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The national media discovers Skeet Jones

Here’s NBC News with a nice, juicy story.

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.

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.”

See here for the background. As a reminder, Susan Hays is also the Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner.

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.

To give you some idea of how insane a budget of $28 million for a county with 57 people in it, that’s about $491,000 per person. The fiscal year 2022 budget for Harris County had an estimated general fund of $2 billion, for 4.8 million people, or $415 per person. That’s less than 0.1% of the per capita allocations for Loving. If Harris had the same resources as Loving, it would have over $2.3 trillion in its general revenue fund; in other words, in the ballpark of what the US as a whole spends in a non-COVID year. As for the family dynamics and the concentration of power like that, well, I suspect we’re just beginning to delve into the plot.

One more thing:

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.

Forget the Yellowstone-meets-Game of Thrones as directed by early-career Coen Brothers aspect of this, it’s Leroy Medlin that’s the tale as old as time here. The inability of law enforcement agencies to fire corrupt and/or inept cops, combined with said cops’ ability to easily hire on with some other law enforcement agency in the state (there are nearly 2,000 law enforcement agencies in the state of Texas, including as we now know the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which was responsible for this particular bust) makes for a plethora of opportunities. I feel very confident there’s more to the story of why Leroy Medlin did not stay with the Loving County Sheriff’s Office longer than he did than what we now know.

The AP had a much shorter story on this, which the Chron picked up. I’m sure other outlets, including the Texas papers, will join in, and I can’t wait. Hell, I can’t wait for the eight-part true crime podcast and hopefully HBO miniseries on the life and times of the Jones family of Loving County. Susan Hays is right, you cannot make this stuff up. But you sure can ride it to the end when it happens anyway.

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