They have spent the last 14 years living in isolation on a 47-acre compound since granddad, John Joe, skipped bail and threatened to kill any law-enforcement officer who dared step onto his land.
Reaching into a cage, 16-year-old Bubba Gale grabs a pet chicken. But he has no intention of playing with it. Grinning, he lays it on to a tree stump and deftly chops off the animal’s head with his axe.
“This is how we survive,” says Bubba’s dad Jonathan with a shrug as his son throws the headless, flapping body into a cage and gives its head to the pet dogs.
“The children were raised up killing animals to eat. They can pet it one minute, and can cut its head off the next.
“This is the way our forefathers used to do things. They couldn’t run to the store and get no chicken.”
Their armed 47-acre compound in the aptly-named city of Gun Barrel, Texas, is truly a throwback to simpler times.
There is no electricity or running water and everything they eat is grown or reared on their land.
No refrigeration means surplus food has to be preserved. Bubba’s chicken is quickly salted and stored in glass jars so it will last for months.
Everyone but the youngest grandchild carries a gun at all times. The leather holsters are incongruous against their grubby home-made clothes but patriarch John Joe, 66, takes great pleasure in how his family has been raised.
“God prepared us for it,” he says of the family’s lifestyle. “We look at this place like its our ark. The grandchildren all learn how to survive too.”
His son Jonathan adds: “We never done without. We always had food. Course, it wasn’t what we liked but then, we couldn’t run up to Dairy Queen and get our burger and fries.”
Their lives may be straightforward now, but how they ended up here is anything but. In 1999 John Joe, a gun enthusiast, was pulled over by state troopers for speeding.
They found several high-powered rifles in his vehicle, but more worryingly were pieces of paper detailing plans to blow up roads throughout Texas.
Ordered out of the van, John Joe bit the arresting officer and tried to steal his gun.
He recalls: “They pulled a gun on me and the other cop said, ‘If you don’t go down, I’m gonna blow your head off’. Next thing I knew, his wrist came in my mouth and I just bit down on him.”
He was charged with assault and attempting to take an officer’s gun but instead of attending court in May 2000 he skipped bail. His main issue was that he might be forced to surrender his guns.
“If you don’t have a gun, you have nothing,” explains his son Jonathan. “Nothing to protect your family or your livestock. We’re not giving up our guns.”
So John Joe fled to the compound, taking his family with him – wife Alicia, their daughters Elizabeth and Ruth, Jonathan and his pregnant wife Cassie plus three children, Melissa, 18, Jessica,17, and Bubba. Their youngest daughter Alicia, now 13, was born on the compound.
To deter raids by the law John Joe sent a chilling letter saying, “If you come after us, just bring extra body bags”.
But the authorities in Texas didn’t want a repeat of the Waco seige of 1993, when 73 members of the Branch Davidian religious cult, including 21 children, were killed in a fire after a two-month armed stand-off with state and federal officers.
John Joe’s daughter Elizabeth says: “We expected them to come in on us and raid us and we would die fighting. We never knew it would go on 15 years.”
Ray Knutt, the sheriff of Gun Barrel, explains the law’s inaction this way: “If we go out to try and get Joe Gray, and the shooting starts, children may get hurt.
“We could end up having to kill innocent bystanders – the kids, or the wife – and we could also get some of our people killed.”
Yet despite the lack of plans to invade, the family remains prepared – and paranoid – in case they do. “We’re ready at any given time, for anything” says Elizabeth.
But the family did let a documentary crew in to film them. America’s Fugitive Family, which airs tonight on Channel 4, takes us beyond the booby-trapped perimeter fence decorated with hand-painted signs warning off intruders.
The most chilling has a noose hanging from it and reads: “Solution to tyranny”.
Indeed, the family view themselves as exiled freedom fighters rather than criminals on the run. John Joe says: “We stand up for what’s right. Good against evil. Eventually, evil has to be taken out.”
But while he, his wife and his grown-up children chose this life for themselves, his grandchildren have had it forced upon them.
Their lives are made up of basic games, chores and prayer. Bubba listens to Christian and country music through a radio powered by a plough he pushes through fields, wittily named “The Walkman”. Not used to conversation with outsiders, their language skills are limited. With dad Jonathan never far away, they also seem scared of giving the wrong answer.
The eldest, Melissa, dreams of visiting a shopping mall again one day and says she’d buy herself “a big fancy dress”. Bubba wishes he had more friends, while Alicia, who has never left the compound in all her 13 years, says: “I kinda just wanna go out and see it. And then come back.”
They’re not even allowed out to school, for the ludicrous reason that Grandma Alicia explains: “There’s no way I wanna see my grandchildren in the public school system. All they’re being taught – let me put this as nicely as I can – is how to be a homo. It’s not right.”
Instead, their mum Cassie has taken on the role of teacher. But when Bubba gives 747 as his answer to 164 plus 10, it’s not her teaching that’s blamed, oh no. Instead he’s deemed “stubborn” and in need of a beating.
Punishment is another part of their lives that seems stuck in the Dark Ages. While Jonathan acknowledges that “you’re not supposed to leave bruises on a kid”, he believes it is the only way to gain respect.
“They will respect you a lot more than if you let them run free doing whatever they want to do,” he says.
When Elizabeth accidentally set a van alight “smoking when I weren’t supposed to”, she was forced to sleep outside in the winter snow for two months.
But as the 15th anniversary of their self-imposed exile approaches, what will become of this family? The younger members can’t help thinking about what they are missing out on. Elizabeth and Ruth would both like husbands, but they’re never allowed out to meet anyone.
Instead they spend hours chatting to men, some as far away as Australia, on the family’s CB radio.
“Peter’s a pretty cool guy,” Elizabeth says of one of her potential suitors. “He’d like to come to America but he’s too scared to fly. You would have to live this life to understand it.” Ruth adds: “Someone godly, who could live this life. We haven’t met him yet.”
Both John Joe and Jonathan claim those old enough can leave any time they want. But when they’re told that if they do they could be arrested, questioned, and even tortured by the authorities, it’s little wonder none have made a break for it.
John Joe believes he’s beaten the system but District Attorney, Doug Lowe, who would prosecute Gray if he ever got to court, disagrees.
“I cannot believe that somebody’s actually capable of living off the grid for that period of time. I’m not sure I could. The interesting thing is, he’s been under arrest longer than the maximum sentence I could’ve given him.”
Who the victor is in this bizarre saga remains to be seen. But the losers are undoubtedly the children.
America’s Fugitive Family is on Channel 4 at 10pm
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