drove over in person to collect the prisoner.
“I sat him down in my office,” recalled West. “There were two other fellows with him—I think they drove the bus. I told them if one of those other guys said the dope was his, then Willie could walk. Willie said nope, it was his.
“I took a deep breath and let him sit there a minute to think about it. I looked at him real hard, then I asked again whose dope was it. ‘Are you sure it’s yours?’ Willie said yep, it was all his.”
The word spread quickly that Willie Nelson was in the county jail. West’s brother, Wayne, the Precinct 1 county commissioner, rushed over with his guitar as soon as he heard. A part-time singer-songwriter himself, Wayne played what he thought was his best composition, “Bull-Hauling Man,” for Willie, who told him it was pretty darn good.
The octogenarian county attorney, Kit Bramblett, who has no jurisdiction in federally initiated criminal cases, suggested Willie pay for his crime by singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in the old adobe courthouse. This was gleefully reported by news media across the country but soon overruled by the county judge, Becky Dean-Walker, who reckoned it shameless favoritism. It turned out she had no authority in the case either, but by then the Willie Nelson bust was the biggest thing to ever happen in Sierra Blanca, and everyone in town had something to say about it.
Three miles west of town, at the checkpoint where the bust had actually occurred, the Border Patrol was unfazed and tight-lipped. They referred all media inquiries to the sheriff, who was happy to field them. As an elected official, West has a politician’s knack for the spotlight. He also has the good-ol’-boy streak that all successful Texas sheriffs must possess to some degree. And this had a curious result.
At some point in the continuing investigation of Willie’s crime, it was discovered that the very same stash that had weighed almost seven ounces at the checkpoint weighed less than half that on the jailhouse scales. This reduced the charge against him to a misdemeanor and made Willie eligible for one of those $527 paraphernalia tickets, which is how the case was eventually disposed.
Two years later, when I asked West about this discrepancy between his scales and the feds’, he shrugged. “They don’t always get things right at that checkpoint,” he said. “They probably weighed the container along with the dope.” This sounded just plausible enough to make me smile, and West smiled back. Then he offered to show me the evidence room.
The evidence room of the Hudspeth County jail is a pothead’s treasure trove. There are stacks and stacks of bags and sacks and big cartons and small white boxes, all full of marijuana and crammed to the ceiling of a cinder-block vault the size of a four-car garage. Each bag and sack and carton and box is stamped with a case number and sealed with evidence tape, but the skunky aroma of all that pot is irrepressible, overwhelming, positively intoxicating. According to West, when he showed this room to Willie, the pothead king exclaimed, “Whoa! Y’all got a lotta shit here. You don’t need mine, give it back.”
I laughed because I knew exactly how Willie had felt. Somewhere in that room were my own perfect buds. Up near the top of one stack I noticed a box with case number 10-2034 stenciled on the side, next to which someone had scrawled “Willy.” I couldn’t help wondering what the contents might weigh.
When I asked West how he felt about his celebrated decision to release Willie, he shook his head. “The last thing in this world I want to be is a pothead hero,” he said. “But the laws we’ve got now don’t work. Something’s gotta change.”
Al Reinert is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly and a documentary filmmaker whose most recent movie is An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.