The Gray clan has been living off the grid for almost 15 years. On the run yet staying put, John Joe Gray and his family have not budged from their remote 47-acre Texan compound. Surrounded by only nature and guns, the Grays live off their land and vow to keep the police as far away from them and their land as possible.
How can this family be above the law, you ask? Well, they somehow made themselves that way. From fights with cops to death threats to skipping bail, John Joe Gray has led a 15-year standoff and can now claim himself the winner.
It Started on Christmas Eve 1999
Let’s rewind back to Christmas Eve 1999, when John Joe Gray wasn’t feeling the holiday spirit. As the passenger in a car on that particular night, he and the driver were pulled over by two Texas state troopers near the town of Palestine, in Anderson County.
The driver had apparently been speeding. Gray had been holding a loaded handgun in a shoulder holster. The problem? He didn’t have a permit for it. As we’re all aware, that’s a big no-no. And so, Gray was ordered out of the car.
Let the Brawl Begin
Whether Gray refused or was just slow to respond isn’t exactly clear. But what we do know is that when the troopers tried to remove him from the car, Gray resisted. They had no choice but to cuff him. That’s when a brawl began. And as we know, that’s another big no-no.
According to the cops, Gray bit one of them and tried to get a hold of the other cop’s gun. “Somehow, his hand got in my mouth,” Gray recounted in a radio interview about eight months later. “I bit down, and I wouldn’t let go.” Uh-oh…
I’m a Member of Christ, Your Honor
“They sprayed me with the pepper spray three times,” Gray said. You can bet your pretty penny that Gray was arrested and jailed. The bail hearing took place two weeks later and Gray promised the judge that he would show up at future court hearings if he was to be bonded out of jail.
The prosecutor told the judge that Gray was involved in anti-government militias and even had a plot to bomb a Texas interstate highway. Gray denied it all and downplayed the accusations. “I’m a member of the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and lord of lords,” he stated.
Posting Bail on One Condition…
Believe it or not, the judge, Jim Parsons, granted Gray the lower bail, but there were conditions. One condition was that neither Gray nor anyone in his family would be allowed to keep firearms on their rural compound, which sits by the Trinity River just outside the town of Trinidad in Henderson County.
“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 reasoned. Makes sense, of course. Gray posted bail and went home.
Bring Body Bags
You probably can already sense that Gray didn’t hold up his end of the deal. Only two months after the bail hearing, the father of six, with no prior criminal record by the way, sent a letter to the authorities. He wrote, “If your deputies come onto my property, bring body bags.”
Gray and his kids weren’t the only ones living on the property, nor was Gray the only one carrying guns. There were close to 16 others, including grandchildren, who were living at his modest house and several sheds at the time.
The Gun-Wielding, Badass, Outlaw Family
Many of the Gray clan were armed, including Gray’s wife, Alicia, who took turns patrolling the property. Gray chose not to show up to his scheduled court dates, but the cops didn’t even go arrest him. They were apparently too freaked out to confront a gun-wielding, badass, outlaw family.
“They were pretty well fixed up with weapons,” recalled Howard “Slick” Alfred, the Henderson County sheriff at the time. “They had better weapons than we had.” Alfred also suggested that Gray was “kind of hiding behind those kids” who were living there.
No Electricity, No Phones, No Running Water
Gray, in his 60s, and his family have chosen to remain secluded in the lush countryside that sits outside a town of only 1,100 people. What makes this family even more badass is the fact that they have no electricity, no phone, and no running water and they haven’t for over a decade.
How do they get by? With a generator, wood-burning heaters, kerosene lamps, water from the river and the occasional contributions from friends. Gray has been stashing lots of food, since 1999, in fact (he was one of the “Y2K” believers).
Not Another Waco Deal
“I didn’t want another Waco kind of deal,” Alfred reasoned. The “Waco deal” was a shootout that occurred in 1993, where the police raided a compound and left four agents and six sect members dead. (More on the Waco standoff and other related shootouts later…)
It’s understandable that the police didn’t want to go down the same deadly road. It’s better to learn from our mistakes, right? But were they just going to let this Gray fellow off the hook? Then again, Alfred noted, it’s not as if Gray is a threat to society. “He’s not hurting anybody over there.”
The Government Gave Up
It’s not just Gray who’s defying authorities. There’s his daughter, who defied a court order to give custody of her two children to her ex-husband (more on that story later…). And there’s Gray’s eldest son, who was prosecuted himself for hitting and kicking his brother-in-law’s truck.
Gray is also years behind on his property taxes, and although the county can sue for payment and sell his land, the sheriff’s office eventually quit trying to serve court orders. The question is: how do you arrest a heavily armed, anti-government zealot who has no qualms about starting a bloodbath?
Gray’s Days of Mayhem
Gray was once a self-employed carpenter, known for being an extremely religious, far-right militiaman. He would host Texas Constitutional Militia meetings and was involved with the secessionist group called Republic of Texas, which had its own week-long standoff in 1997.
That group, which kidnapped a couple at gunpoint, was one that Gray decided to leave in the end. Gray said at his 2000 bail hearing that he left because “they was not of God. They did not go of God’s ways.”
A Humorless Man
There was a barber named Harold Colvin, and Gray used to be one of his customers. Colvin recalled Gray as a humorless man who grew odder by the visit. “At one time he was an average Joe Blow,” says Colvin, 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.” He added, “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.”
Deny, Deny, Deny
Gray’s former son-in-law, Keith Tarkington, remembers seeing the Gray family cut up their Social Security cards and mail the pieces to the Social Security Administration. At Gray’s 2000 hearing, he had to answer to the bomb-making plans that were found in the car he was riding in that Christmas Eve. He said it belonged to the car’s driver.
What about getting arrested in Austin for carrying a weapon? “Didn’t happen,” Gray said. And what about those phone calls he made threatening an attack on the jail unless he was released? Someone “is trying to set me up,” he stated.
A Member of Embassy of Heavan
He’s also been connected to the group Embassy of Heaven, a self-described group of “peculiar people” who obey the government of God, not secular authorities. No divorce, no remarriage, no lawyers, no courtrooms. The United States is a “pervert nation,” the group claims.
The Oregon-based group even issues business licenses, driver’s licenses, passports and license plates for followers to use instead of the ones provided by the government. When Gray was accused of trying to use one of these illegal driver’s licenses, he was again a no-show at the court appearance.
Alex Jones Announced an Attack That Never Happened
“He’s just a different kind of person,” former sheriff Alfred, 76, said of Gray. “He’s got an entirely different philosophy than most of us.” Speaking of different people, radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones at one point announced to his audience that the feds were preparing to attack Gray’s compound.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets made their way to the Gray ranch, anticipating a sensational confrontation that never ended up happening. That same year, the one and only Chuck Norris went to visit the Grays.
Chuck Norris Tried to Bring an End to It
The actor, martial artist, right-wing Christian, and fellow Texan, met with Gray at his ranch and offered him a deal, in an attempt to end the standoff. The deal was for Gray to get free legal representation.
A source who knows the Grays shared, “There’s two people that family looks up to: Mel Gibson and Chuck.” But it looks like this is one feat that even the invincible Chuck Norris couldn’t accomplish. At the end of the day, they follow only one “man’s” orders. “God’s word is the sole guide for our family,” Alicia Gray said in 2000.
The “Wait It Out” Option
With Waco being the main reason for avoiding the Gray clan, Alfred opted to wait it out. “Time is on our side,” he said at the time, not realizing it would drag on for nearly 15 years. And a lot went down during the decade and a half.
Take Keith Tarkington’s story. He was Gray’s former son-in-law, the one married to the daughter who defied her court order to give Tarkington their two kids. Lisa Gray left him after three years of marriage and took their 2- and 4-year-old sons to her dad’s compound.
The Grays vs. Keith Tarkington
“When we was dating, I knew he [Gray] was a little bit different,” Tarkington said. “It took him two years to convince my wife she was better off living with him than me.” In 1999, Tarkington tried talking to Lisa at the compound.
But Gray did the talking: “Don’t you worry about your wife and kids. We’ll take care of them.” Not long after, Gray’s eldest child, Jonathan “Bubba” Gray, vandalized Tarkington’s truck. The misdemeanor charge was dropped three years later because the prosecutor couldn’t obtain identifying information about Bubba, such as his birth date and driver’s license number.
A Father Who Only Wants His Boys Back
When Tarkington filed for divorce, he was granted custody of the boys. The problem: he had no proof that the boys were living on the Gray compound, and therefore, couldn’t get the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department to serve the court order to them to remove the boys.
Being a civil matter, they couldn’t step onto Gray’s land… nor did they want to. All they did was leave the paperwork on a fence post. “Nobody could ever find out if those kids were there,” Alfred explained. People who came to the land to get a look never saw the boys.
A Man Obsessed
Tarkington spends most of his free time pestering law enforcement to arrest Gray. “A troop of Boy Scouts could do a better job,” the father says with disgust. “The police have done everything they can to protect John Joe Gray.”
While the sheriff sympathizes with Tarkington, he also thinks that the man has become obsessed with Gray. “Sometimes his focus is more on Joe Gray than his children,” he said. “He wants someone to assault that compound.” His sons, who would now be in their 20s, never got to see their father again.
“The law’s letting him get away,” Tarkington said. “They always holler, ‘We don’t want no one to get hurt.’ I haven’t seen my kids in 15 years. You tell me who’s getting hurt.”
They Are Militia
On the driveway leading to the Gray ranch is a handmade sign that reads, “We Are Militia And Will Live Free Or You’ll Die.” As Gray explained, “Militias are the people,” adding that “Thomas Jefferson said every 75 years the people need to rise up and straighten the government out.”
There are other signs, of course, one of which hangs from a tree with a noose tied to it, which reads, “Solution To Tyranny.” Jeez. On the property is the main ranch, which includes a two-story, three-bedroom (1,300 square-foot) main house and two tiny sheds, a barn and two add-ons.
No Leaving the Premises
Gray has not specified just how many people live on the property, but the sheriff estimates either 10 or 11. What Jonathan Gray, the eldest son, has announced is that no one from the family ventures off the land. If they did, they would face the risk of getting arrested and charged with aiding and abetting Gray.
The thing is, they can easily hop on their boat, cross the river, and be in another county. It’s probably how they purchase fuel, clothing or medicine. Do they hunt for food? They sure do.
No Church? No Problem
“We grow what we can,” Jonathan said. They have two donkeys to plow any tillable land, and there’s plenty of game to shoot, including deer, rabbits, and squirrels. As for living without the comforts of heat and running water, Jonathan said, “Your body can get used to anything.”
What about church? They don’t mind not going. “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,” he explained.
The Standoff Comes to an End
The standoff officially ended in December 2014, when district attorney Douglas E. Lowe dropped all charges before leaving office. However, since Gray himself and many law enforcement officials were unaware that the charges had been dropped, the standoff continued on.
“I didn’t do that to concede victory to that guy,” Lowe explained. “It had been going on for 15 years, and somebody just had to make a decision that it was time to say it’s over.” So, Gray is officially no longer a fugitive.
The Standoff Remains in Spirit
What about the unpaid taxes and being involved in his daughter’s child custody dispute? The sheriff said those issues were not criminal cases. When a reporter came to the property to tell the Grays that they are off the hook legally, they brushed it off.
“We can’t believe anything they say, and we can’t believe anything y’all reporters say,” one woman with a rifle on her shoulder said. What are the Grays up to nowadays? It’s hard to tell considering they’re not a friendly bunch.
Keith Tarkington vs. The Grays
“The last time I was with my boys was when my ex-wife brought them out to the road and let me see them for about two minutes,” Tarkington said back in 2000. Not much is known about him these days, but chances are that if he’s going to see his boys again, they’re going to have to want to.
But back 1999, he stood in a ditch on the Gray property and gave them both hugs while his father-in-law leaned against the gate with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Shortly after that meeting, Tarkington filed for divorce from Lisa.
When Tarkington Joined the Clan
As we know, she didn’t appear in court, nor was she represented by an attorney when Tarkington was granted legal custody of the children. Tarkington and Lisa had met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend in the mid-‘90s.
They married in 1995 and were moved into a small house rented from her dad, who was then still a carpenter. Tarkington knew that Gray had moved his family from a Dallas suburb, Balch Springs, back in the ’70s. He also knew Gray as a religious extremist but didn’t know anything about any militia activities at the time.
The Brainwashing Began
According to Tarkington, the “brainwashing” began about six or eight months after he and Lisa married. He noticed that Gray’s Embassy of Heaven religious rants grew in volume, and that he was getting more and more into the Texas Constitutional Militia activities.
Gray started wearing fatigues and camouflage clothing, and his weapon collection was growing by the day. Oh, and the man kept referring to himself as “Colonel Gray.” Gray stared urging both Tarkington and Lisa to join his religious and paramilitary ranks. But Tarkington wasn’t into that stuff.
With Us or Against Us
“I told him time and time again that I wasn’t interested in that stuff and told Lisa to stay away from it,” Tarkington shared. “But after a while, she began spending more and more time at her parents’ house, and I could see what was happening.”
Eventually, Lisa’s dad gave her an ultimatum: “You’re either with us or against us.” It came to a point when Gray appeared at his son-in-law’s door and told him, “You’ve been living here for a year now, and I think it is time you found another place.'”
Getting Kicked Out of the House
Tarkington and Lisa had until the end of the month to move out, which was about two weeks. Tarkington was confused – he paid the rent, kept the place clean. Why were they getting kicked out? Nonetheless, the young married couple moved into a trailer.
“Looking back, I think it was just another of his attempts to either make us come over to his way of thinking or get Lisa to return home,” Tarkington reasoned. On the night of Lisa’s 29th birthday, Tarkington took her out to dinner but got pulled over on the way…
Lisa Chooses the Clan
Having several unpaid traffic violations on his record, both husband and wife were taken to jail. At the station, Lisa grew angry and refused to provide her date of birth or any type of identification. She repeated her father’s words, of not believing in “the system.”
The next day, when Tarkington came to pick her up (she had to stay in jail for the night), she told him she wasn’t coming with him. “She told me not to worry about her or the boys. That’s the last time I saw her.” Three years and 10 months of marriage – over.
The Other Motive
According to Tarkington’s mother, Emma, the Grays’ treatment of her son stems from another motive. “We’re Catholics,” she said, “and they did everything they could to convince Keith to denounce us and our beliefs.”
She says that Alicia, Gray’s wife, once told her son, “You know what you are going to have to do to make things right.” To Emma and Tarkington, she meant that he needed to abandon both Catholicism and his parents. Lisa later wrote a letter to the judge, saying that “God will never let [her husband] see his children again” and that “it is pathetic to be a Catholic.”
Their Message, Loud and Clear
The Grays have gone even further in their hatred for Catholics. On their property is a sign that reads “90 Percent of Catholic Priests Are Child Molesters!” Up until that Christmas Eve, when Gray got into the scuffle with the cops, the Grays were seen as little more than local weirdos.
In 1998, one of Gray’s other daughters, then 26-year-old Rachael, was stopped by a patrol officer who noticed her car had only an Embassy of Heaven license plate. She also was driving without insurance, presenting the cop with a Heaven-issued driver’s license and registration.
Frustration Is an Understatement
After refusing to post bond, Racheal was released just a few days later when officials simply got fed up. Tarkington, on the other hand, can’t let go. His sons were basically kidnapped by his ex-wife. The sheriff would tell him to be patient – that the Rangers are doing everything they could.
Child Protective Service officials would tell Tarkington that he needed to provide proof that his children are being abused before they could even take action. Frustrated would be an understatement when explaining how Tarkington felt (feels).
Tarkington said at one point, “They know my kids are out there, but I think they’re afraid of another Waco. My ex-father-in-law has threatened to shoot them if they come through the gate.” He started to worry that Lisa and the boys were somehow “secreted away” and provided shelter by other Embassy of Heaven members.
“Believe me, I can understand the frustration he is feeling,” Henderson County Sheriff Howard Alfred acknowledged. “All I can say at this time is that we’re doing the best we can. This is a very touchy situation, and our primary concern is focused on saving lives. That’s our job.”
Tarkington would frequently drive by the Gray property. One time, Gray confronted him and yelled out, “The next time I see you driving down this road, I’m going to shoot your ass.” Another time, Jonathan vaulted the fence, which was the time he kicked the hell out of Tarkington’s truck.
On another night, he drove past the gate, and a blinding spotlight was flashed towards him, most likely by an assigned guard on duty. As frustrating as it is, no one in law enforcement wants it to be this way.
Gary Thomas, chief investigator for the Anderson County District Attorney’s Office, said, “In my opinion, John Joe Gray is a scumbag, hiding behind children. Nobody in law enforcement fears him or is intimidated by him.”
That said, he had to note that the well-being of the kids is the “most important thing we have to consider.” This was all said years ago. Will Tarkington get the justice he deserves? Will he get to see his now adult boys? Let’s hope so…