15-year East Texas standoff ends without a bang

John Joe Gray stands at the gate of the family’s compound in Henderson County on Wednesday, May 18, 2011.
John Joe Gray stands at the gate of the family’s compound in Henderson County on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. Star-Telegram archives

How long can the Oregon standoff last? If the one that dragged on in this rural East Texas town is any example, the answer is at least a decade, and perhaps much longer.

In a wooded 47-acre compound on the Trinity River about an hour southeast of Dallas, John Joe Gray, 66, quietly carried out what some call the longest standoff in America — a few days shy of 15 years. It officially ended in 2014 when a district attorney dropped charges but continued nonetheless because Gray and many law enforcement officials appeared to be unaware that the charges had been dropped until a reporter told them this week.

Gray, a carpenter linked to anti-government militia groups, was charged with assaulting a state trooper after a December 1999 traffic stop and was jailed, but he was released on bond in January 2000. He never showed up to court, returning instead to his property, where he and his relatives armed themselves and patrolled the barbed-wire fences.

In a letter, he warned local officials that if they wanted to come get him, they needed to “bring body bags.”

The authorities heeded his warning. For more than a decade, Gray was a fugitive hiding in plain sight, never leaving the compound even after the power was cut off and living off the grid there with his wife and an extended family that includes several children. In Texas, a law-and-order state that conducts an annual misdemeanor manhunt called the Great Texas Warrant Roundup, Gray’s standoff was unprecedented, yet it unfolded for the most part without incident.

Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt monitored Gray’s property over the years but left him alone. Gray’s supporters dropped off food and supplies. Reporters pulled up to the main gate. Early in the standoff, Gray even got a visit from the actor Chuck Norris. But there were no major confrontations with law enforcement.

“My nature is to want to go out there and get him every day I’ve been in office, but then you got to start weighing the lives that might be lost over this,” said Nutt, a former Texas Ranger who in February 1993 was dispatched to Waco, where a federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound led to a standoff that left 86 people dead.

Gray’s standoff was on private, not public, land. But as armed protesters in Oregon continue to occupy a federal wildlife refuge and the authorities take a cautious response, Gray’s case illustrates how long an anti-government standoff can last when officials choose to wait out the other side. And it provides one other lesson: Long-running standoffs can drag on for so many years that both sides can fail to recognize when the end has come.

Gray’s standoff is technically over. It ended in December 2014, when Douglas E. Lowe, at the time the district attorney in nearby Anderson County, dismissed the felony assault charge against Gray before leaving office.

“I didn’t do that to concede victory to that guy,” Lowe said. “It had been going on for 15 years, and somebody just had to make a decision that it was time to say it’s over.”

Yet few people were aware that the charge had been dismissed, including Nutt. Informed of the dismissal, he promptly called the district attorney’s office. After confirming the dismissal, he hung up the phone in his office in nearby Athens and expressed both surprise and relief.

Gray’s standoff had lasted through the administrations of four sheriffs.

“The decision not to go in feels more like the right decision now,” the sheriff said. “He actually could walk out tomorrow and be a free man. We ain’t got nothing to arrest him for. He’s no longer a fugitive.”

Gray owes Henderson County for unpaid taxes and was involved in a child custody dispute between his daughter and his former son-in-law, but the sheriff said none of those issues are criminal cases.

Still, out on Old River Road at the compound, there was no sign that anything was over.

On Tuesday, Gray’s entrance gate was a clutter of religious and anti-government messages and warnings to keep out. One wooden sign on a tree said, “Howdy Now Git.” A hangman’s noose dangled from a tree branch, a sign beneath it reading “Solution to Tyranny.”

Beneath bare branches, laundry dried in the chilly morning air on clotheslines outside a trailer. Skinny horses reared their heads and dogs barked. There were beat-up cars, outhouses and donkeys visible from the fence line.

A loud bell tolled — a signal of some sort to those in the compound —and a few men and women walked toward the gate. Gray was among them. He had a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and eyeglasses, and he wore dirty jeans, a brown leather jacket, a safari-style hat and a long holstered pistol at his left hip. He resembled an elderly, scruffy Indiana Jones.

He stopped far from the gate.

A woman approached, and she was asked to relay an interview request to Gray. He declined. A young man in a cowboy hat who was part of the group was told about the charge being dropped, but he waved his hand dismissively and walked away.

On Wednesday, the same woman returned to the gate, this time with a rifle over her shoulder. A man with her in camouflage pants was also armed. They were told of the sheriff’s comments that Gray was no longer a fugitive.

“We can’t believe anything they say, and we can’t believe anything y’all reporters say,” she said.

The standoff made some of those who live and work near Gray’s compound uneasy. Joe Tucker, 61, pastor of the Gateway Assembly of God church a few miles away, recalled the day he went for a drive on Old River Road looking for a place to fish.

“I started seeing these guys with guns and stuff in the woods, and they was all watching me,” Tucker said. “I kept driving. When I saw it, I thought of Waco.”

Few had put more pressure on the authorities to enter the compound than Keith Tarkington, 49, Gray’s former son-in-law. A court order granted Tarkington custody of his two children, but he believes that his sons and ex-wife have been living in the compound. He tried but failed to persuade officials to enforce the court order.

His sons are now 18 and 19, and he believes they have been sequestered with Gray since they were infants.

“The law’s letting him get away,” Tarkington said. “They always holler, ‘We don’t want no one to get hurt.’ I haven’t seen my kids in 15 years. You tell me who’s getting hurt.”

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