patriarch for a third-degree felony warrant issued more than a decade ago.

He says he hasn't left his property since 2000, all the while allowing his distrust of a government he views as evil to fester.

The handmade warning signs have faded and the hordes of fellow militia members have long since gone, leaving behind only Gray and some relatives – he won't say how many – on the tree-shaded property along a river in rural Henderson County, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas.

They grow their own food and live in a shack and trailer – always wearing holsters, hand-made from animal hide; always carrying weapons.

'It's the most peculiar thing to watch the men play a game of raquetball with pistols and knives in their belts,' Dolores McCarter told the National Enquirer.

She is a family friend who lives outside the gates, and operates Dee's House in Arlington, Texas, a charity helping battered women and children. 'They live like they're back in another century.'

I'll never leave,' said Gray, who has grown a long, silvery beard in the 11 years he has remained locked in the compound. 'I don't feel like a prisoner ... because I'm living out here and following God's laws.'

Gray, now 63, had worked in construction and led a Texas militia group that often trained on the isolated property where he lived for about 15 years before the so-called standoff.

In late 1999 Gray, now in his 60s, was in a car pulled over for speeding in nearby Anderson County.

State troopers saw high-powered rifles and anti-government materials in the car, but Gray refused to get out. When the troopers tried to remove him from the car, he allegedly bit one trooper's hand and tried to grab his gun.

After his arrest Gray showed up in court for a bail hearing, when Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe told the judge he feared Gray was a major threat because troopers found diagrams of plans to blow up a Dallas overpass.

'I wanted the judge to know what he was possibly thinking,' Lowe said.

But Gray posted bond and left, never showing up again in court. Gray then sent a handwritten letter on dusty notebook paper telling authorities that they'd 'better bring plenty of body bags' if they stormed his compound, said Gary Thomas, a former investigator for Anderson County prosecutors.

That never happened. Authorities in Henderson County didn't want to risk a gun battle that likely would have killed officers or children on the compound, said Sheriff Ray Nutt, the third sheriff in office since 2000. If Gray is ever spotted driving in town or seen at a business, however, he will be arrested, Nutt said.

'They were pretty well fixed up with weapons,' recalled Howard 'Slick' Alfred, the Henderson County sheriff at the time. 'They had better weapons than we had. There was children in there. He was kind of hiding behind those kids. I didn't want another Waco kind of deal.'

Waco was 1993 siege which started in similar fashion, with the stand-off against the Branch Davidian community, and ended two months later when FBI agents launched an attack which caused a fire that claimed the lives of the sect's leader, David Koresh, and at least 76 of his followers, including about 20 children. Waco is about 75 miles from the Gray compound in Trinidad.

Gray hasn't paid property taxes since 1995. The county has sued him for $12,700 in back taxes and interest penalties. But Nutt said it's too dangerous for deputies to serve notice of the suit filed in 2008, and until that happens, the case cannot proceed.

'Our hands are tied,' said Anna Marie Fontana, a legal assistant with McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, the law firm that filed the suit for Henderson County.

As Gray settled into his compound, militia members from several states heeded Internet messages 'calling all patriots' and arrived to help stand guard 24 hours a day at the entrance.

The handmade signs with warnings or Bible verses still hang from the fencepost or trees: 'Disobedience to Tyranny is Obedience to God!', 'We Are Militia And Will Live Free Or You'll Die,' and 'Howdy - Now Git!' Gray even wrote 'kids inside' on one, expecting a raid.

The case gained national notoriety in the summer of 2000. In August that year, three armed men ventured into a neighbouring pasture at dusk and destroyed a surveillance camera and video transmitter that authorities had placed in a horse trailer, before retreating to the Gray property.

Later, Chuck Norris, martial artist, actor, right-wing Christian book author and fellow Texan, met with Gray at his ranch and offered to get him free legal representation in an attempt to end the standoff. 'There's two people that family looks up to: Mel Gibson and Chuck,' an intermediary said. But even Norris couldn't resolve the impasse.

'I wanted him to turn himself in, and we talked about what he would do after that ... but I never made a concrete offer because he just didn't want to turn himself in,' Lowe said.

For Gray, though, there is a higher power to listen to. 'It's coming,' he said of the apocalypse. 'It's time this country knows God is coming.'

Warily covering Gray's flanks are two of his six children, sons Jonathan, 39, and Timothy, 33. The dark-bearded, fit and tanned brothers are as well-armed as their father.

Ten feet behind her brothers and father, long-haired Ruth Gray, 31, stands solemn and silent. She, too, is armed to the teeth.

Next to her is teenager Jessica Gray, 'who is old enough,' according to her father, Jonathan. She has on a cowboy hat that the wind keeps blowing off, a long denim skirt, a sequined denim vest and cowboy boots. She's packing a pistol and binoculars.

Another one of Gray's relatives has a special reason to want the case resolved. Former son-in-law Keith Tarkington has not seen his sons since his then-wife, who is Gray's daughter, moved to the property with the boys in 1999 before the standoff began.

John Joe Gray had grown increasingly paranoid and wanted his family - minus Tarkington - to live there and prepare for the turn of the millennium, the ex-son-in-law said.

Gray and another family member had run-ins with authorities over their lack of drivers' licenses and car registrations - instead using tags from the Oregon-based Embassy of Heaven, a sect that rejects governmental authority.

Gray has accused local authorities of targeting him because he knows about their longtime drug-manufacturing facilities near his property - a claim authorities dismiss as ridiculous. He also claimed that a jail nurse tried to inject him with a tracking device.

Tarkington said he didn't want his children raised around Gray and filed for divorce in 1999. Lisa Gray never appeared for court hearings, and Tarkington was granted custody - though he says he was prevented from seeing the children when he repeatedly went to Gray's property.

'I wonder what they look like now. Are they left- or right-handed? Things like that,' said Tarkington, who lives in nearby Gun Barrel City. 'People have said, "When you get them, they'll be so screwed up and afraid, and they won't know you." But I love them, and I'm still their father.'

Authorities say removing them from Gray's compound by force is too risky. And besides, they might not even be living there any more.

Some wonder if the case is still on officials' radar because folks have reported seeing Gray driving in nearby towns and going to stores.

'It sticks in my craw that somebody's done this and gotten away with it,' said Thomas, the former investigator, now a justice of the peace. 'But it just became a frenzy, and everybody got so gun-shy and was afraid of stepping on toes.'

As the years have passed, Gray and his family have been living peacefully on their land and want to be left alone. He won't say whether Tarkington's sons were among the children who have lived there, or where they are now.

The Grays drink well water, eat vegetables grown in their garden and fish in the river that borders the land covered with a canopy of trees. They live in a ramshackle house and a mobile home and often eat at the picnic table far from the road but visible through the trees.

Neighbours say the Grays are misunderstood by law enforcement and the media and have never caused problems.

Even the sheriff notes the time a few years ago when one of the Grays - it's not clear exactly which family member - called for help on a CB radio when a hunter was injured on neighboring property, and the family tended to him until an ambulance arrived.

'Our department right now could probably go out there and talk to John Joe Gray face-to-face,' Nutt said, adding that he doesn't plan to do that. 'The situation is stable. But these situations could explode at any time. We are prepared if something forces us into a situation.'

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