Since the Press Release issued by Alicia Gray, the Embassy of Heaven has been wondering where it stands in this confrontation. The Grays claim they are not members of the Embassy of Heaven Church. This article states that there is a hand-painted sign eight feet wide: "We are the Militia and Will Live Free or Die." If this is true, then the Grays are claiming to be the Militia. This makes my job easier. I do not have to explain to anyone why the Grays are using weapons in a militant manner. They are not acting under the name of the Church.
Embassy of Heaven Church
Paul Revere, Pastor
Alicia Gray stands near the front gate of her father's [husband's] property in rural Henderson County. (Jim Mahoney - Dallas Morning News)
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2000; Page A01
TRINIDAD, Tex. John Joe Gray's land is 47 acres fenced with barbed wire off a dusty road in the East Texas woods. Posted by the padlocked gate is a hand-painted sign eight feet wide: "We Are Militia and Will Live Free or Die."
Beyond the gate, past the guards in camouflage, Gray's acreage along the Trinity River is his self-declared sovereign oasis. Among the 16 people with him are seven children, a recent visitor said. In case of attack, there's a subterranean bunker marked: "KIDS INSIDE."
The adults vow to stay above ground and resist U.S. government tyranny unto death. Of course, they have lots of guns.
It's a familiar phenomenon in America now, a band of ultra-religious, anti-government, paramilitary survivalists isolated in a rural compound. Ordinarily, Henderson County Sheriff Howard B. "Slick" Alfred would just leave them be. But since spring, his department and Gray's group have been locked in a curious stalemate in this county of sun-parched cow pastures 50 miles southeast of Dallas. Theirs is a low-boil conflict that Alfred is determined not to let erupt into a shooting war.
The sheriff has an arrest warrant charging Gray, 51, with assaulting a state trooper. And Gray's former son-in-law, Keith Tarkington, has a judge's order for custody of his two small boys, whom he last saw on Gray's property with their mother more than a year ago.
But Gray views the legal system as corrupt and ungodly. He's not coming out, he warned a district attorney's investigator, and anyone raiding his homestead should "bring body bags."
"If the police move in there, people are going to die," reported Austin-based talk-show host Alex Jones, who recently spent a night with Gray. Jones, whose radio and public-access cable programs are devoted to exposing government plots, warned that if deputies cross the property line, "it's going to be a blood bath."
Gray's "body bags" threat came in March, after he was indicted for assault and failed to appear in court, hunkering down on his property instead.
Since then, in a strategy bitterly frustrating to Tarkington, Alfred's department has been careful not to agitate Gray, making no attempt to serve the warrant or block access to his compound. The sheriff's chief deputy, Ronny Brownlow, said authorities are biding their time, occasionally conducting surveillance of the property while trying to devise a plan to arrest Gray without a firefight.
"We're going to try to resolve this peacefully because we're peace officers and that's what we're supposed to do," said Brownlow, a Texas Ranger for 19 years before he joined Alfred's office here in Henderson County. He said he and Alfred, also a retired ranger, "don't think executing a warrant is worth the risk of folks getting hurt."
Tarkington, 34, divorced from Gray's eldest daughter, wants deputies to arrest Gray now, and while they're at it retrieve his 2- and 4-year-old sons, whom he last saw in April 1999. "I sleepwalk through the day, then I lay awake all night worrying about them," Tarkington said. "Sometimes I just can't function."
He used to work in Dallas loading sausage trucks. Now he's unemployed and lives alone in the trailer home he once shared with his family, before his wife fell sway to her father's beliefs last year and moved to the compound, taking the boys.
"A Christian man wouldn't hold a man's kids from him," said Tarkington. "John Joe Gray claims to be a Christian, but he's putting me through hell."
Gray, a carpenter, had no arrest record before he allegedly tried to wrest a gun from a state trooper during a traffic stop last winter. Gray believes U.S. officials are plotting to enslave the nation, said Tarkington. He said his ex-father-in-law began calling himself "Colonel Gray" a few years ago and hosted the rag-tag maneuvers of the Texas Constitutional Militia on his property, where he keeps an arsenal of combat weapons.
He said Gray is a disciple of the Oregon-based Embassy of Heaven Church, a separatist group that rejects any form of government regulation, considering it an affront to God's supreme authority.
The group's Web site posts updates on the Trinidad resistance, featuring Gray's stern, bearded visage above a quote ascribed to him: "I have come out of the system of the Corporate U.S. government. I use no Social Security number, do no banking, pay no income tax, do not carry license or insurance." Since sending out a note with the "body bags" warning shortly after the indictment, he has not communicated directly with authorities.
Brownlow said he feels bad for Tarkington. But he is also mindful of the catastrophic 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, 75 miles from here. He recalls the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where an FBI sniper killed the unarmed wife of fugitive separatist Randy Weaver. Brownlow said it's his and Alfred's job to prevent a similar tragedy, to make sure that Trinidad doesn't join the list of infamous places invoked by those who see government as the enemy of freedom.
He wouldn't elaborate on the periodic ground and aerial surveillance that he said is being carried out covertly. "I don't want to say anything that Mr. Gray might construe as us being ready to make a move on that place," Brownlow said. But he added, "We're doing a whole lot more than we're at liberty to discuss."
Although he would not rule out an eventual raid, he said, "What I hope is, we get a call either from him or somebody close to him, saying he wants to surrender."
Tarkington said he's certain Gray would rather die than give up and that the sheriff's office should stop waiting. "Go in there!" he said. "That's their job! Go get my kids!"
How long are authorities willing to wait? "I wouldn't guess," Brownlow said. "We're comfortable with what we're doing now and we're certainly not putting any kind of time limit on it."
About 10 miles west of the sheriff's office, and a few miles down a dirt road off Highway 274, the sentries at Gray's gate stirred from their plastic chairs when a car pulled up. Six-shooters on their hips, SKS assault rifles slung over their shoulders, they stepped from the shade of a hickory grove. The guards were four of Gray's six grown sons and daughters--but not his first-born, Tarkington's ex-wife, 30-year-old Lisa.
Nailed to a tree just inside the gate: "Notice To All Public Servants. . . . No Trespassing. Survivors will be prosecuted."
"Y'all ain't welcome," said Jonathon Gray, who goes by Bubba. He wore military fatigues and was recording with a small video camera. To his right, Timmy Gray, also in camouflage, seemed more relaxed than his brother. He draped his arms over the iron gate, as if to chat with a neighbor.
Will your father give up?
Is Lisa in there?
What about the boys, Sammy and J.D.?
Gray's group has come to be called "the family," but it's unclear how many people on the property are related. On his Web site, conspiracy talk-show host Jones mentioned "a total of 10 adults and seven children (ages 3 months to 7 years)."
One of the adults is Gray's wife, Alicia. They're both fed up with "the tyrannical government," Jones wrote. "John Joe has stated that he will protect his property unto death and that his back has been pushed against the wall."
In a rare foray off the property, Brownlow said, three armed men hiked into a neighboring pasture at dusk on Aug. 16, smashed a remote surveillance camera and video transmitter that authorities had set up in a horse trailer, then retreated to the compound.
Because the sheriff thinks roadblocks and beefed-up patrols near the property would be provocative, the men were able to move unimpeded. And sympathizers have been free to haul in supplies for the family.
Phone service and electricity to Gray's two houses on the property were cut off for nonpayment months ago. But a reporter for the weekly Lakeside News, allowed in for a visit, said the group is getting along with a generator, a well pump, a water heater, a septic system, cell phones, a short-wave radio and "a completely self-sufficient working farm."
"The children run about, seemingly unaware of the circumstances, constantly insisting that I watch them ride their bikes," the reporter wrote.
Tarkington's frustration is immense.
Some afternoons, he stands on a rise in the neighboring pasture, out of rifle range from Gray's land, and peers into a telescope he bought at Wal-Mart, hoping to glimpse his sons at the distant compound. But it's hard to make out faces through the woods, he said. Only the signs at the gate are easy to see.
"Disobedience To Tyranny Is Obedience To God!"
Tarkington, who married Lisa Gray in 1995, said her father did not immerse himself in the militia movement and the Embassy of Heaven until 1996, although he had long been a well-armed religious fundamentalist with a grudge against the government.
Gray's family went over the brink with him, Tarkington said. "Lisa would say, 'This is a good deal, you don't have to pay taxes or nothing.' I said, 'Lisa, I was born at night, but it wasn't last night.' "
After Lisa joined her father in April 1999, Tarkington filed for divorce. After Lisa failed to show up for hearings, a judge last August gave Tarkington custody of his sons. Brownlow said deputies drove to the compound to fetch the boys, but Gray's wife wouldn't let them past the gate, claiming the children weren't there.
Without solid evidence to the contrary, deputies had no hope of getting a warrant to search the property, Brownlow said. So the matter stayed in limbo.
Then came the assault indictment and arrest warrant in March, giving deputies the legal authority to raid Gray's compound at any time. And then Gray dug in.
"They keep telling me to be patient," said Tarkington. "I guess I'll have to be."
2000 The Washington Post Company