Between heaven and hell

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

"The next day, after I'd taken care of the tickets, I went out to pick her up," Tarkington says, "and she came out to the gate with the boys and told me she wasn't coming with me. She told me not to worry about her or the boys. That's the last time I saw her."

Their three-year, 10-month marriage, he knew, was over.

Tarkington's mother, Emma, suggests an additional motivation for the Gray family's treatment of her son. "We're Catholics," she says, "and they did everything they could to convince Keith to denounce us and our beliefs." She says that Alicia Gray, wife of John Joe, once told her son, 'You know what you are going to have to do to make things right.'" She was, Keith and his mother agree, talking of his turning away from Catholicism and his parents. Later, in a rambling letter to the judge who would preside over the divorce proceedings, Lisa Tarkington wrote that "God will never let [her husband] see his children again" and that "it is pathetic to be a Catholic."

Lending credence to Emma Tarkington's theory is a hand-painted sign that now hangs on the gate outside the Gray property: "90 Percent of Catholic Priests Are Child Molesters!"

The world in which his children are now being illegally held, Tarkington says, is a volatile mixture of disdain for governmental authority, a staggering arsenal of weapons, and extremist religious beliefs, all orchestrated by his former father-in-law and his twisted devotion to the teachings of the Embassy of Heaven.

One of the relative newcomers in a growing list of strange religious groups around the country, the organization was founded in 1980 by Oregon-based Craig Fleishman. A former computer analyst who now calls himself "Paul Revere," he maintains an elaborate web page (www.embassyofheaven.com), publishes a newsletter, and broadcasts a radio show called "The Knight Rider" on which he rails against government tyranny.

Among the beliefs of the separatist group--which the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog of extremist groups, estimates has 300 to 400 members nationwide--is that the secular government is in direct competition with God. It refuses to acknowledge the government's authority to tax and believes things such as drivers' licenses, Social Security numbers, fingerprinting, automobile registrations, and license plates are all "marks of the beast" as described in the Book of Revelation. Members are issued a "heavenly passport" on the day of their baptism into the faith and are deemed "missionaries traveling under the authority of Jesus Christ." The church's muddled doctrine suggests that each individual member is a "church" and therefore not required to adhere to government laws and regulations. The Embassy of Heaven also claims authority to issue such documents as drivers' licenses, birth certificates, and business licenses.

John Joe Gray and his family have apparently bought into the doctrine on a grand scale.

In 1998, another of Gray's daughters, 26-year-old Racheal, was stopped while driving in nearby Tool when a patrol officer noticed her car had only an Embassy of Heaven license plate. The woman also was driving without insurance, but did present a Heaven-issued driver's license and vehicle registration. Her mother, Alicia Gray, later explained that her daughter was not a part of any earthly "system," therefore not subject to state or federal law.

After fasting and refusing to post bond, Racheal Gray was released a few days later when fed-up officials dropped charges against her.

The Grays, then, were looked upon as little more than local oddities until Christmas Eve 1999.

On that day, Texas state troopers stopped a speeding vehicle near Palestine and ordered two men out of their car. The driver followed orders and immediately handed over a pistol he was carrying in his pocket. On the passenger side, John Joe Gray, wearing a gun in a shoulder holster, refused. When finally the officers forcibly removed him from the car, the 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound Gray began to fight, grabbing at one trooper's weapon, then, during the course of the struggle, bit deeply into the officer's wrist.

Inside the car was a cache of firearms, ranging from high-powered handguns to assault rifles.

Ultimately indicted by an Anderson County grand jury, Gray was freed on bond pending an arraignment hearing and since has remained in hiding, sending out threats of violence against anyone who might trespass on his property. Today, in fact, none of those sequestered on the Gray property venture beyond the padlocked gate. They survive without electricity and, to the best of Tarkington's knowledge, subsist on food that was stored away last year in anticipation of the predicted disasters the year 2000 was to bring. There are, he says, at least 10 adults and six children (under the age of 6)--all members of Gray's family--living in two houses that sit on the property. It is possible, he says, that others supportive of Gray's philosophy have taken up residence.

Bunkers have been dug on the property, reinforced by sandbags, Tarkington says.

Tarkington has taken his pleas for help to the Henderson County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Rangers, FBI, even Child Protective Services, yet has seen no sign of progress on an "investigation" he is assured is under way. The sheriff, yet to serve the arrest warrant on Gray, tells him to be patient. The Rangers say they're doing everything they can. FBI officials admit they are aware of John Joe Gray's history but unless there is a federal warrant to be issued it has no cause to be involved. Child Protective Service officials tell Tarkington he must bring them proof that his children are being abused before they can take action. Even the Tyler-based bonding company liable for the $300,000 bail that Gray forfeited by not making his court appearance refuses to enter the padlocked entryway to what several local residents are now referring to as "the compound."

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