By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
TRINIDAD, Texas--When last we heard from the rebellious John Joe Gray family it was still entrenched on its 47-acre river-bottom farm near here, vowing if local authorities attempted to serve long-standing arrest warrants on its patriarchal leader all hell would break loose.
It has now been more than a year since those threats--"If anyone tries to come in here, they'd better bring plenty of body bags..."--echoed throughout the media world, from the Dallas Observer to The New York Times. Network news crews came bumping along the dirt road paralleling the Gray fence line, and sympathetic anti-government agencies and fringe religious groups arrived, armed and ready to help Gray, his wife, children and grandchildren defend their home. Neighbors and strangers alike, many of them with similar militia mindsets, pulled up to the locked entrance gate and offered up food, clothing and hang-in-there encouragement. Even the entertainment world checked in when Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris volunteered the help of his lawyers to negotiate a settlement between Gray and the authorities before someone got hurt.
Yet the impasse continues. No warrants have been delivered, no threats of violence carried out. The newly elected Henderson County sheriff, Ronnie Brownlow, has opted to follow the guidelines set forth by his predecessor, avoiding all risk of bloodshed and biding his time. The threat of "another Waco" seems to have passed quietly.
Gray, a self-proclaimed officer in the Texas Constitutional Militia, once connected to a religious organization calling itself the Embassy of Heaven and wanted on felony charges that he assaulted an arresting officer and attempted to take his weapon during a December 24, 1999, traffic stop, has become old news.
Which--and this is the sort of speculation for which his defenders have soundly criticized the media--may be the reason that one day last week, a "Statement of Joe Gray" was posted on the Observer's Web site by Jon Roland, founder and president of an Austin-based organization called the Constitution Society (a self-described "private nonprofit organization dedicated to research and public education on the principals of constitutional republican government").
In the "statement," Gray levels a wide spray of allegations, many of which point to a complex and organized conspiracy involving crooked local, state and federal officials determined to make his life miserable. In a rambling discourse, he accuses numerous "judges, sheriffs and other officials" of "illegal activities, mostly involving narcotics." And, Gray claims, they operate under the protection of the FBI, DEA, Texas state troopers and the Texas Rangers.
"After I began inviting militia groups to visit my property for training," he told Roland, "it appears that they were perceived as a threat to expose the illegal operations of officials in this area...this led those officials to come down on our family and try to run us out of the area."
Gray's version of the event that led to his arrest is quite different from the report filed by Department of Public Safety troopers. While it is charged that he attempted to take a gun from one of the arresting officers, Gray told Roland that he was "hit on the side of the head with a pistol, and when I raised my left arm to fend off the attack, he [the officer] started yelling, 'He's trying to reach for my gun.'" That's when he was handcuffed, he says. Later, he notes, one of the officers "put a choke hold on me in a way that caused me to fear for my life." It was only then, he says, that he bit the officer on the arm "in self-defense."
Sheriff Brownlow, after reviewing the statement and its allegations, seemed bemused. "This," he says, "is far-fetched, even for Joe Gray. In fact, as I read it I found myself wondering if he really said the things attributed to him. I know that he knows better. I don't even know how to respond to something like this other than to say it goes to the ridiculous."
The sheriff wonders if the statement, which is written in first-person, was actually authorized by Gray.
Yes, says his wife, Alicia, it was. Standing at the padlocked gateway to the farm, her holstered gun still on her hip, she acknowledges that "He [Roland] came out to interview Joe, and we've read what he wrote." Gray, as has been his pattern since the Observer's first visit last July ("Between Heaven and Hell," July 27), declined to be interviewed.
Things included in her husband's online statement, she says, were told to other journalists but were never printed. Gray, in fact, points out that a reporter-photographer named Jared Judd's efforts to publish some of his allegations in the Gun Barrel City weekly Lakeside News were "suppressed," eventually causing the frustrated journalist to quit his job.
Judd, who has been one of few members of the media allowed onto the Gray property since the standoff began, disagrees. "Everything I ever reported about the Grays was published. And, no, I didn't quit. The fact of the matter is, I was fired."
Responding to Gray's statement, Judd acknowledges that much of it sound familiar. "He would tell me things like that just to provoke a response. But, so far as I am concerned, the facts just aren't there."