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.
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.
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"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."