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How to Avoid Another Waco: Keeping the Peace in 10-Year Standoff with Armed Family Compound

John Joe Gray has been in a standoff for 10 years, raising the question of when it's worth risking bloodshed to enforce the law.

TRINIDAD, Texas — It was Christmas Eve 1999, but John Joe Gray wasn't consumed with the holiday spirit. When the car in which he was a passenger was pulled over for speeding by two Texas state troopers near Palestine, in Anderson County, he was packing a loaded handgun in a shoulder holster. He had no permit for it.

One of the troopers ordered Gray out of the car. He either refused or was slow to respond. When the troopers tried to remove him, Gray resisted, was handcuffed and a scuffle ensued. The cops said he bit one of them and tried to grab the other's gun.

"Somehow, his hand got in my mouth," Gray said in a radio interview eight months later. "I bit down and I wouldn't let go. They sprayed me with the pepper spray three times." He was arrested and jailed.

Two weeks later at a bail hearing, Gray promised the judge he would appear at future court hearings if he bonded out of jail. He denied or downplayed the prosecutor's questions about his purported involvement in antigovernment militias and a plot to bomb a Texas interstate highway. "I'm a member of the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and lord of lords," he said.

John Joe Gray
John Joe Gray

Judge Jim Parsons granted the lower bail, but with conditions. One was that neither Gray nor anyone in his family keep firearms on their 47-acre rural compound alongside the Trinity River just outside the town of Trinidad in Henderson County, the next county north of Anderson. "I don't want these officers to go out there and have to arrest him at this compound and be confronted by a bunch of firearms," the judge said.

Gray posted bail and went home. Two months later, the father of six with no prior criminal record sent a letter to authorities: If your deputies come onto my property, bring body bags. Gray had perhaps 16 other people, including several grandchildren, living at his modest home and outbuildings at the time. Armed family members, including Gray's wife, Alicia, took turns patrolling the property. That worried authorities — so much so that even when Gray began skipping court appearances, they didn't go arrest him.

"They were pretty well fixed up with weapons," recalls 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." And it's not as if Gray was a threat to the community, Alfred adds. "He's not hurting anybody over there."

Now approaching 10 years of self-imposed house arrest, Gray, 60, and various family members remain secluded in the verdant countryside outside this town of 1,100 in the undulating terrain of East Texas. The family has no electricity, no phone, no running water, and hasn't had for nearly a decade. Instead, they get by with wood-burning heaters, a generator, kerosene lamps, water drawn from the river — and occasional handouts from friends and sympathizers.

Keith Tarkington lost his two sons, then aged 2 and 4, when his estranged wife Lisa Gray snatched them and took them to her father's compound in early 2000.

Not only has Gray escaped prosecution on a felony charge, he may also have helped a daughter defy a court order giving custody of her two children to her ex-husband. Gray's oldest son avoided a misdemeanor prosecution for hitting and kicking that ex-husband's truck, so fearful are authorities of a confrontation with the Gray clan. Gray also is several years delinquent on property taxes. The county has sued for payment and conceivably could sell his land to recover the money owed — but the sheriff's office finally quit trying to serve court papers on him after three attempts last year.

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