NBC News does us the favor of an update on Skeet Jones, the (allegedly) cattle-rustlin’ County Judge of Loving County.
On a December day in 2021, Loving County Judge Skeet Jones, 71, climbed atop an oilfield tank surrounded by wide-open Texas desert dressed in a business suit and toting a pair of binoculars, hoping to spot an elusive black bull.
What Jones most likely didn’t realize from his steel perch as he scanned the horizon: He, too, was being watched as part of a cattle-rustling sting operation devised by special rangers with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
The backstory of what led to the arrests of Jones, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands in May is chronicled in a stack of warrants obtained by NBC News. The documents detail a yearlong investigation, replete with confidential informants and a sting operation involving a reddish-brown cow, her calf and the black yearling bull — all equipped by the special rangers with microchips.
The warrants allege that Jones and the ranch hands rounded up stray livestock in Loving and Pecos counties and sold them at auctions in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico without first notifying the Sheriff’s Office to find their rightful owners — a violation of a state law.
Jones, the scion of a prominent ranching family and the top elected official in this sparsely populated West Texas county for the past 15 years, is charged with three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in organized crime — potentially facing decades in prison if convicted. (Jones and the other defendants declined to comment. Jones’ lawyer did not return phone calls.)
But Jones’ supporters say he was set up. “There’s no question about that,” said Steve Simonsen, who is the Loving County attorney and married to a cousin of Jones’. “If you’re a special ranger and you’re really interested in stopping rustling, you don’t sneak out in the middle of the night and unload a bunch of cattle that you secretly microchipped,” Simonsen said.
Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a cadre of peace officers who specialize in agricultural crimes, said the organization stands by the arrests of the judge and the other defendants. Fuchs said the investigation is ongoing and could result in more charges.
Randy Reynolds, the district attorney in charge of prosecuting felony cases, did not return phone calls.
None of the defendants have been indicted by a grand jury, which is the next step in the legal process. Loving County, the least-populated county in the continental U.S., had 57 residents as of the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate. Simonsen said the county hasn’t successfully empaneled a grand jury in about a year.
The latest attempt on July 7 to get enough qualified grand jurors failed for two reasons, he said. Under Texas law, grand jurors cannot be related by blood or marriage. And they are required to reside within the county, which has become a flashpoint since the Loving County justice of the peace in May sent four prospective jurors — including Jones’ son and a county commissioner — to jail on a contempt order for allegedly not living there.
“Who wants to show up for jury duty, which a lot of people don’t really want to do anyway, and get a free trip to the jail house?” Simonsen asked.
Jones and his family members — through blood or marriage — have a tight grip on the local government, serving as judge, clerk, county attorney and constable. This fall, Jones is running unopposed for re-election, but some of his allies, including his sister, are facing challengers for the first time in years, amid heated debate over how the county should be run.
1. Skeet Jones’ father, who served as Loving County Sheriff for 28 years, was known as “Punk”. You keep on West Texasing, Loving County.
2. The penalty for killing a stray cow is the same in Texas as it is for stealing one – up to ten years in prison.
3. Nearly twice as many people are registered to vote in Loving County as live there. You should read that story, too.
4. The bit at the end about some other elected members of the Jones family facing challengers in the November election made me want to look at who’s running for what in this famously Republican county, but suffice it to say that the Loving County elections page is not up to the task; Google wasn’t any more help. It may be that some of the characters involved here are still listed as Democrats, in the ancestral way that nearly all of Texas was once Democratic, but with Loving voting 90% plus for Republicans in federal and state elections, that doesn’t mean much. Nonetheless, I’d really like to know more about this.
5. Yes, there were bait cows involved in this sting. Really, read the whole story.
I actually got a press release about this one – I guess someone at NBC News had noticed my previous blogging on the topic. If that’s the case, all I can say is keep up the good work, y’all. I cannot wait till the next chapter in this story.