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.
The Loving County Courthouse across the street from an abandoned home.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times
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.
For some in Loving County, the serial arrests provided a cautionary example of how law enforcement in a remote corner of rural America can be used to achieve political ends. For others, the arrests seemed like a necessary step to rein in county leaders who many believed had been skirting the rules.
The depth of animosity as well as the interconnectedness of almost everyone involved became apparent when the sheriff temporarily barred one of the arrested ranch hands — a former deputy who has talked of running against the sheriff — from entering the county building that houses the sheriff’s office, saying he would charge him with trespassing if he set foot inside.
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The only problem: That particular ranch hand is also the county’s part-time custodian. A couple days after the warning, the sheriff sent an email to county officials complaining that nobody was taking out his trash.
Inside the county courthouse in Mentone, prominent figures in two competing political factions occupy offices at either end of a short hallway: the county judge, Mr. Jones, 71, on one end, and on the other, his nephew, Brandon Jones, the county constable.
At issue is control over what might seem like mundane local government matters — how many deputies the constable gets, who serves on the appraisal board — but they have become more contentious in recent years as the rise of fracking has elevated land values and created a property tax windfall. The county judge and the county commissioners now oversee a budget of $27 million.
But the fight for power has been fueled more by personal rivalries and a desire for control among a younger generation than any specific political goal, said Steve Simonsen, the county attorney whose wife is a cousin in the Jones family.
“There’s no contracts or patronage, but you’re in control,” he said. “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 high that at a recent county meeting, the sheriff’s office conducted security screenings and checked for bombs. None were 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.”
With so few residents in Loving County, local elections have long been decided by a handful of votes. That has led to periodic court fights over the eligibility of voters.
“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 same year, 66 people voted for president in the general election. The census estimate has since gone down to 57 people, though that does not include the oil field workers who stay in temporary camps that dot the landscape.
Among the contested local races in November, Brandon Jones’s wife is running against the county clerk, who is Skeet Jones’s sister. And a county commissioner, who was among those arrested after showing up for jury duty, is also facing a challenge.
“Before all this, I really thought I liked politics,” said the constable, Brandon Jones. “But now, not so much.”
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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
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 sort it 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 lawyer, said he believed the informant was Skeet Jones’s own nephew, Brandon Jones, who had been privy to 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 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Residency has long been a contentious question. The argument is over whether people who may have homes elsewhere vote in Loving County because they want to tilt elections or because they consider it the home they intend to return to one day. Many of those recently arrested support the current county leadership.
Ms. King said a new election law that passed last year, Senate Bill 1111, changed things. The law was designed to stop people from registering to vote in places where they don’t live in order to sway elections, which has occasionally occurred in Texas.
She bristled at those who claimed residency but did not have to cope with actually living in a county with no schools, few amenities and dangerous truck traffic.
“We choose to live here,” she said. “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 attorney, conceded that some people may live elsewhere, but said that did not necessarily disqualify them from voting.
So long as you are not voting in two places, he said, “Essentially, your residence is where you say it is.”
The most immediate result of Ms. King’s bid to clean up elections is that it’s now even harder to assemble a jury.
At least two people recently summoned for a grand jury have written to say they do not want to appear because they fear being arrested, Mr. Simonsen said, and the county has been unable to seat a grand jury.
With the flurry of law enforcement activity in recent weeks, it can seem as if 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 over here,” he said, “and when they ask, ‘How’s it going?’ I say, ‘I haven’t been arrested yet!”