By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Norris, on the campaign trail for Republican presidential candidate Bush, could not be reached by the Observer, but his publicist provided the following written statement from the actor:
"A week ago, I was asked by Deputy Constable John Cullins to assist him in his efforts to peacefully resolve the situation with John Joe Gray and his family. After alerting representatives of the FBI as well as state law enforcement officials of this request, they also agreed that my involvement might help ease tensions and create new channels of communication in this 10-month standoff.
"I then met with Mr. Gray and his family on their farm. During the course of our meeting, it became clear to me that the lack of proper legal representation for the family had been a major factor in creating the stalemate. I offered to provide the family with representation at no cost to them, to which they agreed. I'm pleased to report that, at present, significant progress has been made in resolving the case and my attorneys are continuing to work closely with local and state officials to bring it to a peaceful and equitable solution in the very near future."
A Norris publicist acknowledged that the film and television star had been unaware of the ongoing custody matter when he agreed to meet with the Grays.
"I think it's pretty sad to wake up one morning and learn that Chuck Norris had helicoptered in to visit Joe Gray and offered to help him out when I'm getting no support from anybody," Tarkington says.
When he learned the 60-year-old actor would appear in nearby Athens for a political rally for U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions and state Senate hopeful Todd Staples last week, Tarkington saw an opportunity to make his situation known to Norris. He got only as close as the door of the convention center. "My lawyer was there and wouldn't let me go in," he says. "He told me if I made a scene it might mess up everything that's being done."
No doubt, he would not have liked what Norris had to say to Cedar Creek Pilot reporter Jayson Larson. Following the rally, Norris told the journalist that he didn't feel Gray should serve jail time for the alleged assault of the state trooper. "He served 15 days in jail without any representation," Norris said, "and so the thing is, I think he's paid a big enough price for what's happened. He's never been convicted of anything before and his wife was a schoolteacher. So let these folks get back on with their lives. They've been out there 10 months with no electricity, no power, nothing.
"I think now, if [authorities] will just say, 'OK, let's move on. Yeah, Joe, you were a good, constructive part of our community. You were working and supporting a family and everything was going fine until this situation came up. Let's get back to that and let everyone have a happy ending to this because that's the way it should be.'"
Norris' attorney, Matt Anthony of the Irving firm of Brewer, Brewer, Anthony & Middlebrook, says he has spoken with Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe about the charges against Gray. "We are engaging in conversations and hopefully we'll come out with a satisfactory resolution," he says.
The skepticism Tarkington voices, however, seems well founded. During the course of the standoff, others have attempted the role of "negotiator" for the Grays without noticeable success. First, there was high-profile Austin radio host Alex Jones, who after a visit came away with the observation that "Those people are not coming out. If police move in there, people are going to die." Then, Waxahachie journalist-photographer John Parsons, a longtime friend of the Grays, volunteered to serve as a go-between but apparently made no headway. Later, Michael Treis, pastor of the Yahshusa Messiah Seventh-Day Ministry in Alexandria, Louisiana, traveled to the Grays' home with his family and stayed for several weeks. Interviewed by a 20-20 reporter during his stay, he noted that "It's pretty bad when a pastor has to strap on a gun and protect a family from an attack like Waco." He and his family have since returned to Louisiana. And, for a time, former Malakoff police Chief Ed Miers tried mediating. He termed the situation "volatile" before stepping aside.
"All these so-called negotiators keep blowing their own horns, but nobody's gotten my kids back," Tarkington says.
So he continues to wait, trying to maintain patience that has grown threadbare. "About a month ago," he says, "Deputy Brownlow told me that I'd have my kids back within 90 days." Now, he says, no one is even sure the boys and their mother are still on the Gray property.
"One of their neighbors told me a while back that they heard they were now up in Oklahoma somewhere, living with some in-laws. And there are rumors that church over in Louisiana is hiding them out," he says. Others have said the children remain on the Gray property, healthy and happy. "I don't know what to think," Tarkington says.
"Everyone keeps telling me to be patient. I guess I'll have to."