Between heaven and hell

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GUN BARREL CITY--On early East Texas evenings, when the frustration becomes unbearable, Keith Tarkington, a 34-year-old cable installer, takes a solitary drive south into an isolated section of Henderson County. Past Cedar Creek Lake, out Highway 274, then onto a blacktop lane leading to a narrow dirt road that winds along the Trinity River. Finally, he turns onto property owned by his uncle, climbs atop a small hill, and focuses a telescope on a 47-acre plot of oak-canopied land just across Old River Road.

It is a vantage point from which he hopes to catch a glimpse of two young sons he has not seen in 15 months.

There, in bottomlands where members of the Texas Constitutional Militia once gathered for maneuvers and where his gun-carrying father-in-law now lords over family members who follow the oddball beliefs of the Embassy of Heaven Church ("God's Government on Earth"), Tarkington knows that 3-year-old Joe Douglas and 2-year-old Samuel are being held.

"The last time I was with my boys was when my ex-wife brought them out to the road and let me see them for about two minutes," he says. I stood in a ditch and gave them both hugs while my father-in-law leaned against the gate with a rifle slung over his shoulder."

Shortly after that brief, tension-filled meeting in the spring of 1999, Tarkington filed for divorce from his 30-year-old wife, Lisa. She neither appeared in court for the hearings nor was represented by an attorney as the divorce was granted and legal custody of the children awarded to the father. That was last August, but Tarkington still has not seen them.

This is, however, not simply another tired and tragic story of a divorce turned hellish. Rather, it is one of fanatical religious beliefs and militia mindsets. It concerns a gun-toting fanatic who continues to threaten and defy law-enforcement agencies that seem glacially slow to move against those sequestered on the property of a bushy-bearded man named John Joe Gray, 59, a self-proclaimed militia member and anti-government zealot who is wanted on a felony warrant for assaulting a state trooper.

Tarkington wants his children taken from Gray, who he believes has put the boys in harm's way.

Such thoughts would never have entered his mind years earlier.

Keith Tarkington and Lisa Gray met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend and fell in love. In 1995 they married and were living in a small house rented from Lisa's father, then a carpenter who had moved his family here from the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs back in the '70s. Tarkington remembers how his father-in-law seemed to be a bit of a religious extremist at the time but displayed no interest in militia activities.

That, he recalls, would change six or eight months after he and Lisa married. That was when the "brainwashing" began. Not only did John Joe Gray's Embassy of Heaven religious rantings grow in volume, but he also suddenly threw himself aggressively into the activities of the Texas Constitutional Militia, began to dress in fatigues and camouflage clothing, and constantly added to an arsenal of weapons he kept in his home. He started referring to himself as "Colonel Gray" and traveled to the Big Bend area to sign on with the Republic of Texas movement.

And, says Tarkington, Gray began to urge him and his wife to join his religious and paramilitary ranks. "I told him time and time again that I wasn't interested in that stuff and told Lisa to stay away from it. But after a while, she began spending more and more time at her parents' house, and I could see what was happening. Her daddy finally gave her an ultimatum: You're either with us or against us."

If Tarkington had any doubts that his father-in-law was attempting to drive a wedge between him and his wife, they disappeared on a spring morning when a stern-faced Gray appeared at his front door. "I invited him in, and he said, 'What I have to say won't take long. You've been living here for a year now, and I think it is time you found another place.'"

The young couple was told they had until the end of the month to vacate the house. "That gave us less than two weeks to find another place to live," Tarkington recalls. "It just didn't make sense. I'd never been late with the rent; we'd kept the place looking nice. I even told him if he wanted to raise the rent it would be fine. He just kept insisting that we had to get out."

By the end of the month, the young couple had moved into a trailer that Tarkington was able to purchase with his income-tax refund.

"Looking back, I think it was just another of his attempts to either make us come over to his way of thinking or get Lisa to return home," Tarkington says.

Lisa made her decision on the night of her 29th birthday. Tarkington was taking her out to dinner to celebrate when he was pulled over by a Gun Barrel City police officer. With several unpaid traffic violations on his record, he and his wife were driven to jail. While there, an officer began questioning Lisa, who became angry, refusing even to give her date of birth or provide any type of identification. Quoting her father's disbelief in what he called "the system," she eventually became so hostile and uncooperative that she, too, was briefly jailed until her mother came to take her home.

"The next day, after I'd taken care of the tickets, I went out to pick her up," Tarkington says, "and she came out to the gate with the boys and told me she wasn't coming with me. She told me not to worry about her or the boys. That's the last time I saw her."

Their three-year, 10-month marriage, he knew, was over.

Tarkington's mother, Emma, suggests an additional motivation for the Gray family's treatment of her son. "We're Catholics," she says, "and they did everything they could to convince Keith to denounce us and our beliefs." She says that Alicia Gray, wife of John Joe, once told her son, 'You know what you are going to have to do to make things right.'" She was, Keith and his mother agree, talking of his turning away from Catholicism and his parents. Later, in a rambling letter to the judge who would preside over the divorce proceedings, Lisa Tarkington wrote that "God will never let [her husband] see his children again" and that "it is pathetic to be a Catholic."

Lending credence to Emma Tarkington's theory is a hand-painted sign that now hangs on the gate outside the Gray property: "90 Percent of Catholic Priests Are Child Molesters!"

The world in which his children are now being illegally held, Tarkington says, is a volatile mixture of disdain for governmental authority, a staggering arsenal of weapons, and extremist religious beliefs, all orchestrated by his former father-in-law and his twisted devotion to the teachings of the Embassy of Heaven.

One of the relative newcomers in a growing list of strange religious groups around the country, the organization was founded in 1980 by Oregon-based Craig Fleishman. A former computer analyst who now calls himself "Paul Revere," he maintains an elaborate web page (www.embassyofheaven.com), publishes a newsletter, and broadcasts a radio show called "The Knight Rider" on which he rails against government tyranny.

Among the beliefs of the separatist group--which the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog of extremist groups, estimates has 300 to 400 members nationwide--is that the secular government is in direct competition with God. It refuses to acknowledge the government's authority to tax and believes things such as drivers' licenses, Social Security numbers, fingerprinting, automobile registrations, and license plates are all "marks of the beast" as described in the Book of Revelation. Members are issued a "heavenly passport" on the day of their baptism into the faith and are deemed "missionaries traveling under the authority of Jesus Christ." The church's muddled doctrine suggests that each individual member is a "church" and therefore not required to adhere to government laws and regulations. The Embassy of Heaven also claims authority to issue such documents as drivers' licenses, birth certificates, and business licenses.

John Joe Gray and his family have apparently bought into the doctrine on a grand scale.

In 1998, another of Gray's daughters, 26-year-old Racheal, was stopped while driving in nearby Tool when a patrol officer noticed her car had only an Embassy of Heaven license plate. The woman also was driving without insurance, but did present a Heaven-issued driver's license and vehicle registration. Her mother, Alicia Gray, later explained that her daughter was not a part of any earthly "system," therefore not subject to state or federal law.

After fasting and refusing to post bond, Racheal Gray was released a few days later when fed-up officials dropped charges against her.

The Grays, then, were looked upon as little more than local oddities until Christmas Eve 1999.

On that day, Texas state troopers stopped a speeding vehicle near Palestine and ordered two men out of their car. The driver followed orders and immediately handed over a pistol he was carrying in his pocket. On the passenger side, John Joe Gray, wearing a gun in a shoulder holster, refused. When finally the officers forcibly removed him from the car, the 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound Gray began to fight, grabbing at one trooper's weapon, then, during the course of the struggle, bit deeply into the officer's wrist.

Inside the car was a cache of firearms, ranging from high-powered handguns to assault rifles.

Ultimately indicted by an Anderson County grand jury, Gray was freed on bond pending an arraignment hearing and since has remained in hiding, sending out threats of violence against anyone who might trespass on his property. Today, in fact, none of those sequestered on the Gray property venture beyond the padlocked gate. They survive without electricity and, to the best of Tarkington's knowledge, subsist on food that was stored away last year in anticipation of the predicted disasters the year 2000 was to bring. There are, he says, at least 10 adults and six children (under the age of 6)--all members of Gray's family--living in two houses that sit on the property. It is possible, he says, that others supportive of Gray's philosophy have taken up residence.

Bunkers have been dug on the property, reinforced by sandbags, Tarkington says.

Tarkington has taken his pleas for help to the Henderson County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Rangers, FBI, even Child Protective Services, yet has seen no sign of progress on an "investigation" he is assured is under way. The sheriff, yet to serve the arrest warrant on Gray, tells him to be patient. The Rangers say they're doing everything they can. FBI officials admit they are aware of John Joe Gray's history but unless there is a federal warrant to be issued it has no cause to be involved. Child Protective Service officials tell Tarkington he must bring them proof that his children are being abused before they can take action. Even the Tyler-based bonding company liable for the $300,000 bail that Gray forfeited by not making his court appearance refuses to enter the padlocked entryway to what several local residents are now referring to as "the compound."

The only attempt to serve divorce and custody papers to Lisa Tarkington, informing her of the court's order to return the children to their father, came when a sheriff's deputy attached the papers to the gate at the entrance to the Gray property. Letters, mailed to her at a general delivery address by Tarkington's attorney, Martin Bennett, have been returned unopened.

For the frustrated father, then, life has become a Catch-22 nightmare. And while lawyer Bennett empathizes, he cites the tangle of legalities that may have caused his client's case to move at such a slow pace. "Since we've not been able to serve the [divorce and custody ruling] papers," he says, "there is the argument that Lisa Tarkington is not aware that she is officially divorced or that her ex-husband has been granted custody of the children. Therefore, she is not actually committing any crime. Then, there is the simple matter of proving that she and the children are really out there. While it is a logical assumption that they are there, we have no eyewitness who can say they have actually been seen on the property since Keith last visited them over a year ago."

Responds an impatient Keith Tarkington: "They know my kids are out there, but I think they're afraid of another Waco. My ex-father-in-law has threatened to shoot them if they come through the gate."

Recently, he says, his worries have turned to the possibility of his wife and children being somehow secreted away and provided sanctuary by other members of the Embassy of Heaven.

Lending an additional bizarre note to the situation is the fact that while the two Tarkington children are currently listed by both the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Texas Department of Public Safety Missing Persons Clearing House, law officials in both Henderson and Anderson counties admit they know they're on the Gray property.

"Believe me, I can understand the frustration he is feeling," says Henderson County Sheriff Howard Alfred. "All I can say at this time is that we're doing the best we can. This is a very touchy situation, and our primary concern is focused on saving lives. That's our job."

Reluctant to discuss any specific efforts by his office, the former Texas Ranger does admit concern that media attention to the matter might create added complications.

Meanwhile, Keith Tarkington continues the lonely vigil he's kept since last seeing his children. Several months ago, he recalls, he made one of his frequent drive-bys of the Gray property and was confronted by his former father-in-law, who stepped into his path and yelled, "The next time I see you driving down this road, I'm going to shoot your ass." On another occasion, Jonathan (Bubba) Gray, John Joe's oldest son, vaulted the fence and pounded $700 worth of damage into Tarkington's pickup. Then, one night last week as he drove past the gate, a blinding spotlight was flashed on him, presumably by a family member assigned guard duty.

Despite the disappointment he continues to voice about the efforts of law enforcement, it may well be that there has been ongoing activity neither Tarkington nor his attorney has been made aware of. There are, in fact, subtle hints that his dilemma and the danger posed by his former father-in-law have earned a greater priority than he realizes.

"In my opinion," says Gary Thomas, chief investigator for the Anderson County District Attorney's Office, "John Joe Gray is a scumbag, hiding behind children. Nobody in law enforcement fears him or is intimidated by him. But the well-being of the kids living out there is the most important thing we have to consider. The system never seems to move fast enough, but this can't--and won't--go on forever."

A former Anderson County sheriff, Thomas is no stranger to such situations. Long before there was a Waco standoff and the world knew of David Koresh, there was a small encampment of Branch Davidians living in old school buses and plywood boxes near Palestine. Their leader was called Vernon Howell then, long before he changed his name to Koresh. "I remember a father from California coming into my office, saying two of his children were living with Koresh and he desperately wanted them out of there."

It was Thomas who finally entered the Davidian camp, confronted the sect's leader, and ultimately returned the children. "I hope this time things can be resolved just as peacefully."

How that goal might be accomplished, he isn't saying.

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