MENTONE, Texas – In America’s least populated county, the rusting ruins of homes, oil wells and an old gas station punctuate the sun-bleached landscape. A hand-painted wooden sign still promises good food at “Chuck’s Wagon” to drivers along State Road 302, even though the owner passed away months ago and the wagon has disappeared.
Aside from the brick courthouse, the grocery store full of off-shift oilfield workers, and the lone restaurant where you can watch the sheriff at lunch, everything else the county’s 57 registered residents need is a way out. No school. No church. No grocery store.
But while it may seem quiet, not all has gone well in Loving County. The first sign of the brewing conflict came last spring with the killing of five cows, shot and left in the dry dirt.
That brought a special ranger – a so-called cow cop – to the city. He soon began to misunderstand other things.
He opened an investigation into possible thefts of stray cattle by the highest local leader, the district judge. Then it turned out that the cattle theft complaints may have stemmed from a deeper problem: a struggle for political control. People told the cow cop that some of the “residents” who called the county home and voted there usually lived elsewhere. Election fraud, in other words.
Soon it would seem like everyone in the province was being arrested.
First, the judge, Skeet Jones, along with three of his ranch hands, were charged with being part of an organized crime gang that aimed to steal livestock.
Days later, four others 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 falsely claimed to be eligible jurors when, in fact, they did not live in Loving County.
“It sounds very far-fetched,” said Brian Carney, a Midland attorney representing one of the ranch hands charged. “If someone were to tell you this story, you’d think, 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 is engulfed in an intensely personal political battle, one that raises questions not only about the proper way to wrangle wayward livestock, but heavier considerations about the definition of residency. the nature of home and who has the right to vote where in Texas.
For some in Loving County, the serial arrests were a warning example of how law enforcement in a remote corner of rural America can be used to achieve political ends. For others, the arrests seemed a necessary step to rein in county leaders who many believed had broken the rules.
The depth of animosity and the interconnectedness of nearly everyone involved became apparent when the sheriff temporarily barred one of the arrested ranch hands — a former deputy who has said to run into the sheriff — access to the county building where the sheriff’s office has been placed. he said he would charge him with trespassing if he set foot inside.
The Great Lecture
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The only problem: That particular ranch hand is also the county’s part-time custodian. A few days after the warning, the sheriff sent an email to county officials complaining that no one was taking out his trash.
In the Mentone courthouse, prominent figures from two competing political factions occupy offices on either side of a short corridor: the district judge, Mr. Jones, 71, on the one hand, and on the other his cousin, Brandon Jones, the county agent.
It’s about taking control of what may seem like mundane local government affairs — how many deputies the agent gets, who sits on the judging committee — but they’ve become more controversial in recent years as the rise of fracking has increased land value and created a property. tax windfall. The district judge and district commissioners now oversee a $27 million budget.
But the struggle for power has been fueled more by personal rivalry and a desire for control among a younger generation than by any specific political cause, said Steve Simonsen, the district attorney whose wife is a cousin of the Jones family.
“There are no contracts or patronage, but you are in control,” he said. “That’s why I think this is so stupid, because the only thing anyone can take out of this is, ‘I won.'”
Tensions are so high that the sheriff’s office conducted security screenings and checked for bombs at a recent county meeting. None were found.
“Right now the climate is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Jacob Jones, 31, one of the district judge’s sons. “It breaks my heart. Family turns against family.”
“Voter turnout is always 100 percent, sometimes more,” a former county justice of the peace told Texas Monthly in the 1990s.
In 2020, the U.S. census counted 64 residents of all ages. That same year, 66 people voted for president in the general election. The census estimate has since dropped to 57 people, but that doesn’t include oilfield workers residing in temporary camps in the landscape.
At the controversial local races in November, Brandon Jones’ wife will take on the town clerk, Skeet Jones’ sister. And a district commissioner, who was among those arrested after appearing for jury duty, also faces a challenge.
“Before all this, I really thought I liked politics,” said the agent, Brandon Jones. “But not so much now.”
It was in March last year that the five stray cattle were found dead. They were shot after reports of cattle crossing 302, a dangerous stretch of roadway packed with heavy trucks from the oil fields.
“There were no casings in the area,” a sheriff’s deputy noted in his incident report, “and no footprints or vehicle tracks.”
That brought the cow cop — a special ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association named Marty Baker — to Loving County.
When he arrived in town, he met the judge, Skeet Jones, who had reported the murders, and watched as Mr. Jones and the ranch hands—who had tried to round up the stray cattle the day before they were shot—up the carcasses. a trailer.
Jones, whose father had been the sheriff decades earlier, said he had a long-standing habit of catching and selling such livestock, then donating the proceeds to nonprofit schools for at-risk children.
But this turned out to be a violation of the Texas Agriculture Code, Mr. Baker, the cow cop, wrote in a complaint. The code requires that stray livestock be reported to the local sheriff, who will attempt to locate the owner and, if none is found, may sell the livestock.
Mr Jones said he had an appointment with the sheriff, Chris Busse, to handle the sale himself, according to the complaint, but the sheriff denied that.
In trying to find out, Mr. Baker wrote, he had help from a source close to Mr. Jones: a “confidential informant” from the “inner circle of the Jones family.”
mr. Carney, the attorney, said he believed the informant was Skeet Jones’ cousin, Brandon Jones, who had been aware of text messages on a family thread. Skeet and Brandon Jones, along with Sheriff’s Mr. Busse, declined to comment on the investigation.
With what happened to the dead cattle, a lingering mystery, the cow cop devised a plan to catch any thieves in the act.
mr. Baker released three head of unmarked cattle, with microchips, as bait. They were eventually captured and marketed by Skeet Jones and his ranch hands, Mr. Baker wrote.
In late May, a dusty motorcade of police cars drove up the dirt road to the Jones family ranch.
“It was just crazy,” said Jacob Jones, the district judge’s son, who was working at the ranch when a troop of officers arrived.
The arrest of a district judge for cow theft attracted a lot of attention. Brandon Jones, the cop, attacked his uncle in an interview with NBC News, saying he had “free rein” as a judge, which gave him “a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants.”
Jones’ attorney, Steve Hunnicutt, denied any crime had been committed, adding that the political motives for the arrests were “pretty clear.”
Skeet Jones posted bail and returned to work. But a few days later, tensions mounted with a seemingly innocuous event: the call to jury duty.
Eleven aspiring jurors were called up for a traffic offence.
Then Amber King, the justice of the peace, had four of them arrested for contempt to their surprise. One was a son of Skeet Jones. Another was the son of the town clerk. Yet another was a district commissioner, who was charged in a district meeting with claiming his property in Loving County as his residence while living on a ranch in Reeves County.
Residence permit has long been a controversial issue. The debate is about whether people who own homes elsewhere vote in Loving County because they want to flip the election or because they see it as the home they want to return to one day. Many of the recently arrested support the current district administration.
Ms King said a new electoral law passed last year, Senate Act 1111, has changed things. The law is designed to prevent people from registering to vote in places they don’t live in order to influence the election, which has occasionally happened in Texas.
She struggled with those who claimed a residence permit, but who couldn’t really cope with living in a province with no schools, few amenities and dangerous truck traffic.
“We choose to live here,” she says. “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 to do some decent shopping. They could live here if they wanted to. But they don’t.”
Mr Simonsen, the prosecutor, admitted that some people may live elsewhere, but said this did not necessarily disqualify them from voting.
As long as you don’t vote in two places, he said, “Basically your residence is where you say it is.”
The most immediate result of Ms. King’s attempt to clean up elections is that it is now even more difficult to assemble a jury.
At least two people recently summoned to a grand jury have written to say they don’t want to appear because they fear being arrested, Mr Simonsen said, and the county has been unable to seat a grand jury .
With the wave 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 are you?’ I say, ‘I haven’t been arrested yet!’