NEWTON — The Texas lawman is one of the most oft-romanticized figures in the American landscape. Newton County Sheriff Billy Rowles is no exception.
The Beaumont Enterprise reports that Rowles — tall in stature, usually outfitted in a cowboy hat and belt buckle, with 50 years of experience in law enforcement — is a main character in the story of modern-day East Texas.
But he’s taking off his badge for good at the end of this term, ready to spend more time with his wife, grandchildren and garden.
“I’m 74. I would be out campaigning at 75 and that means when I was 79, with a little luck, I’d be the sheriff,” he said. “That’s too old. This job requires too much energy to be doing that.”
Rowles is best known for being sheriff in Jasper County at the time of the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr., a black man, in a fatal attack by three white men. The case put Rowles on the national stage. He is credited with keeping the community together in the wake of the brutal, racist slaying. Actor Jon Voight portrayed him in the 2003 television film “Jasper, Texas.”
Millions saw Rowles on the news in June 1998 as he kept Jasper from unraveling after Byrd’s murder.
The Rev. Ron Foshage, of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, said while working with Rowles during the arrest and trial of the three men who killed Byrd, it became clear Rowles was a leader.
“It took all of us, the community included, to weather the storm,” he said. “But we did and we will continue to do so. Sheriff Rowles has been an integral part of every aspect of the county he serves and has served.”
Under the eye of the nation and a promise from his wife that she wouldn’t vote for him again, Rowles announced he would retire in 2005 from his role in Jasper County.
But only a few years later, Rowles was tapped to finish a Newton County constable’s unexpired term before serving as the city of Newton’s interim police chief. From there, Rowles successfully ran for the county’s highest law enforcement office.
More recently, he’s made a name for himself with a folksy weekly report on the crimes and misadventures in his current place of employment, Newton County.
After nearly three years in office, he recently announced he’ll retire for good at the end of his term.
“I’d like to do all the things that other people do every day that they take for granted,” he said. “I plan on getting my golf game back. Being the sheriff of Newton County has hurt my golf game terribly. I’d like to be able to do a little more hunting. I’ve got great grandkids I need to be a bigger part of their life. I haven’t had a garden for the last three years even though I like having a garden and tending to it.”
Rowles started his law enforcement career with the Texas Department of Public Safety in 1968 after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps.
He later spent time working for the DPS in Buna, served as the Jasper County sheriff, a constable in Deweyville and Newton’s police chief.
Like most people, he said he’s had many days in his long tenure where he would have rather gone hunting with friends or played a round of golf, but he considers himself blessed to have such a long career in a field he enjoyed.
“How lucky are you to have a job where you never dread going to work,” he said.
His love for the work was clear to his subordinates as well.
Jasper County sheriff’s Capt. James Carter worked under Rowles and saw him in many tough situations, especially when the two had to relay the horrific details of James Byrd Jr.’s death to his family.
“He took his job real serious,” Carter said. “He was active among the citizens and he was the man that got the job done.”
Carter said because Rowles set that example, it infused the entire office. But he wasn’t afraid to have fun with the deputies either.
“He was more or less a friend instead of him being my sheriff,” he said. “We were close together and worked well together. He was fun to work with and full of jokes, but he got his job done.”
Rowles said his chief deputy, Cynthia Hall, is planning on running for his seat. Hall ran unsuccessfully against Rowles in 2016.
“We think a whole lot alike,” he said. “Some of the things that we’ve done I hope she continues to do: Being close to the kids in the county, going to the schools and talking to the kids that I do.”
Hall, 61, announced her intent on her Facebook page.
“I look forward to visiting with you and answering any questions you have,” she wrote. “I ask that if you believe in me and my vision for Newton County to elect me as your Sheriff in the upcoming 2020 election.”
The Burkeville resident has served Newton County as a first responder for more than 28 years in various roles, including as a jailer/dispatcher, jail captain and sheriff’s deputy.
She said helping people — “from helping an older lady across the road when I was a knee-high grasshopper to now” — has been her dream since she was a little girl.
“This is my dream, not to become sheriff but to be able to help everyone I can on a daily basis,” she said. “My job allows me to do that now and the idea of expanding that ability is so exciting to me.”
As a deputy, she’s worked under four sheriffs, most recently under Rowles.
“Sheriff Rowles has taught me patience and how to be graceful even under pressure,” she wrote. “Sheriff Rowles is a true Texas sheriff.”
Rowles said he hopes his successor continues to let the community know they have a sheriff who wants to be involved and “hammer on the drug situation in the county” — one of the three biggest problems he thinks the next sheriff will face.
The continued use of drugs also contributes to the mental health problems the county sees, he said.
“The state of Texas and this country has mental health issues that have to be addressed,” he said. “The state has to spend money on mental health. We think we’re spending money on mental health now, but we’re not spending near enough.”
He said the new sheriff also likely will be expected to work with the Newton County commissioners to find a solution to jail overcrowding. As it is, the county pays to house inmates in Jasper and Polk counties because the Newton County jail doesn’t have enough room for all its inmates.
However, he’s proud to say the county will see three new deputies — who will increase the force to 15 — at the beginning of next year.
He also worked with the county commissioners this year to secure certificate and hazardous duty pay for officers.
“We’re like every other county in the country,” he said. “But I think I’ll be leaving the office in pretty good shape for the next person.”