by Nickiey Drew
TRINIDAD — On the other side of the barbed-wire fence, John Joe Gray, a “free-standing man” and fugitive from the law, is locked and loaded for the coming apocalypse or authorities – whichever shows up first.
“It’s coming,” he says. “It’s time this country knows God is coming.”
A rifle is slung across his back and a gun belt around his waist holds a revolver and extra cartridges. A knife is strapped to the other side of his lean torso. A battered felt hat frames a deeply lined face and bushy beard.
John Joe Gray (born 15th March,1950) claims to be a sovereign citizen and was a fugitive from the law. He currently lives on his 50-acre, wooded ranch in Trinidad, Texas. He was involved in the longest-running law enforcement standoff in American history, lasting a few days short of 15 years, before the district attorney dropped the charges
Dangling from a nearby tree, a hangman’s noose strangles a weathered sign that sums up his stance: “Solution to tyranny.”
Warily covering Gray’s flanks are two of his six children, sons Jonathan, 39, and Timothy, 33. The dark-bearded, fit and tanned brothers are as well-armed as their 62-year-old father.
Ten feet behind her brothers and father, long-haired Ruth Gray, 31, stands solemn and silent. She, too, is armed to the teeth.
Next to her is teenager Jessica Gray, “who is old enough,” according to her father, Jonathan. She has on a cowboy hat that the wind keeps blowing off, a long denim skirt, a sequined denim vest and cowboy boots. She’s packing a pistol and binoculars.
Law is ignoring him
This is one stubborn side of what has been called America’s longest-running standoff with law enforcement.
The standoff began when Gray jumped bail after being indicted on two counts of felony assault. During a traffic stop in Anderson County, he allegedly attacked Texas Trooper Jim Cleland. A struggle ensued after Cleland reached for a .357 caliber handgun in the car in which Gray was riding. Anti-government pamphlets and references to setting off a bomb on a highway overpass near Dallas were found in the vehicle. Gray was charged with two felonies, assault of a public servant and taking a police officer’s weapon. After promising to have no access to weapons while awaiting hearing, he was out on bail when the judge held his bond insufficient and ordered the re-arrest of John Joe Gray.
Local Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt has stated “John Joe Gray is not worth it. Ten of him is not worth going up there and getting one of my young deputies killed.”
But it’s been a single-sided siege. Henderson County authorities have pointedly ignored the would-be war.
For more than 18 years, John Joe Gray and his country clan have been holed up inside their own private prison, a 50-acre strip of Trinity River bottomland about 100 miles southeast of Fort Worth in Henderson County. He has not left the property in over 18 years.
They’ve scraped out a harsh life here ever since Gray was bailed out of jail in January 2000 after he was charged with assaulting a state trooper on Christmas Eve 1999.
During a traffic stop, Gray and the driver of the car told two Department of Public Safety troopers that they were armed. When ordered to get out, the driver did but Gray wouldn’t budge.
One trooper pushed Gray out, and he then lunged for the other officer’s sidearm. Gray bit the trooper as they struggled for control of the weapon, according to investigators.
An Anderson County grand jury indicted him on two felony counts – assaulting a public servant and taking a peace officer’s weapon.
“We’re here because two highway patrolmen lied about what happened,” Gray said last week. “Land of the free and home of the brave? That’s a bunch of bull.”
He has refused to be taken alive and in a long-ago letter to authorities, the family warned officials to “bring extra body bags,” if they come for him. Authorities kept tabs on the compound for months but haven’t maintained an active presence for years.
“We fear no man,” John Joe Gray maintains. “We believe in an eye for an eye and a bullet for a bullet.”
But nobody’s storming the gate.
Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt, who is the fourth lawman in the post since 2000, says, like his predecessors, that he’s not willing to risk a gunbattle just to arrest Gray.
“John Joe Gray is not worth it. Ten of him is not worth going up there and getting one of my young deputies killed,” he said.
Living off the land
The hardscrabble compound has no phone, no refrigeration, no power.
Contact with the outside world is through a handful of “supporters” and via shortwave radio, John Joe Gray said.
Drinking water comes from springs, and Gray and his sons say they subsist by growing beans, potatoes, corn, squash, tomatoes and peppers on fields they plow with donkeys. They can vegetables and dry meat to get through the year, they said.
They also raise goats and chickens and catch catfish, carp and drum from the Trinity and hunt deer on the wooded property. Friends bring them staples they can’t produce themselves. Last year, they harvested their first crop of peaches.
One supporter, who frequently visits the farm, said eight children are inside the compound. The kids are armed at an early age, she said. They are equally adept at reciting the Constitution or Scripture.
“It’s sort of Wild West. It’s what a traditional American family looked like 100 years ago,” said Dolores McCarter of Arlington, who says she once worked for Homeland Security and now operates a small nonprofit called Dee’s House that helps battered women and children.
“John is standing as a free man. He loves his family. They are prepared to live out their lives there,” McCarter said. “Some people pity them and they … pity us.”
This is what Joe Gray has to say about how things took place that brought him where he is today.
I have lived in Henderson County, Texas, near the town of Trinidad, since 1974. About May 1985, I moved to a 47-acre tract of land our family still owns on the Trinity River, where we now reside. My wife Alicia and I had two children graduate from Malakoff High School and have homeschooled four others, in addition to my grandchildren.
Shortly after moving to this location, I was warned by a volunteer with the local fire department not to venture into the area across the Trinity River from my place because it was the scene of production of illegal substances, and my family has occasionally smelled the odor of ether coming from that area.
In 1987 I learned that someone else, Bill Key, had been interested in acquiring my property before I got it, and sought to get my family off the land so he could get it. Key owns about 5500 acres in Henderson County acquired through suspicious tax foreclosure and other sales, and is the owner of a bank in nearby Athens, Texas. I have reason to believe that at his instigation, the county tried to close the road to my place and deny me access to it. They ruled it a “ranch road” so they would no longer have to maintain it, and proceeded to remove the tarmac from it. This in turn led to the Post Office refusing to deliver mail to my mail box on grounds the road did not meet their standards. For the last three years I have gotten my mail General Delivery, Trinidad, Texas.
During the succeeding years I have become aware of extensive high-level illegal activities in this and neighboring counties, especially Anderson County, involving judges, sheriffs, and other officials, mostly involving narcotics, who operate with the protection of federal agents of the FBI and DEA and state agents of the DPS and Texas Rangers. After I began inviting militia groups to visit my property for training, it appears that they were perceived as a threat to expose the illegal operations of officials in this area, and this led those officials to come down on our family and try to run us out of the area. The key officials we suspect of involvement in the local narcotics trade are Bascom Bentley III, County Judge of Anderson County, Texas, Tom Smith, County Judge of Henderson County, John Hobson, Sheriff of Anderson County, Ronnie Brownlow, Chief Deputy Sheriff of Henderson County, and a temporary judge Jim Parson who travels among several counties including Anderson and Henderson, based on information provided by numerous trusted informants, citizens of the two counties, most of whom are afraid to come forward with their evidence.
Past Anderson County Sheriff Hobson is reported to have seized livestock from people in that county without proper authority and sell them at auction in Henderson County, accepting only cash, giving no receipts, and keeping no public records of the sales.
A reporter, Jared Judd, attempted to report some of this in the Lakeside News, owned by Mayor Tye Thomas of Gun Barrel, Texas, but the story was suppressed, and Judd quit when the newspaper was sold to the Mayor’s secretary. The Mayor has since been charged with DWI at his own request.
One of our informants is Edward “Eddie” Miers, who ran unsuccessfully against Tom Smith for County Judge. He has a parts store in the town of Malakoff and serves as a mediator in some of our contacts with local officials.
Another key informant has been Aaron “Buster” Thompson, whose attorney is Matt Anthony of the law firm of Brewer and Brewer, who also represent the actor Chuck Norris. Thompson was an investigator for the Anderson County Sheriff Department, and found evidence of involvement of Anderson County officials in narcotics trafficking. He is now serving a ten-year sentence in Huntsville for “firing on police”, however our independent investigations show that his arrest was actually an attempted murder to silence him, during which he was shot three times by deputy Larry Bennett, but survived. As described to us, elements of several agencies, local, state, and federal, complete with a helicopter, converged on his place without a warrant over a complaint of a domestic dispute, and fired on him without any provocation on his part. Some time before, Thompson’s daughter had been kidnapped and murdered.
On Dec. 24, 1999, I was induced by Curtis Hartin, who represented himself as a militia activist, to travel with him, with him driving, to look at some property, and to bring along some firearms to do some shooting. We traveled across a county line, making the carrying of such firearms legal under the carrying defense of Texas statutes. Near the intersection of Hwy 287 and 321, we were stopped by two DPS troopers, Jim Cleland and Bryan Beckton, both of whom threatened to shoot me if I failed to exit the vehicle. I decided to exit, and to do that I had to extend my left arm to remove my seat belt. Cleland later reported that when I did that I grabbed his weapon, but when the DPS videotape did not show me grabbing the weapon, DPS investigator Gary Thomas told him to change his report to “reaching for”. Thomas has since been fired.
Before I could exit Cleland pinned my right arm behind me to handcuff me, and Beckton hit me on the left side of my head with the side of a pistol, out of sight of the DPS video camera. When I raised my left arm to fend off the attack, he started yelling loudly “He’s trying to reach for my gun!” Cleland then completed handcuffing both hands behind my back, and tried to put a choke hold on me in a way that caused me to fear for my life. In doing that Cleland put his right wrist in my mouth. I bit down on his arm in self-defense, to get him to release the pressure on my neck. This was the basis for the reported charge of assault on an officer. Throughout this incident, both troopers spoke in an unnatural manner, as though they were following a script. Medics called to the scene treated Cleland and cleaned the blood off my face.
While in custody, various irregular medical procedures were performed or attempted on me. They refused to release me on bond until I agreed to a “blood test”. I refused, so they got an order to take the “blood test” from Justice of the Peace Carl Davis, and Bryan Beckton demanded that the nurse use a “red needle”. She didn’t understand what he meant. He told her to call his office, and that someone there would explain it to her. When she returned, and as she was about to inject the needle, Beckton asked her again whether it was a “red needle”. She seemed perturbed, but said it was, and she proceeded to inject me. She no longer works there and may have been discharged.
Two days later, while still in custody, I was taken from my cell and told by someone who appeared to be a physician or medic that he had to give me a “TB shot”. He showed me an unusual looking syringe, about three inches long and half an inch in diameter, with short needle, less than an inch long, that was extremely wide, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, filled with a white fluid. It was metallic, similar to the kind that are reused and sterilized, and used on livestock. Again, I refused, and demanded a court order, and they put me in isolation. The injection did not occur, but in talking with four other inmates, they reported that they had also been injected with the same kind of syringe, and some had received a second shot because, they were told, their body had “rejected it”. The diameter of the needle suggests that what was to be injected may have been a tracking device similar to those being marketed to track animals and children.
To the best of my knowledge, no charges have been properly filed, no indictment has been brought, and no notice to appear in court has been served on me. Nevertheless, on March 15, 2001, Justice of the Peace Judy Newmann gave bail bondsman Kirk Martin dba East Texas Bonds of Tyler, Texas, two tracts, a 3-acre and a 6-acre with a rent house, I own and put up as security for my appearance on a $306,000 bond, together with $500 in cash and 5 1-ounce gold coins, each worth about $425, but that bond was later reduced to $52,000. I have never received copies of the bond. I admit I would not have appeared, because I had been warned that if I went into custody again I would be found hanging in my cell.
Curtis Hartin was arrested with me, but officers kept saying to “keep him is a separate cell”. He put up a $3000 cash bond, but has since disappeared. The only weapon or other personal property reported found in the vehicle that belonged to me was a .357 Taurus revolver. All other items belonged to Hartin. The Taurus was seized and has not been returned to me.
Much has been made in the media of the child custody dispute between my daughter and her ex-husband Keith Tarkington, but it needs to be said that he has mental problems, about which we counseled him, and we have a video tape of him admitting to the problem and agreeing to seek help for his condition. We suspect he was recruited by our adversaries to assist them in establishing grounds for coming down on my family to remove us as a source of potential exposure of high-level illegal activities in this area.
One of the things that is significant about Henderson County is the presence there of the Koon Kreek Klub (KKK), a 7000 acre private development with houses owned by wealthy and influential persons and a large hunting preserve, between Athens and Palestine, on Rainbow Lake. Incorporated in 1902 by an ex-Confederate Captain William Henry Guston, its members pay $35,000 to join and annual dues of $2000. One of the houses in the secretive community was purchased by George W. Bush in 1991 and sold for $10 just before the 2000 election. The Klub is reported to have no black members. Ex-president Clinton is reported to have visited the Klub, and it is also reported that parties have been held there at which illegal drugs were consumed and the services of prostitutes engaged. There are reports that the tax appraisals for the properties are suspiciously low, although there appears to have been a deliberate effort to conceal the location and other details of the Klub in public records.