By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
SEVEN POINTS--On a late morning last week, as the cool Texas air was sweetened by overnight rains and the sun sparkled on the surface of the nearby Cedar Creek Lake, 34-year-old Keith Tarkington stood in the parking lot of the local Dairy Queen, pulled on his straw hat, and declared it time to go to work.
But not to the $12-an-hour job he once had as a traveling cable installer. That was before his life was turned into a dark maze of frustration, before he felt fortunate if he could manage four hours sleep each night, before he felt the need to never be too far from home.
A short distance away, at Mabank Elementary, he now serves as the school's custodian, welcomed each day by the warm chorus of children's voices. "It's nice to be around kids," he says. After a somber pause, he adds, "I only wish they were my own."
Tarkington's ongoing plight has, in recent months, been chronicled internationally, from the Dallas Observer ("Between Heaven and Hell," July 27; "Bunker Mentality," August 24) to The New York Times, and The Washington Post to The Times of London. Reporters from wire services and producers from 20/20 have found their way down dusty Henderson County roads in an effort to make sense of the nightmare the young father is living.
He last saw sons Joe Douglas, 4, and Samuel, 3, in April 1999, standing in a weedy barrow ditch near the entrance to the rural property of his former father-in-law, carpenter and former militia activist John Joe Gray. While Tarkington hugged them and was allowed to speak to them briefly, Gray stood nearby, a rifle over his shoulder. Even though a divorce court judge has awarded Tarkington custody of the children, they remain with their mother Lisa, 30, who was last seen sequestered with her heavily armed family on a 47-acre plot of land on the banks of the Trinity River. There, the 51-year-old Gray refuses to respond to a warrant for his arrest on felony charges of assaulting a state trooper in nearby Anderson County last Christmas Eve. He also has warned that if authorities attempt to raid his residence, they had "better bring lots of body bags."
Beyond the padlocked gate, hiding behind sandbagged bunkers and locked into a tiny world with few modern conveniences, are 10 adult members of the Gray family and seven children, ranging in age from 7 years to 6 months. All follow the dictates of Gray and his wife, Alicia, who told the Observer during an August visit, "We're doing what we believe in and what we know God would have us do. If it means our death, none of us is afraid to die."
Local law enforcement officials are wary of such doomsday rhetoric and the Grays' anti-government leanings, off-kilter religious beliefs, and history of militia activity. They have trodden lightly, constantly reminded of the tragic events that visited Waco and the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. Thus, as the months slowly pass, authorities have served neither the warrant for Gray's arrest nor the custody papers that demand Lisa Gray Tarkington hand her children over to their father.
And the strain is beginning to show on Tarkington. "I make it one day at a time," he says. "I haven't seen my kids for half their lives, and Joe Gray gets to see them any time he wants. He's the one who tucks them into bed at night. That's not justice."
Keith Tarkington recites a litany of what he terms frustrating and non-productive conversations with the local sheriff, the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and Texas Child Protective Services, all of whom only advise that he remain patient. Letters to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison have been answered but have provided no real help. "I understand that you would like me to intervene, but individual child custody case are legal matters that must be resolved through the judicial system," Bush responded.
Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Ronny Brownlow is quick to admit sympathy for Tarkington's plight but adds that he and fellow law enforcement officials are focusing on a non-violent resolution to the matter and have attached no timetable. "All I can say is we're doing a lot more than we're at liberty to discuss," he says. Brownlow, who has been campaigning for the position of sheriff, adds, "I've felt all along that this could be resolved peacefully."
Meanwhile, Tarkington's disillusionment has been heightened by what he perceives as a growing sympathy for those who have his children. During the 10-month standoff, militia sympathizers have traveled down Old River Road to stand sentry over the Gray property and offer support. People regularly drive by and deliver food, clothing, and encouragement. Members of the media now seem more interested in the lifestyle and skewed philosophy of John Joe Gray than Tarkington's dilemma. "The whole thing has turned into a circus," he says.
And now even the celebrities have weighed in. In mid-October, actor Chuck Norris, star of CBS' Walker, Texas Ranger, visited the Gray homestead to offer help in resolving the standoff. Approached by friend John Cullins, a Collin County deputy constable, to intercede in the situation, Norris traveled to Henderson County by helicopter. For a couple of hours he visited with the Grays, posed for photographs with family members, and offered free legal assistance.