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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MENTONE, Texas — In America’s least populated county, the rusting ruins of homes, oil drilling operations and an outdated gasoline station interrupt the sun-blanched panorama.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 Road 302, although the proprietor died months in the past and the wagon is gone.

Apart from 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, all the things else that the county’s 57 recorded residents would possibly want is a methods away. No faculty. No church. No grocery retailer.

But whereas it may appear quiet, all has not been effectively in Loving County. The first signal of the brewing battle got here final spring with the killing of 5 cows, shot to demise and left in the dry filth.

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 attainable thefts of stray cattle by the highest native chief, the county choose. Then it emerged that the complaints about cattle theft might need grown out of a deeper drawback: a wrestle for political management. People informed the cow cop that some “residents” who known as the county house and voted there really lived some other place more often than not. Election fraud, in different phrases.

Soon, it might appear to be everybody in the county was being arrested.

First, the choose, Skeet Jones, was charged together with three of his ranch fingers with collaborating in an organized crime ring aimed toward stealing cattle.

Days later, 4 others near the choose, together with one among his sons, have been arrested once they confirmed up for jury responsibility. The justice of the peace stated that they had improperly claimed to be eligible jurors when they didn’t, in reality, dwell in Loving County.

“It sounds very far-fetched,” stated Brian Carney, a lawyer from Midland representing one of many ranch fingers 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 personal political wrestle, one which raises not solely questions concerning the right option to wrangle wayward cattle, but additionally weightier issues of the definition of residency, the character of house and who has a proper to vote the place in Texas.

For some in Loving County, the serial arrests supplied 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 just about everybody concerned grew to become obvious when the sheriff quickly barred one of many arrested ranch fingers — a former deputy who has talked of working towards the sheriff — from getting into the county constructing that homes the sheriff’s office, saying he would cost him with trespassing if he set foot inside.

The solely drawback: That explicit 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 one was taking out his trash.

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

At difficulty is management over what would possibly appear to be mundane native authorities issues — what number of deputies the constable will get, who serves on the appraisal board — however they’ve turn out to be extra contentious in latest years because the rise of fracking has elevated land values and created a property tax windfall. The county choose and the county commissioners now oversee a price range of $27 million.

But the struggle for energy has been fueled extra by personal rivalries and a need for management amongst a youthful technology than any particular political purpose, stated Steve Simonsen, the county legal professional whose spouse is a cousin in the Jones household.

“There’s no contracts or patronage, but you’re in control,” he stated. “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 latest county meeting, the sheriff’s office carried out safety screenings and checked for bombs. None have been discovered.

“Right now, the climate is the worst I’ve ever seen,” stated Jacob Jones, 31, one of many county choose’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 told Texas Monthly in the 1990s.

In 2020, the U.S. census counted 64 county residents of all ages. That identical year, 66 folks voted for president in the overall election. The census estimate has since gone all the way down to 57 folks, although that doesn’t embody the oil discipline employees who keep in momentary camps that dot the panorama.

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

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

It was again in March of final year that the 5 stray cattle have been discovered useless. They have been shot after studies of cattle crossing 302, a harmful stretch of roadway filled with heavy vehicles 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 Association named Marty Baker — to Loving County.

When he arrived in city, he met with the choose, Skeet Jones, who had reported the killings, and watched as Mr. Jones and the ranch fingers — who had been making an attempt 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 many years earlier, stated he lengthy had a observe of catching such cattle and promoting them, after which donating the proceeds to nonprofit faculties for at-risk kids.

But this seemed to be a violation of the Texas Agriculture Code, Mr. Baker, the cow cop, wrote in a prison criticism. 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, based on the criticism, 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 “inner circle of the Jones family.”

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 useless cattle a lingering thriller, the cow cop hatched a plan to catch any rustlers in the act.

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

In late May, a dusty column of legislation enforcement vehicles tore down the filth street to the Jones household ranch.

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

The arrest of a county choose 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 choose 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. But tensions deepened just a few days later with a seemingly innocuous occasion: the decision for jury responsibility.

Eleven potential jurors have 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. Another was the county clerk’s son. Yet one other was a county commissioner, who had been accused throughout a county meeting of claiming his property in Loving County as his residence whereas dwelling at a ranch in Reeves County.

Residency has lengthy been a contentious question. 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 take into account it the house they intend to return to at some point. Many of these just lately arrested help the present county management.

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

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

“We choose to live here,” she stated. “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 legal professional, conceded that some folks might dwell elsewhere, however stated that didn’t essentially disqualify them from voting.

So lengthy as you aren’t voting in two locations, he stated, “Essentially, your residence is where you say it is.”

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

At least two folks 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 latest weeks, it may appear as if everybody in the county will quickly want a lawyer. Mr. Simonsen stated he was looking for the humor in it.

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

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