10-year stalemate continues as suspect avoids police
Told authorities they better bring 'plenty of body bags' if they decide to storm his compound
By Angela K. Brown
Associated Press Writer
GUN BARREL CITY, Tx. — The past decade has taken a toll on John Joe Gray, holed up on his rural East Texas land while waiting for a siege that's never happened.
He's been living on 47 acres behind a fence without running water and electricity but with plenty of guns, daring authorities to arrest him for a 10-year-old, third-degree felony warrant. 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 with weapons. They don't guard the entrance anymore.
Gray is thin and pale with a long, graying beard flowing down from his gaunt face — almost unrecognizable from photos taken in 2000 showing his short, dark hair and a mustache.
"I'll never leave," Gray told The Associated Press recently, wearing a holster that sheathed a knife on one side and gun on the other. "I don't feel like a prisoner ... because I'm living out here and following God's laws."
Gray, now in his early 60s, 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 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.
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.
Lowe said because Gray had already been indicted on the charges of assaulting an officer and trying to take his weapon, there's no statute of limitations on prosecuting him.
"Effectively he's been under self-imposed house arrest for the past 10 years, and the maximum sentence for his charges was 10 years," the prosecutor said. "It calls into question why we didn't make an attempt to resolve this, but some people have such a distrust of the government that they're willing to sacrifice themselves and their families by living like that."
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 now-faded handmade signs with warnings or Bible verses still hang from the fencepost or trees: "Disobedience to Tyranny is Obedience to God!" and "Howdy - Now Git!" Gray even wrote "kids inside" on one, expecting a raid.
As the case gained national attention in the summer of 2000, a former police chief's negotiations with Gray fell apart. A county constable who was friends with Chuck Norris got the Texas actor and conservative activist to meet with Gray and send his own lawyers to negotiate on Gray's behalf. But talks with prosecutors failed quickly.
"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.
Gray's former son-in-law has a special reason to want the case resolved.
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. Toddlers when Tarkington last held them, the boys are 14 and almost 13 now. They may no longer be living there.
"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."
Tarkington, who complains that "law enforcement has never done anything to try to get my sons back," described a family gathering: "I was watching my nieces and nephews and wondering about my kids, wishing they were with us. I eat with it, sleep with it, breathe it."
Although a court authorized deputies to take the children away from Lisa Gray, then-Sheriff Howard "Slick" Alfred said removing them from Gray's compound was too risky.
After receiving Gray's note about body bags, authorities wanted to avoid "another Waco" - referring to the disastrous 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians sect compound — and decided not to go near the property, Alfred said in 2000.
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.
Neighbors 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."