SIERRA BLANCA, Texas – Nestled among the few remaining businesses that dot a rundown highway in this dusty West Texas town stands what’s become a surprise destination for marijuana-toting celebrities: the Hudspeth County Jail.
Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and actor Armie Hammer have been among the thousands of people busted for possession at a Border Patrol checkpoint outside town in recent years, bringing a bit of notoriety to one of Texas’ most sparsely populated counties.
“Once I was in Arizona, and when I said where I was from, they said, ‘That’s where Willie Nelson was busted,'” said Louise Barantley, manager at the Coyote Sunset souvenir shop in Sierra Blanca.
Hudspeth County cameos aren’t only for outlaws: Action movie star Steven Seagal, who’s already deputized in Louisiana and Arizona for his reality show “Steven Seagal Lawman” on the A&E cable television channel, has signed on to become a county officer.
Locals already have found ways to rub shoulders with their celebrity guests.
Deputies posed for pictures with Snoop Dogg after authorities said they found several joints on his bus earlier this month. When Nelson was busted here in 2010, the county’s lead prosecutor suggested the singer settle his marijuana charges by performing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” for the court. Nelson paid a fine instead, but not before county commissioner Wayne West played one of his own songs for the country music legend.
West acknowledged he’s a big fan of Nelson and wanted to capitalize on a golden chance to perform for such a noted “captive audience.”
“Willie loved the song, he is a real outgoing individual” he added.
The once-thriving town of Sierra Blanca began to shrink to its current 1,000-person population after the construction of nearby Interstate 10 — a main artery linking cities from California to Florida — offered an easy way to bypass the community.
Now the highway is sending thousands of drug bust cases Sierra Blanca’s way, courtesy of a Border Patrol checkpoint just outside of town where drug-sniffing dogs inspect more than 17,000 trucks, travellers — and tour buses — daily for whiffs of contraband that may have made its way inland from the border.
Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, younger brother of the musically inclined commissioner, said his office handled about 2,000 cases last year, most of them having to do with drugs seized at the checkpoint.
Border Patrol agents say people busted with small amounts of pot often say they have medical marijuana licenses from California, Arizona or New Mexico — three states along I-10 that, unlike Texas, allow for medicinal pot prescriptions — and claim to believe the licenses were valid nationwide.
Nelson’s publicists declined to comment about the specifics of the singer’s case. Representatives for Snoop Dogg, who will pay a fine and court costs after being cited for possession of marijuana paraphernalia, did not return several messages seeking comment.
County authorities have not yet decided whether to prosecute or issue a citation for Hammer, who starred in the 2010 film “The Social Network” and more recently played the FBI’s number two man in “J. Edgar.” He was arrested in November on his way to his wife’s bakery in San Antonio after authorities said they found marijuana-laced brownies and cookies. His attorney Kent Schaffer has called the case a “total non-issue.”
Local officials say they’re not on a celebrity witch hunt, but some residents are enjoying the publicity from the high-profile arrests. They say the once forgotten town should take pride in not pandering to famous people caught breaking the law.
“We get attention because something is being done right,” resident Adolfo Gonzalez said while shopping at a local convenience store. “It’d be worse if we’d let them go because they are celebrities.”
That’s not expected to change when Seagal comes to town. Sheriff West insists the “Under Siege” star hasn’t indicated any plans to film his show here — but the sheriff isn’t ruling it out.
“If he wants to, we can do it but that’s not what he said this was about,” West said.
West’s spokesman, Rusty Flemming, said Seagal will patrol the area and train colleagues in martial arts and weapons techniques. The actor is expected to arrive in Hudspeth County within months, once he’s done filming a new movie in Canada.
Seagal’s management agency did not return calls and emails seeking comment about his plans in Texas.
Commissioner West, meanwhile, is keeping his musical skills sharp — just in case another performer pays a surprise visit to the county jail. The lead guitarist and vocalist of a local band, West said he regrets not having a chance to sing for Snoop Dogg, but wasn’t sure if the rapper would have enjoyed the performance anyway.
“Our stuff is laid back,” he said. “Mas o menos (more or less) country.”