MENTONE, Texas – In America’s least populated county, rusty ruins of homes, oil drilling and an old gas station disrupt the sun-drenched landscape. A hand-painted wooden sign still promises delicious food at “Chuck’s Wagon“For those driving along State Road 302, even though the owner died a few months ago and the wagon is gone.
Aside from the brick courthouse, the convenience store packed with off-shift oilfield workers, and the lone sit-in restaurant where you can meet the sheriff for lunch, everything else the county’s 57 recorded residents have may need is a distance away. There is no school. There is no church. There is no grocery store.
But while it seemed quiet, all was not well in Love County. The first signs of conflict in the brewing sector appeared last spring with the killing of five cows, shot dead and left in the drylands.
That brought a special ranger – the so-called cow police – to town. He quickly began to see other things badly.
He opened an investigation into possible stray cattle thefts by the top local leader, the district judge. Then it emerged that complaints about cattle theft might stem from a deeper problem: a struggle for political control. People told cow police that some of the “residents” who call the county home and vote there actually live somewhere else most of the time. In other words, election fraud.
Before long, it looks like everyone in the county will be arrested.
First, the judge, Skeet Jones, along with three of his ranchers were charged with participating in an organized crime ring aimed at stealing livestock.
Days later, four other people close to the judge, including one of his sons, were arrested when they arrived on jury duty. Justices of Peace said they unduly claimed to be qualified jurors when in fact they did not live in Loving county.
Brian Carney, an attorney from Midland who represents one of the ranchers who have been charged, said: “It sounds far-fetched. “If someone told you this story, you would be like, come on, is this some kind of novel? Is that something that really happened? “
Now, as 100-degree temperatures heat the terrain, the tiny county has been engulfed in a fierce personal political struggle, one that not only raises questions about the correct way to ward off wild cattle. confusion, but also heavier considerations about the definition of residency, the nature of the family, and who has the right to vote where in Texas.
For some in Loving County, the mass arrests provide a warning example of how law enforcement in a remote corner of rural America can be used to a major cause. treat. For others, the arrest appears to be a necessary step to rein in county leaders, who many believe have circumvented the law.
The depth of hatred and the interconnectedness of almost everyone involved became apparent when the sheriff temporarily banned one of the ranchers from being arrested, a former deputy sheriff has said. run against the sheriff – enter the county building where the sheriff’s office is, saying he will charge him trespass if he sets foot inside.
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Only problem: That particular ranch hand is also the part-time custodian of the county. Days after the warning, the sheriff sent an email to county officials complaining that no one was picking up his trash.
Inside the district court in Mentone, prominent figures from two competing political factions occupy offices at either end of a short corridor: district judge, Mr. Jones, 71, at one end, and at the other. there, his grandson, Brandon Jones, sheriff.
The issue is control over what seems to be a mundane matter of local government – how many delegates the police get, who serves on the appraisal panel – but they have become more contentious. in recent years as the rise of mining has raised land values and created tax-reducing real estate. The district judge and district commissioners currently oversee the $27 million budget.
However, the battle for power has been fueled by personal rivalry and a desire for control among the younger generation more than any specific political goal, said Steve Simonsen, the district attorney whose wife is a cousin in the family. Jones’s family said.
“There’s no contract or sponsorship, but you’re in control,” he said. “That’s why I find this so stupid, because the only thing anybody’s going to get out of this is, ‘I won.’
Tensions were so high that at a recent county meeting, the sheriff’s office conducted security checks and bomb tests. Nothing was found.
Jacob Jones, 31, one of the district judge’s sons, said: “Right now, the climate is the worst I’ve ever seen. “It broke my heart. The family turns its back on the family”.
“Voter turnout is always one hundred percent, sometimes more,” said a former county magistrate for peace told Texas Monthly in the 1990s.
2020 US census count 64 county residents of all ages. That same year, 66 people voted for president in the general election. Census estimates have dropped to 57, though that number doesn’t include oilfield workers people in temporary camps dotted in the landscape.
Among the controversial local races in November, Brandon Jones’ wife is up against the county clerk, who is Skeet Jones’ older sister. And a county commissioner, who was among those arrested after arriving for grand jury duty, is also facing a challenge.
Police Chief Brandon Jones said: “In light of all this, I really think I like politics. “But for now, not so much.”
In March last year, five stray cattle were found dead. They were shot after reports of cattle crossing 302, a dangerous stretch of road filled with heavy trucks from oil fields.
“There were no shell casings in the area,” the sheriff noted in his incident report, “and there were no footprints or vehicle tracks.”
That brought the cow police – a special Texas and Southwest Cattle Association ranger named Marty Baker – to Loving County.
When he arrived in town, he met the judge, Skeet Jones, who reported the murders, and witnessed Mr. Jones and the ranchers who tried to herd stray cattle. the day before they were shot – load the bodies onto a trailer.
Mr Jones, whose father was a police chief decades ago, said it has long been his custom to capture such cattle and sell them, then donate the proceeds to nonprofit schools. for children at risk.
But this appears to be a violation of the Texas Agricultural Code, Mr. Baker, the cattle officer, wrote in a criminal complaint. The code requires reporting stray cattle to the local sheriff, who tries to find the owner and, if not found, can sell the cattle.
Mr. Jones said he had an agreement with Sheriff Chris Busse to handle the sale himself, according to the complaint, but the sheriff denied that.
In trying to sort it out, Mr. Baker wrote, he had help from a source close to Jones: a “secret informant” from “the inside of the Jones family.”
Mr Carney, the attorney, said he believed the informant was Brandon Jones, the grandson of Skeet Jones, who kept text messages on a family thread secret. Skeet and Brandon Jones, along with Sheriff Busse, declined to comment on the investigation.
The sheriff, who is also the county voter registrar, told NBC News that he “never, never, ever talked about stray cattle with a judge.” Deputy Chief of Police, Noah Cole, told The Times that the office had no role in the investigation.
With what happened to the dead cattle a lingering mystery, the cow police hatched a plan to catch any rusters in action.
Mr. Baker released three unmarked, microchipped cattle as bait. They were eventually captured by Skeet Jones and his ranchers and put on the market, Baker wrote.
In late May, a column of law enforcement truck dust tore through the dirt road leading to the Jones family farm.
“It was crazy,” said Jacob Jones, the district judge’s son, who was working on the farm when a swarm of officers arrived.
The arrest of a district judge for cow theft has attracted widespread attention. Brandon Jones, the cop, attacks his uncle in an interview with NBCsays he has “freedom” as a judge that has given him a “sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants.”
Mr Jones’ lawyer, Steve Hunnicutt, denied any crime had been committed, adding that the political motives of the arrest were “quite clear”.
Skeet Jones signed up for the bond and went back to his job. But tensions deepened a few days later with a seemingly innocuous event: the jury duty call.
Eleven prospective jurors were summoned over a minor traffic issue.
Then, to their surprise, Amber King, justice of the peace, arrested four of them for contempt. One is the son of Skeet Jones. Another is the son of the county clerk. Yet another was a county commissioner who was charged in a county meeting with claiming his property in Love County as his residence while living on a farm in Reeves County.
Residency has long been a controversial question. The controversy revolves around whether people who may have homes elsewhere vote in Loving County because they want to tilt the election or because they see it as a home they plan to return to someday. Many of those arrested recently support the current leadership of the county.
She opposes people who claim to reside but don’t have to deal with actually living in a district with no schools, few amenities, and dangerous truck traffic.
“We choose to live here,” she said. “We chose to put our kids on the bus. We chose to drive an hour and a half each way to HEB if we want decent groceries. They can live here if they want. But they don’t. “
Mr. Simonsen, the district attorney, acknowledged that some people may live elsewhere, but said that does not necessarily disqualify them from voting.
As long as you don’t vote in two places, he said, “Basically, where you live is where you speak.”
The most immediate result of Ms. King’s election cleanup effort is that it is now even harder to assemble a jury.
At least two people recently summoned to a grand jury wrote letters saying they did not want to appear for fear of arrest, and the county was unable to arrange a grand jury, Mr. Simonsen said.
With the explosion of law enforcement activity in recent weeks, it seems likely that everyone in the county will soon need an attorney. Mr. Simonsen said he was trying to find the humor in it.
“Every morning, I walk past here,” he said, “and when they ask, ‘How’s it going? ‘ I said, ‘I haven’t been caught yet!