Lawmen came to remote Loving County, Texas, on Friday to arrest the county judge, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands on one of Texas’ oldest crimes — cattle theft.
Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the top elected official since 2007 in the least populated county in the continental United States, is facing three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle, authorities said.
Jones, the scion of a powerful ranching family that settled in Loving County in the 1950s, was booked into Winkler County Jail on Friday and released on $20,000 bond, records show. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Authorities also arrested former Loving County deputy Leroy Medlin Jr., 35, on one count of engaging in criminal activity — a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Medlin did not return phone calls, but his wife sent an email that questioned the motives behind the arrests. “We are being targeted,” she wrote, “at full force.”
Officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the lead agency on the case, offered few specifics about the alleged crime. Commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the association has “special rangers” — certified peace officers — who investigate livestock theft and other agriculture crimes.
Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the association, said the yearlong investigation is ongoing and more charges are possible.
Video: Beef prices soar as farmers struggle to feed their cattle
The idea that the judge — who is paid $133,294 annually — would get picked up for cattle rustling was just too much for Susan Hays, a Texas election lawyer who’s wrangled with the Joneses in the past.
“You can’t make this shit up,” she said. “It’s a pain in the ass to round up cattle and take them to market. And then to risk real trouble for it? It’s just asinine to me.”
Word of the arrests spread faster than a prairie fire with a tailwind through this West Texas county, population 57 as of the last U.S. Census Bureau estimate. Spread over 671 square miles of mesquite-studded desert, Loving County has no school, no church, no grocery store and no bank. The few children who live there board the bus in the only town, Mentone (population 22), and travel about 35 miles each morning and afternoon to attend school.
For decades, a handful of prominent families in Loving County have feuded bitterly for control of the local government, with the Joneses finally largely coming out ahead. Skeet Jones has served as the judge for more than 15 years. His sister is the county clerk. His cousin’s husband is the county attorney. His nephew is the constable.
But some recently elected county officials have been butting heads with the Joneses and their allies, making for colorful commissioner’s court meetings and a much-anticipated November election.
And blood is no longer holding the Jones family together.
“He’s had free reign for the entire time since he’s been the judge,” said Skeet Jones’ nephew, Constable Brandon Jones, who was elected in 2016. “That’s given him a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even the feeling of self-righteousness. That he can do no wrong.”
When Skeet Jones was sworn in as judge in 2007, most of the caliche roads were rutted like washboards and residents still had to line up to get potable water dispensed from a community tank.
But he presided over a period of unprecedented growth, as fracking boomed in the Permian Basin, feeding money into the county’s coffers. The parched landscape is dotted with massive gas plants, water plants and salt water disposal systems. Many of the surviving working ranches have “frac pads” for horizontally drilled wells that cut through the caliche and bedrock to free up the lifeblood for Loving County’s economy: oil and gas.
The tax base hovers around $7 billion to $9 billion. And the county’s budget has grown from about $2 million in 2008 to more than $28 million.
The salaries for many of the top officials in town — the judge, auditor, treasurer, clerk, justice of the peace, county attorney, constable and sheriff — are $100,000 or higher.
Jones’ father, Elgin “Punk” Jones, and mother, Mary Belle Jones, started the P&M Jones Ranch in 1953, settling into a wood-frame house with no running water. “When I first came to Mentone in 1953, it was quite a shock,” Mary Belle Jones told the Texas Monthly in 1997. “I said to my husband, ‘Punk, how long are we going to live in this godforsaken place?’”
But she came to love Loving County’s vast, open skyline. She served as the county’s chief appraiser for years. Punk Jones, the sheriff for 28 years, is credited with discovering the freshwater well field that feeds Mentone.
Skeet Jones has gotten into trouble before, but nothing like this. In 2016, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct determined Jones failed to follow the law by charging steep fees — about $600 to $750 — for reducing tickets including speeding and marijuana possession down to parking tickets.
The judge denied any involvement in negotiations over tickets and told the commission he just approved the plea deals presented to him. He was issued a public warning and ordered to take 10 hours of additional education.
Medlin previously worked as a detective for the San Antonio Police Department, where records show he was issued indefinite suspensions — the department’s equivalent of being fired — three times.
In 2015, he was placed on indefinite suspension for a 100-plus mph pursuit of a driver who had a toddler in the back seat, records show. Medlin was reinstated after an appeal.
Then in 2018, Medlin engaged in another high-speed pursuit after telling dispatchers the driver “almost ran me over,” records show. But body and dash camera footage contradicted Medlin’s account, according to internal affairs reports. He appealed again, telling supervisors he felt threatened, even if it wasn’t evident from the videos.
He was later issued another indefinite suspension after supervisors determined he issued tickets for violations he didn’t witness, records show.
Medlin joined the Loving County Sheriff’s Office in January 2019 and “separated” from the agency less than two years later, records show. (Sheriff Chris Busse declined to say why.)
Medlin also worked on Jones’ ranch before being hired by Loving County as a janitor and groundskeeper.
Two ranch hands also were arrested on Friday. Cody Williams, 31, was charged with three counts of livestock theft and engaging in organized criminal activity, records show. He did not return a reporter’s phone call.
Jonathon Alvarado, 23, faces one count of theft of livestock, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. He hung up on a reporter seeking comment.
In addition to the judge, Medlin, Williams and Alvarado posted bond and were released from jail.