GLADEWATER — A tangled and long-running dispute over Gregg County land first settled by former slaves has snared three now-homeless veterans whom a ministry is trying to help.
“Yeah, this is a mess,” Desert Storm veteran Bill Johnson said Friday, sitting in a Gladewater motel room that a veterans housing ministry secured for him.
Johnson found himself homeless after he and two fellow vets were ordered by two White Oak police officers to leave a house off George Richey Road they’d lived in for about two months.
It started on Aug. 27 with a visit from a lawyer who invests in local properties appearing at the door and whose company built the house where the veterans were living.
“I was sitting there making breakfast, and he said, ‘What are you doing on my property?’” Johnson said of the lawyer, whose name is not being used because he could not be reached Friday afternoon for comment.
Johnson said the men showed him their lease with Debra Christian, director of a Tyler-based veterans housing effort called Christian Restoration Residential Care Program. Christian has been battling in court for at least a decade over land she says the family owns through its forebear, the former slave Butcher Christian.
Part of her fight has been with parties she said were drilling for oil and gas on the property without her permission and without paying royalties. But that’s another set of tentacles on the octopus.
One day after the lawyer knocked on the door, Johnson said, two White Oak police officers rolled up, in private vehicles but wearing lieutenant and sergeant stripes on their uniforms.
“And they threatened us with criminal trespass, which never happened,” Johnson said. “And they gave us a warning for criminal trespass, but they didn’t give us any paperwork. They were basically threatening to haul my stuff off and said, ‘You need to be out of here in 24 hours.’ ... I’m a disabled vet; I can barely walk. And he expected me, by myself, to have everything out of there in 24 hours?
“And he called (Thursday) and said, ‘I want everything out of there by Monday, or we’re going to confiscate it.’ I’ve had a couple of veterans organizations help to move some of the stuff, but I’ve still got stuff to move. And I don’t have any money for a storage unit.”
At 57, Johnson is the eldest of the three vets who were in the home, on a private road off George Richey Road. It’s not clear where veteran David Woods went after leaving the property, but veteran Jeremy Dasek found work and was treating railroad tracks in West Texas for weeds last week.
Dasek and Johnson are defendants in an eviction lawsuit set for a hearing on Sept. 19 before Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Talyna Carlson. The attorney’s property leasing company is the plaintiff in that action.
All three veterans are named as defendants in an injunction hearing set for 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Gregg County Court at Law No. 2. That suit also is brought by the real estate company, presumably to enjoin the trio from living at the house in question.
The men do not have a lawyer for either lawsuit.
Christian, meanwhile, says she has tax records showing she has paid the annual levy on the property in question every year.
“And I have the tax receipts,” she said. “We’ve been paying the taxes for 154 years.”
She also said she had not been aware the property company had put a house on the land but thought she had a right to move her clients there as long as the house was there.
“It is our land, and they needed a place to stay,” she said. “So, we opened the door and came on in. We’re the taxpayers of record. The tax office shows we paid it. We paid it this year.”
Christian’s statement could not be vetted Friday afternoon because the Gregg County Tax Assessor/Collector’s online search service was taken down for system maintenance. The land in question was part of a sheriff’s sale for unpaid taxes in 2011, but Christian says the root of that claim goes decades back to Gregg County Sheriff Tom Welch who resigned in 1979 amid a corruption investigation.
Johnson, a veteran of both the Army and Navy, served from 1981 to 1995 variously as a troubleshooter aboard the USS Nimitz and as an avionics electronics tech. He has severe-looking psoriasis on both legs, arthritis and heel spurs.
And it looks likely he could be homeless again very soon.
“(Christian) found funding for me to stay a week,” he said. “That’s up on Monday.”