America’s longest-running police standoff is over, but nobody could tell it.
“Aw, I don’t even know if he knows he’s not wanted,” Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt said Thursday morning, as The New York Times reported that John Joe Gray, holed up 15 years in a fenced compound near Gun Barrel City, is no longer sought for trial on a felony assault charge.
A so-called sovereign citizen answering only to his faith, Gray, 66, and his family have been recurring international media stars since January 2000, when Gray hid out to avoid trial on an accusation of biting a state trooper.
After deadly 1990s confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Mount Carmel near Waco, by 2000, law officers were no longer so quick to use force to end armed standoffs.
Neither Henderson County sheriffs nor state agencies nor the Tyler-based bail bond agency wanted to risk losing a trooper or endangering children at the Old River Road property.
“Best we can determine, he never comes or goes,” Nutt said, saying deputies have not kept regular surveillance for years.
“He’s stayed locked up there. He’s a free man now, but he still hasn’t gone anywhere.”
An outgoing district attorney in neighboring Anderson County withdrew the warrant there for Gray in December 2014, The Times reported.
Texas Department of Public Safety officials seemed taken by surprise at the news Thursday, tyhen sent a statement Friday declining comment.
Troopers and local law officers in nearby towns such as Gun Barrel City and Tool had occasional encounters with Gray or family members in the late 1990s, when militia groups trained on the property and Gray’s messages grew hostile.
On Christmas Eve 1999, with President Bill Clinton entering the final year of his presidency and anti-government activity in East Texas at a height, Gray was riding with a fellow gun hobbyist and refused to get out of the car when troopers stopped them in Anderson County near Tennessee Colony.
Not long after he was released on bond, the family began life without electricity and utilities, locked away at first with only shortwave radio contact from the outside world.
Nutt, a former Texas Ranger who saw the 51-day Branch Davidian siege at Mount Carmel, said there is a lesson for Oregon officers now dealing with a standoff, notably as another Democratic president nears the last year of his term.
“Our priority was to protect life and property,” Nutt said by phone from Athens.
“We didn’t want to be makin’ any foolish moves, or goin’ out and gettin’ any people killed, just to get ol’ John Joe Gray. He’s been self-imprisoned. He has never caused anybody else any more problems.”
I’d call that smart, cost-effective risk management with limited state and county resources.
But I’d also worry about the next John Joe Gray.