… The first sign of the brewing conflict came last spring with the killing of five cows, shot to death and left in the dry dirt. That brought a special ranger — a so-called cow cop — to town. He quickly began to see other things awry… Soon, it would seem like everyone in the county was being arrested. First, the judge, Skeet Jones, was charged along with three of his ranch hands with taking part in an organized crime ring aimed at stealing cattle…
Big Trouble in Little Loving County, Texas
J. David Goodman, The New York Times
via Yahoo News - August 3, 2022
MENTONE, Texas — In America’s least populated county, the rusting ruins of houses, oil drilling operations and an old gas station interrupt the sun-blanched landscape. A hand-painted wood sign still promises good food at “Chuck’s Wagon” to drivers along State Road 302, though the proprietor died months ago and the wagon is gone.
Apart from the brick courthouse, the convenience store packed with off-shift oil-field workers and the lone sit-down restaurant where you’re liable to see the sheriff at lunch, everything else that the county’s 57 recorded residents might need is a ways away. No school. No church. No grocery store.
But while it might seem quiet, all has not been well in Loving County. The first sign of the brewing conflict came last spring with the killing of five cows, shot to death and left in the dry dirt.
That brought a special ranger — a so-called cow cop — to town. He quickly began to see other things awry.
He opened an investigation into possible thefts of stray cattle by the top local leader, the county judge. Then it emerged that the complaints about cattle theft might have grown out of a deeper problem: a struggle for political control. People told the cow cop that some “residents” who called the county home and voted there actually lived somewhere else most of the time. Election fraud, in other words.
Soon, it would seem like everyone in the county was being arrested.
First, the judge, Skeet Jones, was charged along with three of his ranch hands with taking part in an organized crime ring aimed at stealing cattle.
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 had improperly claimed to be eligible jurors when they did not, in fact, live in Loving County.
“It sounds very far-fetched,” said Brian Carney, a lawyer from Midland representing one of the ranch hands 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 struggle, one that raises not only questions about the correct way to wrangle wayward cattle, but also weightier considerations of the definition of residency, the nature of home and who has a right to vote where in Texas...
... It was back in March of 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 shell 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 with the judge, Skeet Jones, who had reported the killings, and watched as Jones and the ranch hands — who had been trying to corral the stray cattle the day before they were shot — loaded the carcasses onto a trailer.
Jones, whose father had been the sheriff decades earlier, said he long had a practice of catching such cattle and selling them, and then donating the proceeds to nonprofit schools for at-risk children.
But this appeared to be a violation of the Texas Agriculture Code, Baker, the cow cop, wrote in a criminal complaint. The code requires reporting stray cattle to the local sheriff, who tries to find the owner and, if none is found, can sell the cattle.
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 sort it out, Baker wrote, he had help from a source close to Jones: a “confidential informant” from the “inner circle of the Jones family.”
Carney, the lawyer, said he believed the informant was Skeet Jones’ own nephew, Brandon Jones, who had been privy to text messages on a family thread. Skeet and Brandon Jones, along with Busse, the sheriff, declined to comment on the investigation.
The sheriff, who is also the county’s voter registrar, told NBC News that he “never, never, ever had a conversation about stray cattle with the judge.” A sheriff’s deputy, 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 cop hatched a plan to catch any rustlers in the act.
Baker released three head of unmarked cattle, with microchips, as bait. Eventually, they were caught and brought to market by Skeet Jones and his ranch hands, Baker wrote.
In late May, a dusty column of law enforcement trucks tore down the dirt road to the Jones family ranch.
“It was just crazy,” said Jacob Jones, the county judge’s son, who was working at the ranch as a scrum of officers arrived.
The arrest of a county judge for cow theft attracted widespread attention. Brandon Jones, the constable, attacked his uncle in an interview with NBC, saying he had “free rein” as judge that gave him “a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants.”
A lawyer for Jones, Steve Hunnicutt, denied any crime had been committed, adding that the political motives for the arrests were “pretty clear.”
Skeet Jones posted bond and returned to his job. But tensions deepened a few days later with a seemingly innocuous event: the call for jury duty.
Eleven prospective jurors were summoned for a misdemeanor traffic matter.
Then, to their surprise, Amber King, the justice of the peace, had four of them arrested for contempt. One was a son of Skeet Jones. Another was the county clerk’s son. Yet another was a county commissioner, who had been accused during a county meeting of claiming his property in Loving County as his residence while living at a ranch in Reeves County...