Bunker Mentality

TRINIDAD--Alicia Gray, a pistol strapped to her right hip and extra ammunition in place around her thin waist, squinted into the blistering noonday sun and made her point with neither histrionics nor anger. Leaning against a padlocked gate bearing signs warning trespassers on her family's property to beware, she said that the media--including the Dallas Observer ("Between Heaven and Hell," July 27)--have been unjustly "demonizing" her family in reports about the standoff between her husband and authorities."All we ask," she says as a shiny black Labrador retriever ambles from a tree line, which hides the two-story Gray home from passersby, and sits at her feet, "is for people to leave us alone and let us live our lives."A seemingly intelligent woman who home-schooled six children and served as a midwife to some of her grandchildren, she knows that isn't likely to happen.

Her husband of 32 years, 51-year-old John Joe Gray--carpenter, self-appointed militia officer, and believer in the anti-government rhetoric of the Oregon-based Embassy of Heaven Church--is wanted on a felony warrant accusing him of assaulting a state trooper near Palestine on Christmas Eve. One of her daughters, Lisa Gray Tarkington, still has possession of two small children whom the courts ordered turned over to their father 15 months ago. Authorities in Henderson County and adjacent Anderson County as well as the Texas Rangers have made it clear that Gray's stubborn insistence that neither he nor his family are accountable to state laws will not make his legal problems go away.

It is not, then, a question of whether Gray will be taken into custody but rather when, and just how the feat might be accomplished without a nightmarish reminder of the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco.

John Joe Gray, who last week declined to speak with the Observer, already has sent a written message to authorities, stating that in the event law enforcement officers decide to storm his 47-acre plot on the bank of the Trinity River they should "bring a lot of body bags."Athens-based Texas Ranger Steve Foster acknowledges that the situation has the potential to "turn into another Waco...and we don't want to get into that." It is that, says Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe, and the safety of the children living on the Gray property that has authorities "walking on egg shells."

"We're in a very serious situation here," acknowledges Henderson County Sheriff Howard "Slick" Alfred. "The children's safety is of primary concern."

Alicia Gray says her family's fate "is in God's hands.""[John Joe] is not coming out," she says. "If it means our death...none of us is afraid to die. We're doing what we believe in and what we know God would have us do." With that, she smiles. "I know that is hard for others to understand."That's particularly true when the safety of seven children, ranging in age from 7 years to 3 months, is the foremost issue. "God gave us the children," she says. "They are not the state's children. We are a family, and the decisions are made by the parents, not the children."

Alicia Gray will not confirm that her daughter Lisa is presently on the property but insists her daughter is not in violation of any law since "she's never been officially served with any papers" relative to her divorce from Keith Tarkington or the custody ruling regarding her children. Gray does, however, acknowledge that such papers were left attached to the gate some time ago.

What happened to them? Gray shrugs. "All I know is Lisa never saw them."

And how are the youngsters, including 4-year-old Joe Douglas and 2 1/2-year-old Samuel, whom their father has not seen since the courts awarded him custody? "The kids are great," their grandmother insists.

Self-described Waxahachie freelance journalist and photographer John Parsons, a long-time friend of the Gray family and one of only a few people who have been allowed beyond the locked gate in recent days, vouches for Alicia Gray's observation. "I've seen the children," he says, "and they seem quite happy and not under any stress that I could detect."

Still, in recent days, the tension along Old River Road leading to the Gray farm has grown. Authorities have, according to Mrs. Gray, established surveillance cameras along a tree-lined ridge a half mile from the gate where she stands. Reconnaissance helicopters have circled overhead. Local police cars drive past regularly. Last week, in fact, a Tyler television reporter spread rumors of a dawn raid, complete with armored vehicles, planned by a multi-agency task force. And with such talk, the media came running--from Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas. It is the television crews, Gray says, that she detests. "They are," she spits, "like vultures."

A Dallas cameraman, stationed outside the Gray property last week, said he was told by an armed member of the family, "If you want to keep that camera, you'd better turn it off."

In an ironic twist, it is the growing media attention that has rallied support and concern for the Grays, who communicate with the outside world via shortwave radio. "The support has been overwhelming," Gray says. "What we're hearing, over and over again, is that we have the right to stand up for our rights." Strangers have stopped at their gate to express concern and drop off food and clothing. And last week two men in camouflage arrived to begin patrolling the fence line of the property.

Still, even some of the Grays' most dedicated supporters are concerned that the end result of his refusal to acknowledge the law might eventually lead to armed confrontation. Austin's anti-government radio host Alex Jones, who has interviewed John Joe Gray numerous times over the years, drove to Henderson County one night last week in an effort to persuade Gray to end the stand-off peacefully. His mission failed.

"Those people are not coming out," he later told his listeners. "If the police move in there, people are going to die. It's going to be a bloodbath on both sides. The cops are smart not to go onto that property."

Jones told of seeing sandbags piled against the Gray house and of a cellar-like bunker that had been dug to house the children in the event of a shootout. A hand-painted sign, reading "children," has been placed at the bunker's entrance.

Parsons, who also visited the Grays last week, sympathizes with their plight, but has urged that some manner of negotiation be attempted. While he admits that he has thus far had no luck in convincing Gray even to consider such a possibility, Parsons says, "I think something can be done. These people have a very basic Christian belief, and right now they feel they're placed into a position that offers no room for compromise. They absolutely will not compromise their beliefs. The whole family feels this way."

Parsons says he is probably the only person the Grays trust. "They may not agree with everything I have to say, but they will listen to me," he says. He says he stands ready to serve as the negotiator on the Grays' behalf and would "entertain a call from law enforcement."

Does Alicia Gray feel that a negotiated settlement is possible? "You don't deal with the devil," she says.

And with that she turned to join several of her heavily armed children waiting in a nearby Jeep. They headed back down a sandy loam road, away from the outside world they wholeheartedly distrust. In the dust, the dog, oblivious to the tense world in which it now lives, happily trotted behind.