An armed Texas family resists the courts

New York Times / August 25, 2000
By Rosse E. Milloy

Trinidad, Tex., Aug. 24 -- With a revolver and a bowie knife strapped to his hip and a semiautomatic rifle resting next to him on a barbed wire fence, Jonathon Gray pondered the question: Just what would happen if law enforcement officers tried to enter his father's 47-acre homestead?

"I can tell you one thing," he said. "They ain't coming in."

The 28-year-old Mr. Gray stood guard today with two of his brothers, who were also armed, at the locked gate of their family's property on the Trinity River just north of here, some 60 miles southeast of Dallas. Seeking shade from a grove of hickory trees in blistering summer heat, they wondered just which day the authorities would come to arrest their father.

For more than 15 months, Mr. Gray and his father, mother and five adult siblings have defied a court order to turn over the 2- and 4-year-old sons of his sister Lisa, who lost custody of them to her former husband by default when she failed to appear at a hearing in divorce court. Mr. Gray's father, John Joe Gray, 51, is also wanted by local officials for failing to show up in court to face charges that he assaulted a police officer in nearby Anderson County last December.

The family, believed to be heavily armed, has resolved not to participate in court proceedings or any other government activities, because, Mr. Gray said, its religious and political beliefs do not permit doing so.

"The secular courts don't have any authority over us," he said. "We go by the Bible and the Constitution, and I don't see anything in either one about child custody cases. We don't want anyone to get hurt, but we're not giving up them kids."

The local authorities are proceeding with caution.

Ronnie Brownlow, chief deputy for the Henderson County Sheriff's Department, said: "We're in no hurry to make a move. The last thing we want is for someone to get hurt."

Mr. Brownlow said that because of John Joe Gray's past associations with right-wing groups, including the secessionist Republic of Texas, which engaged in a standoff with law-enforcement officers three years ago, the authorities here had informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the case.

Jonathon Gray said the family belonged to the Sabbatarian sect, a derivative of the Seventh-day Adventists that strictly interprets the Bible.

The family patriarch refused to talk with reporters today, but last weekend he told The San Antonio Express-News that he did not intend to surrender the children "as long as God allows us to survive."

"I am more afraid of God than of them," he said of the authorities.

The elder Mr. Gray, who has lived on his spread for 16 years, is known to his neighbors as a quiet man with a disquieting hobby: for years, he tried to recruit townspeople to become members of a militia group.

"He used to come in here all dressed up in those military outfits and camouflage gear, trying to get people to join up with him," said Susan Stansfield, a secretary at the city hall in Trinidad.

The Gray family homestead is nestled in thickly forested hills, more than a mile from the closest neighbors. Visitors have said it is fortified with sandbagged shooting positions, trenches and an underground bunker built of concrete and wood. The Grays have been without electricity for nearly six months because they did not pay the utility bills, said Jonathon Gray, who, like his father, has been unable to work at his trade as a carpenter because of the need he feels to remain holed up.

Fence lines and trees carry hand-lettered signs like "Disobedience to Tyranny Is Obedience to God," "90% of Catholic Priests Are Child Molesters" and "We Are Militia and Will Live Free or Die."

Asked today whether he or his father was a member of a militia group, Jonathon Gray only smiled and said, "No comment."

But last weekend, by the account of both Mr. Gray and the local press, members of various militia groups as well as religious fundamentalists -- more than two dozen people in all -- visited the family to offer support, many bringing food and other supplies.

Even today, as Mr. Gray and his brothers stood watch, a neighbor who would give her name only as Punky stopped on the dirt road running alongside their property and told him: "You keep them out of there. Don't let them in. If you need anything, give us a call."

"I wouldn't let them take my grandchildren either," she said.

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