A world apart
Dad’s 4-year search for sons drags on as in-laws stay holed up in compound
TRINIDAD — For both families, the clock has ticked slowly as the weeks turn into months and then into years.
On the outside is Keith Tarkington, whose kids are school-age now — but he hasn’t seen them since they were infants.
On the inside are John Joe Gray and most of his family, who have sealed themselves in an armed homestead and haven’t seen the outside world since Bill Clinton was president.
“Nothing has changed,” says Henderson County Sheriff Ronnie Brownlow, who was a chief deputy in December 1998, when a chain of events robbed Tarkington of his children and sent the Gray clan behind the fence of their wooded, 47-acre compound on the banks of the Trinity River.
For 3 1/2 years, Gray, a fugitive from a third-degree felony warrant stemming from a scuffle with state troopers, has vowed to live out his life and die behind the fence if necessary.
For more than four years, Tarkington, Gray’s former son-in-law, has been demanding justice — enforcement of a court order granting him custody of the two sons he had with his wife, Lisa.
“Nothing has changed,” Tarkington agrees. “It’s the same as it was. I’ve been to the sheriff, the FBI, the Texas Rangers and CPS (Child Protective Services). Nobody wants to do nothin’ … just let sleeping dogs lie.”
From his side of the fence, Gray, a Bible-reading militiaman, doesn’t see the impasse as simple issues of warrants defied and court orders ignored, but as a kind of life-and-death struggle between God and the devil government.
“This is a spiritual battle,” says Gray, who is around 54 years old. “We don’t fear death.”
For most of his years in this small community on Cedar Creek Lake 65 miles southeast of Dallas, Gray lived in the obscurity of the daily grind. He built houses for a living and built his own nest in the woods beside an unpaved road and a pasture where cattle grazed without fences or supervision.
It was here that the mingling of fundamentalist religion and militia foreboding (he was a leader in the Texas Constitutional Militia and often held training on his property) spun into a dark world view and outright rejection of civil authority.
“We are remnants of God … people who trust in the Lord,” he says.
He and his family began refusing to register their cars, opting instead for plates issued by the Embassy of Heaven, an Oregon-based sect that also rejects government authority. They refused to obtain driver’s licenses or to recognize the authority of courts.
Inevitably, that brought them to the attention of the local cops. In November 1998, Gray’s 24-year-old daughter, Racheal Dempsey, was jailed on charges of driving without a license and having “fictitious” tags on her car. She refused to appear in court and warrants were issued for her arrest.
Two weeks later, Gray was stopped and cited for driving without a license. He failed to show for a court appearance and no further action was taken.
Meanwhile, according to Tarkington, his marriage to Lisa, Gray’s daughter, was suffering. He resisted Gray’s pressure to join the militia and accept the family’s religious views. Tarkington is a Catholic; the entrance to Gray’s property is posted with hand-painted anti-Catholic signs.
In April 1999, Tarkington says, his wife left him and moved into her family’s compound, taking her children with her.
She did not respond to his divorce petition, except in a handwritten letter to the judge in which she proclaimed that “it is pathetic to be Catholic.” Tarkington, therefore, was granted custody of the children.
The Grays had not yet sealed themselves into the compound, but a writ of attachment, authorizing sheriff’s deputies to remove the boys from their mother’s custody, was never served and never enforced.
On Christmas Eve 1999, state troopers in Anderson County stopped a car for speeding near Palestine. Inside were the driver, a passenger, high-caliber pistols and assault rifles.
The passenger, John Joe Gray, was wearing a gun in a shoulder holster. He refused to get out of the car and, when the troopers forcibly removed him, he bit one on the hand and tried to take the trooper’s weapon.
He was charged with two felonies, released on bond and failed to appear in court. Instead, he fortified his fenced property with bunkers and, in case lawmen planned to root him out, he sent them a warning: “Bring body bags.”
The cops never went after him.
“There are seven adults and three children in there,” says Brownlow. “Somebody would be killed. We’re not willing at this point to take that chance over a third-degree felony warrant. He hasn’t been convicted. He’s not a threat to anybody. But he knows if he comes out of there he’s going to jail.”
As for the Tarkington kids, Brownlow says, “We’re convinced they’re not in there.”
Over the years, there have been rumors that Lisa Tarkington and the children, who are now 6 and 7 years old, went to live with relatives out of state.
Tarkington doesn’t know and the uncertainty gnaws at him.
“I can’t keep a job,” he says. “I can’t concentrate on my work. I’ve had good jobs and lost them. I can’t keep my mind on work.”
He still calls regularly on local officials and nags them for action against Gray.
“I’ve been kicked out of the DA’s office, kicked out of a deputy’s office, the FBI office,” he says. “They just say, `There’s nothing we can do.’ “
Two children have been born behind the fence in the past three years, but otherwise, life in self-imposed exile has become rote but tolerable, family members say.
“There’s always work to be done,” says 31-year-old Jonathan, who is building a log cabin for his wife and children on the property. There are goats to milk, chickens to feed, wood to chop, a garden to cultivate. They work with pistols on their hips and rifles resting nearby.
Electricity is provided by generators, fueled with petroleum brought by sympathizers, who also bring food, clothing, and other items, including an occasional newspaper. With no television, they are tethered to world events by AM, FM and shortwave radio. Three times a week, two of Gray’s sons broadcast their own shortwave program called Radio Free Texas.
In the beginning, Gray never came to the gate to talk to reporters and other curiosity seekers. Now he occasionally makes an appearance to share, in disarmingly laconic terms, his Bible passages and apocalyptic vision of a world menaced by Masons, terrorists, the United Nations, politicians, judges and Satan worshipers.
“We would like to come out,” he says, “but we feel like God put us here to teach us things. As long as God wants us here, we’ll be here.”