Happy New Year from Sierra Blanca
Apple did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Fleming sent reporters a short official statement about Apple’s arrest. Then he added his own rant: First, honey, I’m already more famous than you. I don’t need your help. However, it would appear that you need mine. Two weeks ago nobody in the country cared about what you had to say — now that you’ve been arrested it appears your entire career has been jump-started. Don’t worry, sweetie, I won’t bill you. Next, have you ever heard of Snoop, Willie or [Armie] Hammer? Maybe if you would read something besides your own press releases you would have known BEFORE you got here that if you come to Texas with dope, the cops will take your DOPE away and put YOU in jail. Even though you and I only met briefly in the hallway, I don’t know you but I’m sure you’re an awesome and talented young woman and even though I’m not a fan of yours, I am sure there are thousands of them out there, and I’m sure that they would just as soon you get this all behind you and let you go back to what you do best — so my last piece of advice is simple, ‘just shut-up and sing.’ ”
Fleming admitted it wasn’t his most professional moment.
“As the PIO, I have to be a professional,” he said. “I’d been called on Sunday morning by everyone from TMZ to God knows who else. They were saying she went off and accused four of my co-workers of abuse.”
Fleming watched the video and then unloaded on her.
“Everybody said I was being misogynistic and very degrading,” he said. “It’s simple — that’s how I talk to a 12-year-old brat. The ‘honeys’ and ‘sweeties.’ I was just being as cynical and facetious as she was being. She did finally shut up and sing, so it must have worked.”
Deputies treated her like any other prisoner, Fleming said.
“We didn’t even know who she was,” he said. “I called my kids, and they didn’t know who she was.”
Fleming has his suspicions about what fueled her behavior.
“The woman weighed about 80 pounds,” he said. “You can make your own estimation. When our jailer grabbed her by the arm to take her in the back, the skin [flaked] off her arm. I’m not going to say she was using. We didn’t test her. But in my experience as a drug addict, I’d say she was using something besides hash.”
Fleming had plenty of experience with addiction while growing up in Dallas. He used pot, methamphetamines, and cocaine and was an alcoholic at 20. He once got arrested twice for drunken driving in one 24-hour period.
“In 1996 I was living in a dumpster in Nashville, Tennessee,” he said. “I was shooting dope in my neck because I’d collapsed all the veins in my arms. A friend saw me crawling out of my dumpster, and he grabbed me, put me on a plane, and sent me to my parents in Dallas.”
In 1997 Fleming went to stay at Christian Farms-Treehouse, a rehab center in Temple.
“When I walked out of there, I was a radically different person,” he said.
He worked at other rehab centers and helped establish one at Victory Outreach in Dallas. A relapse in 2009 nearly killed him.
“I got drunk for two weeks and ended up in intensive care,” he said. “My blood alcohol level was .42. I was in an alcoholic coma. I went to rehab again — the little rehab that I had helped set up. The guys running it had all gone through my program. It was a very humbling experience for me.”
He met another addict there: Williams.
“We became friends, and I told him, ‘You hang on, buddy. One day I’ll set up another one of these, and you can come work with me,’ ” Fleming said. “I started Ranch on the Rock in August of 2011.”
Fleming met West in 2006 after the sheriff and his deputies had engaged in a standoff with a Mexican drug cartel near the border.
The Mexican military was serving as bodyguards for cartel drug runners on this side of the border, and West wanted proof. His deputies chased several sport utility vehicles they believed to be loaded with drugs.
The vehicles fled across the dry Rio Grande, but one bogged down in the mud. Mexican soldiers in uniform, using a 50-caliber machine gun mounted atop an SUV, rolled onto U.S. territory and provided cover for the drug runners while they unloaded the cargo and then burned the muddy vehicle.
West contacted Fleming, who was documenting the drug wars on film, and they became friends. Fleming moved to Sierra Blanca in 2010 to work with the department while making his movies.
“You want to meet the sheriff?” Fleming asked.
We walked down a hall and into a conference room where three men sat at a table. Two wore polished cowboy boots and creased shirts and jeans, looking like typical Texas lawmen. The other was kicked back in a chair, wearing faded blue overalls, hands clasped over his prominent belly.
“This is the sheriff,” Fleming said, introducing me to the guy in overalls.
People in these parts employ a wicked sense of humor, and I thought I was being punked at first. As it turns out, West works part-time hauling cattle and feed in a long-haul trailer, just like his father did while raising a family in Sierra Blanca.
Being top cop in the huge but sparsely populated county is “a full-time job, it just ain’t full-time pay,” said West, who earns about $40,000 a year as sheriff.
West didn’t have much to say about Apple.
“She was out there in La La Land while she was here,” he said.
I asked the sheriff if he knew what she meant about lockboxes and decoders.
“I don’t think she does,” he said. “I’m telling you she was out there.”
He wasn’t bothered by Fleming’s unconventional press release regarding Apple’s allegations.
“That’s typical Rusty,” he said. “That’s just the way he talks. And I agree with him — shut up and sing.”
West’s memories of Nelson are much fonder.
“I got to admit we treated Willie a little different because, I mean, it’s Willie,” he said. “He got to come in here and visit with me whereas the rest of them get to go straight to jail.”
While Nelson was being processed, the singer sat in the sheriff’s office “right where you’re sitting,” he told me.
News reports claimed County Commissioner Wayne West played a song for Nelson while he was in jail. I asked the sheriff about that, and he laughed. Turns out, the commissioner is the sheriff’s brother. Indeed, Wayne West played guitar and sang a song for Nelson in the sheriff’s office, a song about their dad called “Bull Haulin’ Man.”
I asked how the song went over.
“Willie wasn’t too into it, I would say, because he had other issues on his mind like making bond,” the sheriff said.
Austin singer-songwriter Kevin Fowler released a new Christmas song this year based on the infamous checkpoint titled “Santa Got Busted by the Border Patrol.” Sample verse: The cops said, Hey, what’s in that big red sack / Our dogs are sniffin’, yeah you’d better step back / They started high fivin’ sayin’ “Ain’t we slick / We got Willie, got Nelly, now we got Saint Nick.
The sheriff and deputies aren’t much interested in dishing on celebrities. Famous people occasionally spend a few hours in jail, but they’re a tiny drop in the bucket. Border Patrol agents arrested 4,036 people at checkpoints in the Big Bend sector last year, and many of those were sent to the Hudspeth County Jail.
Much of the office’s workload stems from checkpoint busts. Deputies also bust cartel drug runners who make it past the checkpoint and into the county. About 90,000 pounds of marijuana and other drugs are seized and stored as evidence each year, Fleming said.
“There’s about 40,000 pounds of pot in that room right there, and another 60,000 sitting in storage right behind you,” he said, pointing at one of his office’s cinder block walls.
After cases are cleared, deputies make an annual trek to the desert to douse the drugs with gasoline and burn them.
“We do it under the cover of darkness in undisclosed areas,” Fleming said. “There is not a cartel on this border that wouldn’t kill every one of us for that load. You think about 90,000 pounds of marijuana — that’s roughly $90 million worth. They’d kill us all for it.”
Drug runners in Juárez sometimes opt to avoid the heavily manned and armed border crossing at El Paso and make an end run to the little Mexican town of Porvenir 80 miles away. There they cross the border into the more rural and lightly populated Hudspeth County. Porvenir is about 20 miles away from Sierra Blanca, but, “We’ve got cartel right here in town,” Fleming said.
What do they do?
“Run narcotics, extort, kidnap, kill,” he said.
Few murders, however, occur in Hudspeth County. Most violence takes place across the border.
Celebrities are an afterthought. Sometimes deputies don’t know they’ve arrested a celebrity until a reporter calls, with TMZ usually being the first in line.
“TMZ, I don’t know how they do it, but them bastards have got an intel network that if we could use that against the cartels, we’d make big busts every day,” West said. “How they find things out and do it so quick is beyond me.”
Jumping through hoops for gossip-mongering reporters tests Fleming’s patience. In November a TV reporter sent a public information request seeking e-mails, memos, phone calls, and other communications regarding “the arrests, searches, identifying, pulling over, and/or seizures of any and all celebrities and/or their property.”
Fleming showed surprising restraint when he responded. He explained it would take untold hours to pore over phone and file records and computer systems for thousands of prisoners, trying to identify celebrities. Besides, he added, there “is nothing that denotes ‘celebrity’ in my system.”
The reporter shot back a reply, saying he couldn’t believe there weren’t any inter-office communications between staff regarding the celebrities. He told Fleming to track down the information or answer to the attorney general.
Fleming wrote back, explaining how the office employs four administrative staffers and a handful of deputies to cover thousands of square miles of territory, including 98 miles of border, while dealing with nearby narco-terrorist organizations on a daily basis.
“I have absolutely NO internal e-mails regarding any of the individuals you are inquiring about,” Fleming wrote. “You can find that hard to believe or not, I don’t care. You are more than welcome to trot your happy ass out here and look for it yourself. We will be glad to open the records to you.”
I asked Fleming to explain the frustration that occasionally surfaces in his press releases and e-mails. He didn’t hesitate.
“We have real crimes, major crimes being committed right here,” Fleming said. “We live right next to the most violent city in the Western hemisphere — Juárez, Mexico. Daily we have people who are trying to kill, kidnap, and extort, besides all the tons of narcotics that come through this region every month.”
The successes rarely make news, he said.
“But we pop a musician, and it becomes an international news story, and my office will get flooded with 200 e-mails requesting information,” he said. “We have all this real-world situation going on, and nobody cares about that.”
It can become demoralizing, but deputies work hard to maintain order, he said.
“They are paid just above the poverty line to do what they do,” he said. “We are the front door for America. We are the ones controlling the gate. We don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done. And nobody seems to care. And yet every day these men and women punch in and do the job. It’s pretty amazing.”
He asked if I wanted to visit the checkpoint to see how agents perform searches. Sure, I said.
“Let’s take your truck,” he said.
On the way to the checkpoint, Fleming brags about how the canines can detect everything from pot to prescription pills to smuggled humans. A Border Patrol spokesman once said a well-trained dog could find a joint hidden inside a can of jalapeños.
Fleming is carrying prescription pain medicine in his backpack and says the dog will detect it even though we’re sitting in a truck with the doors shut. Sure enough, the dog hits, we’re told to get out, and an agent opens the passenger door.
The dog immediately pounces on the backpack that Fleming left in the passenger seat. The agent takes it out of the truck and searches the contents. Fleming has a prescription, and the bag and pills are returned to him.
But the dog isn’t finished. It’s still bouncing around inside the truck, tongue and tail wagging. Fleming looks at me kind of funny.
“I cleaned my truck out before I drove down here, but I’ve had it for seven years — God knows what’s fallen down in the cracks,” I said.
The dog hones in on my cigarette pack in the side-door compartment. An agent grabs it, fishes out the cigarettes, and looks inside but finds nothing illegal.
And with that I discovered how, hypothetically speaking, a person could roll a little pin joint and stick it in a cigarette pack and, after a long drive, remove it and smoke it in his motel room to relax. And the next day that pack will still contain enough odor to tip off a dog.
But, of course, checkpoint agents don’t arrest people for odors. They tell me I’m free to go. Strangely, I feel bad for the dog. It’s as if the pooch has been called a liar unjustly, and only I know the truth.
Still, I keep my mouth shut. Screw the dog. After all, my editor’s last words before I hit the road were, “Have a good trip, but if you get arrested, I’m not posting your bail.”