A senior West Texas official has been arrested for rustling cattle in a case that has sparked anger in tiny Loving County.
Skeet Lee Jones, 71, a judge and elected county leader, faces three counts of rustling cattle worth less than $150,000 and one of participating in organized criminal activity after his arrest on Friday, the Neighboring Winkler County Sheriff Darin Mitchell said Sunday.
Mitchell said three other men were arrested alongside Jones and all four defendants were released on bail. The arrests stem from a year-long investigation by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has assigned law enforcement officers to investigate farm crimes such as cattle rustling, Mitchell added.
Mitchell said association leaders alleged Jones and his accused accomplices took stray cattle and sold them without following state agricultural code procedures. These procedures require people to report stray livestock to the sheriff and track the owners of the animals, he said.
Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
His cousin Brandon Jones is a constable, an elected law enforcement officer, for the county.
“He’s had carte blanche the whole time he’s been a judge,” Brandon Jones told NBC News. “It gave him a feeling of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even the feeling of complacency. That he can do no wrong.
Susan Hays, an election lawyer who clashed with Jones, told NBC News she couldn’t believe he was “risking real trouble” by allegedly stealing cattle.
“It’s a pain rounding up the cattle and getting them to market,” Hays said.
Jones has served as a Loving County judge since 2007 and earns an annual salary of more than $133,000. He was re-elected several times unopposed, illustrating his power and influence in his community.
Loving County – where oil and gas savings generate billions of dollars in taxes – sits along Texas’ border with New Mexico and is the state’s least populated county, with just 57 residents. , according to the US Census Bureau.
In Texas, county judges are essentially chief executives of their local government, with broad administrative and judicial powers.
No other details about the allegations against Jones were immediately available. If convicted, he could receive up to 10 years in prison per count of cattle rustling and up to 20 years in prison for organized criminal activity.