Between heaven and hell

A father robbed of his sons is caught between a cult and fear of another Waco

GUN BARREL CITY--On early East Texas evenings, when the frustration becomes unbearable, Keith Tarkington, a 34-year-old cable installer, takes a solitary drive south into an isolated section of Henderson County. Past Cedar Creek Lake, out Highway 274, then onto a blacktop lane leading to a narrow dirt road that winds along the Trinity River. Finally, he turns onto property owned by his uncle, climbs atop a small hill, and focuses a telescope on a 47-acre plot of oak-canopied land just across Old River Road.

It is a vantage point from which he hopes to catch a glimpse of two young sons he has not seen in 15 months.

There, in bottomlands where members of the Texas Constitutional Militia once gathered for maneuvers and where his gun-carrying father-in-law now lords over family members who follow the oddball beliefs of the Embassy of Heaven Church ("God's Government on Earth"), Tarkington knows that 3-year-old Joe Douglas and 2-year-old Samuel are being held.

A court granted Keith Tarkington custody of his sons, but getting the order enforced has proved impossible.
A court granted Keith Tarkington custody of his sons, but getting the order enforced has proved impossible.
Samuel Tarkington
Samuel Tarkington

"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," he says. I stood in a ditch and gave them both hugs while my father-in-law leaned against the gate with a rifle slung over his shoulder."

Shortly after that brief, tension-filled meeting in the spring of 1999, Tarkington filed for divorce from his 30-year-old wife, Lisa. She neither appeared in court for the hearings nor was represented by an attorney as the divorce was granted and legal custody of the children awarded to the father. That was last August, but Tarkington still has not seen them.

This is, however, not simply another tired and tragic story of a divorce turned hellish. Rather, it is one of fanatical religious beliefs and militia mindsets. It concerns a gun-toting fanatic who continues to threaten and defy law-enforcement agencies that seem glacially slow to move against those sequestered on the property of a bushy-bearded man named John Joe Gray, 59, a self-proclaimed militia member and anti-government zealot who is wanted on a felony warrant for assaulting a state trooper.

Tarkington wants his children taken from Gray, who he believes has put the boys in harm's way.

Such thoughts would never have entered his mind years earlier.

Keith Tarkington and Lisa Gray met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend and fell in love. In 1995 they married and were living in a small house rented from Lisa's father, then a carpenter who had moved his family here from the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs back in the '70s. Tarkington remembers how his father-in-law seemed to be a bit of a religious extremist at the time but displayed no interest in militia activities.

That, he recalls, would change six or eight months after he and Lisa married. That was when the "brainwashing" began. Not only did John Joe Gray's Embassy of Heaven religious rantings grow in volume, but he also suddenly threw himself aggressively into the activities of the Texas Constitutional Militia, began to dress in fatigues and camouflage clothing, and constantly added to an arsenal of weapons he kept in his home. He started referring to himself as "Colonel Gray" and traveled to the Big Bend area to sign on with the Republic of Texas movement.

And, says Tarkington, Gray began to urge him and his wife to join his religious and paramilitary ranks. "I told him time and time again that I wasn't interested in that stuff and told Lisa to stay away from it. But after a while, she began spending more and more time at her parents' house, and I could see what was happening. Her daddy finally gave her an ultimatum: You're either with us or against us."

If Tarkington had any doubts that his father-in-law was attempting to drive a wedge between him and his wife, they disappeared on a spring morning when a stern-faced Gray appeared at his front door. "I invited him in, and he said, 'What I have to say won't take long. You've been living here for a year now, and I think it is time you found another place.'"

The young couple was told they had until the end of the month to vacate the house. "That gave us less than two weeks to find another place to live," Tarkington recalls. "It just didn't make sense. I'd never been late with the rent; we'd kept the place looking nice. I even told him if he wanted to raise the rent it would be fine. He just kept insisting that we had to get out."

By the end of the month, the young couple had moved into a trailer that Tarkington was able to purchase with his income-tax refund.

"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 says.

Lisa made her decision on the night of her 29th birthday. Tarkington was taking her out to dinner to celebrate when he was pulled over by a Gun Barrel City police officer. With several unpaid traffic violations on his record, he and his wife were driven to jail. While there, an officer began questioning Lisa, who became angry, refusing even to give her date of birth or provide any type of identification. Quoting her father's disbelief in what he called "the system," she eventually became so hostile and uncooperative that she, too, was briefly jailed until her mother came to take her home.

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