How to Avoid Another Waco: Keeping the Peace in 10-Year Standoff with Armed Family Compound
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
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.
Gray poses a quandary for authorities: How do you arrest a heavily armed, government-hating religious zealot when trying to do so might cause a bloodbath? And what sort of message does it convey to not apprehend an accused lawbreaker? While tax-dodging, money-laundering "sovereign-citizen" extremists claiming they are subject only to God's laws are imprisoned across the nation, John Joe Gray remains free. He has thwarted four Henderson County sheriffs so far. "I see no reason right at this minute to storm a compound where officers could get killed," says the current sheriff, Ray Nutt. "My position is to sit and wait."
Shades of Gray
Even before his arrest and indictment on charges that included assaulting a trooper, Gray, who was a self-employed carpenter, was known as a fervently religious, far-right militiaman. He hosted gatherings of the Texas Constitutional Militia, an outfit formed on the first anniversary of the conclusion of the 52-day standoff between federal agents and heavily armed members of the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco 78 miles away, which ended catastrophically in 1993 with 80 men, women and children dying in an inferno. He was involved with the secessionist group, Republic of Texas, which had its own seven-day standoff with Texas Rangers in 1997, after its leader and several followers kidnapped a neighbor couple at gunpoint. Gray left the group, he said at his 2000 bail hearing, because "they was not of God. They did not go of God's ways."
At that hearing, Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe asked Gray about documents found in the car he was riding in that included plans to make a bomb and place it on a Dallas interstate, as well as instructions on urban survival, including the use of terrorist bombs and booby traps. It belonged to the car's driver, Gray maintained. Lowe asked about him being arrested on the grounds of the Capitol in Austin for carrying a weapon. Didn't happen, Gray said. And those phone calls threatening an attack on the jail unless he was released? Somebody, Gray claimed, "is trying to set me up."
Signs like this one, along with several that are more threatening, mark the perimeter of John Joe Gray's 47 acres in Henderson County, Tex. Many militia enthusiasts fear that vaccines are part of a murderous government conspiracy.
Gray also was affiliated with the Oregon-based Embassy of Heaven, which describes itself as a group of "peculiar people" who are citizens of heaven obeying the government of God, not secular authorities. The church opposes divorce and remarriage, lawyers and courtrooms. It shuns politics and elections and believes that the United States is a "pervert nation." The church issues business and driver's licenses, passports and license plates to be used instead of those offered by government. They aren't legal, of course, and before his felony arrest, Gray was cited for attempting to use an Embassy of Heaven driver's license and tag. He failed to show up for his court appearance on that, too. At the time of his arrest, neither he nor his wife, Alicia, had valid driver's licenses, his attorney told the judge in his criminal case.
Harold Colvin has been a barber in Trinidad for 51 years, and, before the dust-up with the law, John Joe Gray was one of his customers. He remembers a humorless man who grew increasingly odd. "At one time he was an average Joe Blow," says Colvin, an affable man with a full head of white hair who charges $7 for a haircut. "He had funny ideas. His were mostly religious. He said he wasn't going to pay any taxes … regardless of what the law said."
Gray's former son-in-law, Keith Tarkington, recalls Gray and other family members cutting up their Social Security cards and mailing the pieces to the Social Security Administration, advising that they no longer wanted to be part of the system. (So-called sovereign citizens, radical antigovernment activists, similarly claim to have no obligation to pay taxes or obey federal laws. Famous examples of such "sovereigns" include the Montana Freemen, who had their own 81-day standoff with federal authorities in 1996.) When he holed up on his land, Gray had lots of food stored. He began stockpiling earlier in 1999, Tarkington says, because like many in the militia movement, Gray believed that "Y2K" — the changeover of millennia on Jan. 1, 2000 — would produce cataclysmic events.
Today, Gray continues to stiff Henderson County on property taxes. He has been delinquent since 2004 on taxes on his home and land on Old River Road, which has a market value of $151,690, according to records. As of November 2008, he owed $10,149, according to the tax assessor's office. He also hasn't paid taxes since 1995 on an undeveloped parcel he owns elsewhere in the county, even though the bill is less than $6 a year. He is $176 in arrears, records show. "He's just a different kind of person," says former sheriff Alfred, 76, who retired in 2000. "He's got an entirely different philosophy than most of us."
In recent years, Gray and his family have lived in obscurity. It wasn't always so. In August 2000, Austin, Texas-based radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his audience he had received a tip that federal agents were preparing to attack Gray's compound in armored vehicles. Reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media outlets descended on tiny Trinidad for a confrontation that never came.
That same month, three armed men ventured into a neighboring 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. And later that year, 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.
"God's word is the sole guide for our family," Alicia Gray said in a press release in 2000. "Our faith in God is strong and unbending … [O]ur resolve is without compromise."
Her husband seconded those thoughts. "The Lord teaches to protect my property and family with every means I can, and that is what I will do," he told an interviewer.
Citing the Waco fiasco, Alfred opted to wait Gray out. "What I hope is, we get a call either from him or somebody close to him, saying he wants to surrender," his chief deputy, Ronny Brownlow, said at the time. "Time is on our side." Brownlow succeeded Alfred as sheriff, and now he, too, has retired.
So Gray is left alone. "I feel like everyone should abide by the same law," says Colvin, his former barber. "I don't like what the law has let him get away with. I could do the same thing. But most of us wouldn't go that far."
Doug Lowe, the district attorney, says he isn't concerned that the hands-off approach will encourage other antigovernment diehards to follow Gray's example. "I don't regret not having a Waco," he says. Authorities have declined to make a martyr of Gray in the eyes of other antigovernment zealots, he notes. "They get more press when police make the siege. Eventually, the law catches up to these people."
Stealing the Children
That approach has embittered Tarkington, who was married to one of Gray's daughters. Lisa Gray left Tarkington after less than four years of marriage and took their sons, aged 2 and 4 at the time, to her father's compound. "When we was dating, I knew he [Gray] was a little bit different," Tarkington, 43, says. "It took him two years to convince my wife she was better off living with him than me."
Tarkington visited the Gray compound in 1999 trying in vain to talk to his wife and see his sons. "Don't you worry about your wife and kids. We'll take care of them," he quotes his former father-in-law as telling him. During one visit in October 1999, John Joe Gray's eldest child, Jonathan, or "Bubba," vandalized his truck, Tarkington says. Jonathan Gray was charged with criminal mischief, a misdemeanor. But the charge was dropped nearly three years later. The reason given by the prosecutor? He couldn't obtain identifying information about Jonathan Gray such as his birth date and driver's license number. The court file, however, includes a document with Jonathan Gray's birth date.
Tarkington filed for divorce and got a court order for custody of the boys. There was one problem. With no proof that his children were living at the Gray compound, he couldn't get the Henderson County Sheriff's Department to serve the document authorizing them to remove the boys from their mother's custody. Since it was a civil matter, they couldn't go on Gray's land. They left the paperwork on a fence post.
Alfred, the former sheriff, says people friendly to law enforcement visited the Gray compound back then, but told authorities that they didn't see the children. "Nobody could ever find out if those kids were there," he says. The current sheriff, Ray Nutt, says he has no information of the whereabouts of Tarkington's boys.
Tarkington spends much of his time nowadays at his parents' home in Gun Barrel City, 16 miles from the Gray family compound, pestering law enforcement agencies to arrest Gray. "A troop of Boy Scouts could do a better job," he says with disgust. "The police have done everything they can to protect John Joe Gray." He and others believe that his ex-wife and sons are now likely living in another state.
Sheriff Nutt says he sympathizes. But he also implies that Tarkington has become obsessed with Gray. "Sometimes his focus is more on Joe Gray than his children," he says. "He wants someone to assault that compound."
'We Are Militia'
Old River Road deteriorates from asphalt to hard sand and rocks as you draw nearer to John Joe Gray's home. Pastures of tall grass behind barbed-wire fences line each side. Cattle graze, and a lone gray horse ambles homeward. A couple of dreary old trailers squat in the grass, and a red barn stands nearby. Gray's property is just ahead. Perhaps 20 goats belonging to him mill about the road, momentarily blocking a car's progress. Jonathan Gray, 37, is on sentry duty, sitting in a pasture near the road, keeping an eye out for any unwelcome visitors one day late in August. It is 100 degrees.
Soon, he comes down the road to investigate why somebody has stopped outside the entrance to the compound. He's wearing a baseball cap, gray T-shirt and jeans. A pistol — in violation of the nearly 10-year-old court order — is strapped to one hip, a knife hugs the other. With his beard and mustache and hazel eyes, he resembles his father. Minutes later, a brother, Timothy, 32, and a young woman appear at the fence to stare at the stranger.
Near the driveway leading to the house hidden beyond a grove of trees, are handmade signs: "We Are Militia And Will Live Free Or You'll Die," reads one. "Militias are the people," Jonathan Gray explains. "Thomas Jefferson said every 75 years the people need to rise up and straighten the government out."
Other signs proclaim: "Disobedience to Tyranny is Obedience to God!" and "Vaccinations Equal Annihilation." Hanging from a tree is a noose and yet another sign: "Solution To Tyranny."
Day after day, month after month, this is where John Joe Gray, his wife and others have hunkered down. Property records show that the two-story, three-bedroom main house contains about 1,300 square feet. There are two tiny residential outbuildings, and a barn with two add-ons.
Jonathan Gray declines to say how many people live on the property. (Sheriff Nutt's estimate is 10 or 11.) Nor will he say if his sister, Lisa, or her children are among those living on the property.
The Law Enforcement Conundrum
Although only John Joe Gray faces an outstanding felony charge, Jonathan Gray says no one in the family ventures off their land. He suggests they might be arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the family patriarch if they did. Some folks in these parts are skeptical — they suspect that John Joe Gray probably sneaks away from time to time. "He can cross the river and be in a different county," Tarkington says.
In fact, it probably would be easy for anybody to leave the compound to buy fuel, clothing or medicines. Sheriff Nutt says that since he took office in January, his deputies have not conducted surveillance on the property.
Not that there is much to entice Gray into Trinidad anyway. The two-block "business district" is all but dead. The bank — gone. Billie's Fried Pies -— closed. Trinidad General Store, John D's T.V., Food Mart — all empty. Not much is left other than the tiny City Hall and adjacent police department, plus Harold Colvin's barber shop, which is nothing more than a modest aluminum shed. If Gray got to craving a meal in a restaurant, the Dairy Queen on the highway would be the only game in town.
All but about 15 of the Grays' 47 acres flood from time to time, says Jonathan Gray between spits of tobacco juice. "We grow what we can." Two donkeys grazing nearby are used to plow what tillable land there is, he says. The family also has plenty of game to shoot — deer, rabbits and squirrels. And from time to time, he says, friends and sympathizers drop off food and other supplies.
If living without central heat and air or a modern home-entertainment system is a hardship, Jonathan Gray — a father of four — isn't admitting it. "Your body can get used to anything," he says. He and his brother Timothy seem surprised when asked what they do for fun. "What do you mean by fun?" Timothy asks. They do play an occasional game of dominos, Jonathan says. "Dad does a lot of listening to the shortwave," he adds.
The family does not miss attending church, or need to do so, Jonathan Gray says. "What is a church but a building? What do they do in church? Pray. That's all we gotta do here, is read the Word. We go by the Bible."
When the visitor asks to speak with John Joe Gray, Timothy Gray walks up the driveway and returns minutes later. His father would not talk, he says, because the Intelligence Report wrote in 2000 that the family members were terrorists. (This is untrue.) He also ordered his sons to say no more. But does John Joe Gray intend to live out his remaining years in isolation here? "For now," Jonathan says cryptically.
So the wait goes on. Sheriff Nutt concedes that perhaps Gray should have been nabbed early on. Alfred, the sheriff when the stalemate began, isn't so sure.
"I was in law enforcement for 42 years, and I always tried to do the right thing," he says. "His case has always been a snag on me. At the time, it just didn't seem the right thing to do because of the [potential] useless waste of life. I don't know if it was the right thing to do. I feel like it was."