- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

TRINIDAD, Texas A smoldering situation that stirs up memories of the tragedy at the Branch Davidian complex near Waco has many folks on edge in this tiny community about 75 miles southeast of Dallas.

Like Mount Carmel in 1993, when more than 80 Branch Davidians died in a raging fire after a 51-day standoff with federal authorities, the scenario here involves an offshoot church, claims of illegal weapons stockpiled, undelivered felony arrest warrants, even children held unlawfully.

But local officials say they are not prepared to storm the main house, located on a 47-acre wooded homestead, and arrest John Joe Gray, a 51-year-old part-time carpenter and part-time religious guru, and take away two boys said to be held illegally inside.

Mr. Gray was indicted by a grand jury in May for assaulting a state trooper and taking his weapon. He has refused to show up for court hearings on the charges.

Legal custody of the two boys inside his compound, his grandsons, has been awarded to their father, who has desperately tried to get them back.

Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Ron Brownlow said last week he will not serve the arrest warrants on Mr. Gray, or deliver the boys to their father, "until we feel certain nobody will be hurt."

He has reason to be concerned. In a note delivered by an intermediary recently, Mr. Gray warned Henderson County Sheriff H.B. "Slick" Alfred that if he or his men "invaded" the Gray property, the sheriff had better "bring body bags."

Mr. Gray in recent years has adopted the beliefs of the anti-government Embassy of Heaven religion, an Oregon-based sect that does not recognize government authority. Secular government is in direct competition with God, insist the group's leaders. Followers often refuse to get automobile license plates, Social Security cards orbirth certificates, and do not pay income tax or pay attention to court decisions.

"I thought we would be in the midst of another Waco [incident] by Thursday morning," said Harley Summers, a retired farmer from nearby Gun Barrel City. "But I guess somebody backed down. Thank God."

Asked if he was familiar with the Gray property, Mr. Summers abruptly got in his pickup truck and said, "No. No, not me. I wouldn't go within a mile of that place. I'm old, but I'm not crazy."

On Tuesday and Wednesday, rumors were rife that heavily armed federal troops were poised about 20 miles from here, preparing for an onslaught on the Gray home.

Alarmist Internet sites cited "reports" of the forthcoming "invasion."

Some area television stations reported those rumors, although officials denied knowledge of any plan to arrest Mr. Gray in Trinidad, population 1,056.

"I even had a phone call from the county judge," said Deputy Brownlow. "I told him there was nothing planned, that no federal agency had been involved in this situation and that I had no idea where this rumor began."

"We've got a serious situation here with some very serious threats made," Sheriff Alfred said. "The children's safety is of primary concern."

Deputy Brownlow said authorities aren't sure how many people, including children, are inside the compound.

Alex Jones, who calls himself an anti-government journalist and operates a Web site from Austin (www.infowars.com), said he went inside the compound Wednesday night and reported that 10 adults and seven children were present.

Lisa Tarkington, 30, one of Mr. Gray's daughters, took her two small boys to live in the rustic compound last year. Her husband, Keith Tarkington, has since filed for divorce and was awarded custody of their boys after Mrs. Tarkington refused to show up in court.

Mrs. Tarkington subsequently sent a letter to the judge that said: "God will never let him see his children again."

Today, 15 months later, Mr. Tarkington is enraged that authorities have not entered the compound and removed his boys.

"What are they doing?" he asked. "They are endangering my boys. They don't have electricity in there, they must be getting low on food. And I think one could certainly make the case they are being abused, just being around that gun-toting nut group.

"Why doesn't law enforcement do what it is paid to do?"

Last week, after erroneous reports aired about the forthcoming raid, several Texas reporters arrived at the scene and observed supporters who dropped off supplies.

One man, who refused to give his name, delivered several bags of food and another donated a portable electric generator.

As he drove off, he told a woman standing at the front door, gun in hand, "Don't let [them] get you down. You've got friends. Don't let 'em get to the front door, like they did in Waco."

The woman, flanked by other residents who were visibly armed, waved her gun and said, "Don't worry. Ain't nobody getting inside this gate."

Then she said somberly, "We know how to use these. Tell everybody that, so there won't be any surprises."

On the property, a posted sign reads, "Public employees beware. Notice to all public servants. No Trespassing. Survivors will be prosecuted."

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