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MENTONE, Texas — In America’s least populated county, the rusting ruins of homes, oil drilling operations and an outdated gasoline station interrupt the sun-blanched panorama.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

Aside from the brick courthouse, the comfort retailer full of off-shift oil-field staff and the lone sit-down restaurant the place you’re liable to see the sheriff at lunch, every part else that the county’s 57 recorded residents may want is a methods away. No college. No church. No grocery retailer.

However whereas it might sound quiet, all has not been properly in Loving County. The primary signal of the brewing battle got here within the spring of final yr with the killing of 5 cows, shot to demise and left within the dry dust.

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

He opened an investigation into potential 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 battle for political management. Folks advised the cow cop that some “residents” who referred to as the county dwelling and voted there truly lived some place else more often than not. Election fraud, in different phrases.

Quickly, it could appear to be everybody within the county was being arrested.

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

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

“It sounds very far-fetched,” mentioned Brian Carney, a lawyer from Midland representing one of many ranch arms who has been charged. “If someone were to tell you this story, you’d be like, come on, is that some kind of novel? Is that something that really happens?”

Now, as 100-degree temperatures bake the terrain, the tiny county has been engulfed in an intensely private political battle, one which raises not solely questions in regards to the appropriate approach to wrangle wayward cattle, but additionally weightier issues of the definition of residency, the character of dwelling 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 realize political ends. For others, the arrests appeared like a obligatory step to rein in county leaders who many believed had been skirting the principles.

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 arms — a former deputy who has talked of operating in opposition to the sheriff — from coming 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 individual ranch hand can 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, distinguished figures in two competing political factions occupy places of work 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 concern is management over what may appear to be mundane native authorities issues — what number of deputies the constable will get, who serves on the appraisal board — however they’ve develop into extra contentious lately 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 price range of $27 million.

However the combat for energy has been fueled extra by private rivalries and a need for management amongst a youthful era than any particular political aim, mentioned Steve Simonsen, the county lawyer whose spouse is a cousin within the Jones household.

“There’s no contracts or patronage, but you’re in control,” he mentioned. “That’s why I find this to be so stupid, because the only thing that anybody is going to get out of this is, ‘I won.’”

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

“Right now, the climate is the worst I’ve ever seen,” mentioned Jacob Jones, 31, one of many county decide’s sons. “It breaks my heart. Family turning against family.”

“Voter turnout is always a hundred percent, sometimes more,” a former county justice of the peace advised Texas Month-to-month within the Nineties.

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

Among the many contested native races in November, Brandon Jones’s spouse is operating 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 be going through a problem.

“Before all this, I really thought I liked politics,” mentioned the constable, Brandon Jones. “But now, not so much.”

It was again in March of final yr that the 5 stray cattle have been discovered lifeless. They have been shot after reviews of cattle crossing State Freeway 302, a harmful stretch of roadway full of heavy vans from the oil fields.

“There were no shell casings in the area,” a sheriff’s deputy famous in his incident report, “and no footprints or vehicle 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 arms — who had been attempting to corral the stray cattle the day earlier than they have been shot — loaded the carcasses onto a trailer.

Mr. Jones, whose father had been the sheriff a long time earlier, mentioned he lengthy had a apply of catching such cattle and promoting them, after which donating the proceeds to nonprofit colleges for at-risk youngsters.

However this gave the impression to be a violation of the Texas Agriculture Code, Mr. Baker, the cow cop, wrote in a felony 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 mentioned he had an association with the sheriff, Chris Busse, to deal with the gross sales himself, based on the grievance, however the sheriff denied that.

In attempting to type it out, Mr. Baker wrote, he had assist from a supply near Mr. Jones: a “confidential informant” from the “inner circle of the Jones family.”

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

The sheriff, who can be the county’s voter registrar, advised NBC Information that he “never, never, ever had a conversation about stray cattle with the judge.” A sheriff’s deputy, Noah Cole, advised The Instances that the workplace had no function within 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. Ultimately, they have been caught and dropped at market by Skeet Jones and his ranch arms, Mr. Baker wrote.

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

“It was just crazy,” mentioned 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, saying he had “free rein” as decide that gave him “a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants.”

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

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

Eleven potential jurors have been summoned for a misdemeanor site 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 houses 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 someday. Lots of these lately arrested assist the present county management.

Ms. King mentioned a brand new election legislation that handed final yr, Senate Invoice 1111, modified issues. The legislation was designed to cease folks from registering to vote in locations the place they don’t reside in an effort to sway elections, which has sometimes occurred in Texas.

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

“We choose to live here,” she mentioned. “We choose to put our kids on the bus. We choose to drive an hour and a half one way to H-E-B if we want decent groceries. They could live out here if they wanted to. But they don’t.”

Mr. Simonsen, the county lawyer, conceded that some folks might reside elsewhere, however mentioned that didn’t essentially disqualify them from voting.

As long as you aren’t voting in two locations, he mentioned, “Essentially, your residence is where you say it is.”

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

A minimum of two folks lately summoned for a grand jury have written to say they don’t need to seem as a result of they concern being arrested, Mr. Simonsen mentioned, and the county has been unable to seat a grand jury.

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

“Every morning, I walk over here,” he mentioned, “and when they ask, ‘How’s it going?’ I say, ‘I haven’t been arrested yet!’”