MENTONE, Texas – In America’s least populated county, the rusty ruins of homes, oil drilling operations and an old gas station dot the sunny landscape. A hand-painted wooden sign at “Wagon Chuck” to drivers along State Road 302, although the owner died months ago and the wagon is gone.
Aside from the brick courthouse, the packed convenience store for off-shift oilfield workers and the sit-down restaurant where you’re liable to see the sheriff at lunch, everything else a 57 recorded residents of the county. taking place. No school. No church. No grocery store.
But even though it looks quiet, all was not well in the County of Love. The first sign of the brewing conflict came last spring when five cows were killed, shot to death and left in the dry dirt.
That brought a special ranger – a so-called cow cop – to the town. He quickly began to see other strange things.
He opened an inquiry into the possible theft of stray cattle by the local headman, the county judge. It then emerged that the complaints about cattle theft may have stemmed from a deeper problem: a struggle for political control. People told the cowboy that some “residents” who called the county home and voted there lived elsewhere most of the time. Electoral fraud, in other words.
Soon, it would seem that everyone in the county was being arrested.
First, the judge, Skeet Jones, along with three of his ranch hands were charged with participating in an organized crime ring focused on stealing cattle.
Days later, four more people close to the judge, including one of his sons, were arrested when they showed up for jury duty. The Justice of the Peace said they improperly claimed to be eligible jurors when they did not, in fact, live in Loving County.
“It seems very far-fetched,” said Brian Carney, a Midland lawyer representing one of the accused farmers. “If someone told you this story, you’d be like, come on, is that some kind of novel? Is that something that really happens?”
Now, with 100-degree temperatures baking the terrain, the tiny county is embroiled in a deeply personal political conflict, one that raises not only questions about the proper way to fight freeway cattle, but also more serious considerations of definition of residency, the nature of the home and who has the right to vote where in Texas.
For some in Loving County, the serial arrests provided a sobering example of how law enforcement in a remote corner of rural America can be used to achieve political ends. To others, the arrests appeared to be a necessary step in reining in county leaders who many believed were bending the rules.
The depth of the empire as well as the interconnectedness of everyone involved was evident when the sheriff temporarily barred one of the arrested farm hands — a former deputy who had talked about running against the sheriff — from entering the county building where the sheriff’s office, saying he would be trespassing if he stepped inside.
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The only problem: That particular ranch hand is also the county’s part-time guardian. A few days after the warning, the sheriff sent an email to county officials complaining that no one was taking out their trash.
Inside the county courthouse in Mentone, prominent figures in two competing political factions occupy offices at each end of a short hall: the county judge, Mr. Jones, 71, on one side, and on the other, his nephew, Brandon Jones, the county constable.
It involves control over what may seem like mundane local government matters — how many deputies the constable gets, who serves on the assessment board — but they have become increasingly contentious in recent years. down as the rise of fracking raised land values and created property. tax windfalls. The county judge and county commissioners now oversee a budget of $27 million.
But the power struggle is fueled more by personal rivalries and a desire for control among a younger generation than any particular political goal, said Steve Simonsen, the county attorney whose wife is a cousin in the Jones family. .
“There are no contracts or patronage, but you are in charge,” he said. “That’s why I find this so stupid, because the only thing anyone is going to get out of this is, ‘I won.'”
The tension is so high that the sheriff’s office conducted security demonstrations and checked for bombs at a recent county meeting. None found.
“Right now, the climate is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Jacob Jones, 31, one of the county judge’s sons. “It breaks my heart. Family turning against family.”
“The voter turnout is always a hundred percent, sometimes more,” a former county justice of the peace told Texas Monthly in the 1990s.
In 2020, the US census was conducted 64 county residents of all ages. That same year, 66 people voted for the president in the general election. The census estimate has since been reduced to 57 people, although it does not include oilfield workers who stay in temporary camps that dot the landscape.
Among the contested local races in November, Brandon Jones’ wife is running against county clerk, who is Skeet Jones’ sister. And a county commissioner, who was among those arrested after jury duty, faces a challenge.
“Before all this, I thought I really liked politics,” said constable Brandon Jones. “But now, not so much.”
The five stray cattle were found dead in March last year. They were shot after reports of cattle crossing 302, a dangerous stretch of road packed with heavy trucks from the oil fields.
“There were no shell casings in the area,” a sheriff’s deputy noted in his incident report, “and there were no footprints or vehicle tracks.”
That brought the cow cop – a special ranger for the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association named Marty Baker – to Loving County.
When he arrived at the town, he met the judge, Skeet Jones, who reported the killings, and watched as Mr. Jones and the rancher – who wanted to kill the stray cattle the day before they were shot – to load the carcass on a trailer.
Mr. Jones, whose father was sheriff decades earlier, said he had a long tradition of breeding such cattle and selling them, then donating the proceeds to non-profit schools for children. in danger.
But this appeared to be a violation of the Texas Agricultural Code, Mr. Baker, the cow cop, wrote in a criminal complaint. The code requires stray cattle to be reported to the local sheriff, who tries to find the owner and, if none is found, can sell the cattle.
Mr. Jones said he had an arrangement with the sheriff, Chris Busse, to handle the sales himself, according to the complaint, but the sheriff denied that.
In trying to solve it, Mr Baker wrote, he had the help of a source close to Mr Jones: a “confidential informant” from the “inner circle of the Jones family”.
Mr Carney, the lawyer, said he believed the informant was Skeet Jones’ own nephew, Brandon Jones, who had text messages on a family thread. Skeet and Brandon Jones, along with Mr. Busse, the sheriff, declined to comment on the investigation.
The sheriff, who is also the registrar of voters for the county, is told NBC News “never, never, never had a conversation with the judge about stray cattle.” Sheriff’s deputy Noah Cole told the Times that the office had no role in the investigation.
With what happened to the dead cattle an ongoing mystery, the cow cop made a plan to catch whoever was in the act.
Mr Baker released three unmarked, microchipped cattle as bait. Eventually, Skeet Jones and his ranch hands, Mr. Baker wrote, captured them and brought them to market.
In late May, a dusty column of law enforcement trucks tore down the dirt road to the Jones family farm.
“It was crazy,” said Jacob Jones, son of the county judge, who was working at the ranch when a scrum of officers arrived.
The arrest of a county judge for cow theft attracted widespread attention. Brandon Jones, the constable, assaulted his uncle in an interview with NBCsaying that he had a “free position” as a judge that gave him “power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants.”
A lawyer for Mr Jones, Steve Hunnicutt, denied that any crime had been committed, adding that the political motives for the arrests were “pretty clear”.
Skeet Jones posted bond and returned to his post. But the tension escalated a few days later with a seemingly innocuous event: the call for jury duty.
Eleven prospective jurors were summoned for a traffic misconduct matter.
Then, to their surprise, Amber King, a justice of the peace, arrested four of them in contempt. One of them was the son of Skeet Jones. Another was the son of a county clerk. Another was a county commissioner, who was charged at a county meeting with claiming his property in Loving County as his home while he lived on a ranch in Reeves County.
Residency has long been a controversial issue. The argument is whether people who may have homes elsewhere in Gramhar County voted because they want to sway elections or because they consider it the town they intend to return to one day. Many of those recently arrested support the county’s current leadership.
She blasted those who claimed residency but had to deal with living in a county with no schools, few facilities and dangerous truck traffic.
“We choose to live here,” she said. “We choose to put our children on the bus. We choose to drive an hour and a half one way to HEB if we want decent groceries. They could live here if they wanted. But they don’t.”
Mr. Simonsen, the county attorney, acknowledged that some people may live elsewhere, but said that did not necessarily disqualify them from voting.
As long as you’re not voting in two places, he said, “Basically, your residence is where you say it is.”
The most immediate result of Mr. King’s bid to clean up elections is that it is now more difficult to assemble a jury.
At least two people who were recently subpoenaed for a grand jury have written saying they don’t want to appear because they’re afraid of being arrested, Mr. Simonsen said, and the county can’t afford to sit on a grand jury. .
With the flurry of law enforcement activity in recent weeks, it may seem like everyone in the county will soon need a lawyer. Mr Simonsen said he was trying to find the humor in it.
“Every morning, I walk here,” he said, “and when they ask, ‘How’s it going?’ I say, ‘I haven’t been caught yet!’