Read more" />

Big Trouble in Little Loving County, Texas

MENTONE, Texas — In America’s least populated county, the rusting ruins of homes, oil drilling operations and an previous fuel station interrupt the sun-blanched panorama. A hand-painted wooden signal nonetheless guarantees good meals at “Chuck’s Wagon” to drivers alongside State Highway 302, although the proprietor died months in the past and the wagon is gone.

Other than the brick courthouse, the comfort retailer filled with off-shift oil-field employees and the lone sit-down restaurant the place you’re liable to see the sheriff at lunch, every thing else that the county’s 57 recorded residents would possibly want is a methods away. No faculty. No church. No grocery retailer.

However whereas it may appear quiet, all has not been nicely in Loving County. The primary signal of the brewing battle got here final spring with the killing of 5 cows, shot to dying and left within the dry grime.

That introduced a particular ranger — a so-called cow cop — to city. He rapidly started to see different issues awry.

He opened an investigation into doable thefts of stray cattle by the highest native chief, the county decide. Then it emerged that the complaints about cattle theft might need grown out of a deeper downside: a wrestle for political management. Individuals informed the cow cop that some “residents” who referred to as the county residence and voted there truly lived some other place more often than not. Election fraud, in different phrases.

Quickly, it could look like everybody within the county was being arrested.

First, the decide, Skeet Jones, was charged together with three of his ranch palms with participating in an organized crime ring geared toward stealing cattle.

Days later, 4 others near the decide, together with one in all his sons, had been arrested once they confirmed up for jury obligation. The justice of the peace stated they’d improperly claimed to be eligible jurors when they didn’t, in actual fact, reside in Loving County.

“It sounds very far-fetched,” stated Brian Carney, a lawyer from Midland representing one of many ranch palms who has been charged. “If somebody had been to let you know this story, you’d be like, come on, is that some form of novel? Is that one thing that actually occurs?”

Now, as 100-degree temperatures bake the terrain, the tiny county has been engulfed in an intensely private political wrestle, one which raises not solely questions in regards to the right strategy to wrangle wayward cattle, but additionally weightier concerns of the definition of residency, the character of residence and who has a proper to vote the place in Texas.

For some in Loving County, the serial arrests offered a cautionary instance of how legislation enforcement in a distant nook of rural America can be utilized to attain political ends. For others, the arrests appeared like a needed step to rein in county leaders who many believed had been skirting the foundations.

The depth of animosity in addition to the interconnectedness of virtually everybody concerned turned obvious when the sheriff briefly barred one of many arrested ranch palms — a former deputy who has talked of working in opposition to the sheriff — from getting into the county constructing that homes the sheriff’s workplace, saying he would cost him with trespassing if he set foot inside.

The one downside: That specific ranch hand can also be the county’s part-time custodian. A pair days after the warning, the sheriff despatched an e-mail to county officers complaining that no person was taking out his trash.

Contained in the county courthouse in Mentone, outstanding figures in two competing political factions occupy workplaces at both finish of a brief hallway: the county decide, Mr. Jones, 71, on one finish, and on the opposite, his nephew, Brandon Jones, the county constable.

At challenge is management over what would possibly look like mundane native authorities issues — what number of deputies the constable will get, who serves on the appraisal board — however they’ve grow to be extra contentious in recent times because the rise of fracking has elevated land values and created a property tax windfall. The county decide and the county commissioners now oversee a funds of $27 million.

However the struggle for energy has been fueled extra by private rivalries and a want for management amongst a youthful era than any particular political aim, stated Steve Simonsen, the county legal professional whose spouse is a cousin within the Jones household.

“There’s no contracts or patronage, however you’re in management,” he stated. “That’s why I discover this to be so silly, as a result of the one factor that anyone goes to get out of that is, ‘I gained.’”

Tensions are so excessive that at a current county assembly, the sheriff’s workplace performed safety screenings and checked for bombs. None had been discovered.

“Proper now, the local weather is the worst I’ve ever seen,” stated Jacob Jones, 31, one of many county decide’s sons. “It breaks my coronary heart. Household turning in opposition to household.”

“Voter turnout is all the time 100%, typically extra,” a former county justice of the peace told Texas Monthly in the 1990s.

In 2020, the U.S. census counted 64 county residents of all ages. That very same yr, 66 individuals voted for president within the basic election. The census estimate has since gone right down to 57 individuals, although that doesn’t embody the oil discipline employees who stay in temporary camps that dot the panorama.

Among the many contested native races in November, Brandon Jones’s spouse is working in opposition to the county clerk, who’s Skeet Jones’s sister. And a county commissioner, who was amongst these arrested after exhibiting up for jury obligation, can also be dealing with a problem.

“Earlier than all this, I actually thought I favored politics,” stated the constable, Brandon Jones. “However now, not a lot.”

It was again in March of final yr that the 5 stray cattle had been discovered lifeless. They had been shot after studies of cattle crossing 302, a harmful stretch of roadway filled with heavy vans from the oil fields.

“There have been no shell casings within the space,” a sheriff’s deputy famous in his incident report, “and no footprints or car tracks.”

That introduced the cow cop — a particular ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Affiliation named Marty Baker — to Loving County.

When he arrived on the town, he met with the decide, Skeet Jones, who had reported the killings, and watched as Mr. Jones and the ranch palms — who had been making an attempt to corral the stray cattle the day earlier than they had been shot — loaded the carcasses onto a trailer.

Mr. Jones, whose father had been the sheriff many years earlier, stated he lengthy had a follow of catching such cattle and promoting them, after which donating the proceeds to nonprofit faculties for at-risk kids.

However this seemed to be a violation of the Texas Agriculture Code, Mr. Baker, the cow cop, wrote in a legal grievance. The code requires reporting stray cattle to the native sheriff, who tries to seek out the proprietor and, if none is discovered, can promote the cattle.

Mr. Jones stated he had an association with the sheriff, Chris Busse, to deal with the gross sales himself, in line with the grievance, however the sheriff denied that.

In making an attempt to kind it out, Mr. Baker wrote, he had assist from a supply near Mr. Jones: a “confidential informant” from the “internal circle of the Jones household.”

Mr. Carney, the lawyer, stated he believed the informant was Skeet Jones’s personal nephew, Brandon Jones, who had been aware of textual content messages on a household thread. Skeet and Brandon Jones, together with Mr. Busse, the sheriff, declined to touch upon the investigation.

With what occurred to the lifeless cattle a lingering thriller, the cow cop hatched a plan to catch any rustlers within the act.

Mr. Baker launched three head of unmarked cattle, with microchips, as bait. Finally, they had been caught and delivered to market by Skeet Jones and his ranch palms, Mr. Baker wrote.

In late Might, a dusty column of legislation enforcement vans tore down the grime highway to the Jones household ranch.

“It was simply loopy,” stated Jacob Jones, the county decide’s son, who was working on the ranch as a scrum of officers arrived.

The arrest of a county decide for cow theft attracted widespread consideration. Brandon Jones, the constable, attacked his uncle in an interview with NBC News, saying he had “free rein” as decide that gave him “a way of energy and impunity that he can do no matter he needs.”

A lawyer for Mr. Jones, Steve Hunnicutt, denied any crime had been dedicated, including that the political motives for the arrests had been “fairly clear.”

Skeet Jones posted bond and returned to his job. However tensions deepened a number of days later with a seemingly innocuous occasion: the decision for jury obligation.

Eleven potential jurors had been summoned for a misdemeanor visitors matter.

Then, to their shock, Amber King, the justice of the peace, had 4 of them arrested for contempt. One was a son of Skeet Jones. One other was the county clerk’s son. One more was a county commissioner, who had been accused throughout a county assembly of claiming his property in Loving County as his residence whereas dwelling at a ranch in Reeves County.

Residency has lengthy been a contentious query. The argument is over whether or not individuals who might have properties elsewhere vote in Loving County as a result of they need to tilt elections or as a result of they contemplate it the house they intend to return to in the future. Lots of these just lately arrested assist the present county management.

Ms. King stated a brand new election legislation that handed final yr, Senate Bill 1111, modified issues. The legislation was designed to cease individuals from registering to vote in locations the place they don’t reside with a purpose to sway elections, which has occasionally occurred in Texas.

She bristled at those that claimed residency however didn’t have to deal with truly dwelling in a county with no faculties, few facilities and harmful truck visitors.

“We select to reside right here,” she stated. “We select to place our youngsters on the bus. We select to drive an hour and a half a technique to H-E-B if we wish first rate groceries. They may reside out right here in the event that they needed to. However they don’t.”

Mr. Simonsen, the county legal professional, conceded that some individuals might reside elsewhere, however stated that didn’t essentially disqualify them from voting.

As long as you aren’t voting in two locations, he stated, “Basically, your residence is the place you say it’s.”

Essentially the most speedy results of Ms. King’s bid to wash up elections is that it’s now even more durable to assemble a jury.

At the least two individuals just lately summoned for a grand jury have written to say they don’t need to seem as a result of they worry being arrested, Mr. Simonsen stated, and the county has been unable to seat a grand jury.

With the flurry of legislation enforcement exercise in current weeks, it could appear as if everybody within the county will quickly want a lawyer. Mr. Simonsen stated he was looking for the humor in it.

“Each morning, I stroll over right here,” he stated, “and once they ask, ‘How’s it going?’ I say, ‘I haven’t been arrested but!”

Leave a Comment