Between heaven and hell

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

The only attempt to serve divorce and custody papers to Lisa Tarkington, informing her of the court's order to return the children to their father, came when a sheriff's deputy attached the papers to the gate at the entrance to the Gray property. Letters, mailed to her at a general delivery address by Tarkington's attorney, Martin Bennett, have been returned unopened.

For the frustrated father, then, life has become a Catch-22 nightmare. And while lawyer Bennett empathizes, he cites the tangle of legalities that may have caused his client's case to move at such a slow pace. "Since we've not been able to serve the [divorce and custody ruling] papers," he says, "there is the argument that Lisa Tarkington is not aware that she is officially divorced or that her ex-husband has been granted custody of the children. Therefore, she is not actually committing any crime. Then, there is the simple matter of proving that she and the children are really out there. While it is a logical assumption that they are there, we have no eyewitness who can say they have actually been seen on the property since Keith last visited them over a year ago."

Responds an impatient Keith Tarkington: "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."

Recently, he says, his worries have turned to the possibility of his wife and children being somehow secreted away and provided sanctuary by other members of the Embassy of Heaven.

Lending an additional bizarre note to the situation is the fact that while the two Tarkington children are currently listed by both the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Texas Department of Public Safety Missing Persons Clearing House, law officials in both Henderson and Anderson counties admit they know they're on the Gray property.

"Believe me, I can understand the frustration he is feeling," says Henderson County Sheriff Howard Alfred. "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."

Reluctant to discuss any specific efforts by his office, the former Texas Ranger does admit concern that media attention to the matter might create added complications.

Meanwhile, Keith Tarkington continues the lonely vigil he's kept since last seeing his children. Several months ago, he recalls, he made one of his frequent drive-bys of the Gray property and was confronted by his former father-in-law, who stepped into his path and yelled, "The next time I see you driving down this road, I'm going to shoot your ass." On another occasion, Jonathan (Bubba) Gray, John Joe's oldest son, vaulted the fence and pounded $700 worth of damage into Tarkington's pickup. Then, one night last week as he drove past the gate, a blinding spotlight was flashed on him, presumably by a family member assigned guard duty.

Despite the disappointment he continues to voice about the efforts of law enforcement, it may well be that there has been ongoing activity neither Tarkington nor his attorney has been made aware of. There are, in fact, subtle hints that his dilemma and the danger posed by his former father-in-law have earned a greater priority than he realizes.

"In my opinion," says Gary Thomas, chief investigator for the Anderson County District Attorney's Office, "John Joe Gray is a scumbag, hiding behind children. Nobody in law enforcement fears him or is intimidated by him. But the well-being of the kids living out there is the most important thing we have to consider. The system never seems to move fast enough, but this can't--and won't--go on forever."

A former Anderson County sheriff, Thomas is no stranger to such situations. Long before there was a Waco standoff and the world knew of David Koresh, there was a small encampment of Branch Davidians living in old school buses and plywood boxes near Palestine. Their leader was called Vernon Howell then, long before he changed his name to Koresh. "I remember a father from California coming into my office, saying two of his children were living with Koresh and he desperately wanted them out of there."

It was Thomas who finally entered the Davidian camp, confronted the sect's leader, and ultimately returned the children. "I hope this time things can be resolved just as peacefully."

How that goal might be accomplished, he isn't saying.

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