East Texas lawman Billy Rowles is giving up tracking down criminals through woods and river bottoms. He’s ready to begin chasing that magic four handicap in golf that he lost when he became Newton County Sheriff four years ago.
Rowles is retiring January 1 from the position. It’s the third time he’s retired from law enforcement. Maybe this time, it will stick.
Rowles talked with KOGT’s Gary Stelly Thursday during The Morning Show about his career and his unintentional celebrityhood.
He’s gained a social media fan base through his weekly columns for KOGT and KJAS in Jasper. The short writings with humorous reporting and philosophic comments are shared on Facebook. Other media outlets picked them up.
The fame also includes the internationally infamous 1998 dragging death of a black man by white supremacists in Jasper. Rowles at the time was Jasper County sheriff, a job he won after his first retirement.
Rowles Thursday talked about how the investigation was a team effort with numerous agencies, including the FBI and Jasper Police Department. But it was Rowles wearing his cowboy hat and speaking in his East Texas accent that captured the attention, and admiration, of people around the world.
Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight played Rowles in the Showtime film “Jasper, Texas” about the dragging death of James Byrd.
Rowles told Stelly that he and his wife, Jamie, spent a week with Voight in California. The actor wanted to capture the sheriff’s mannerisms and accent.
Voight gave up. Even the legendary actor couldn’t reproduce Rowles’ unique drawl. The actor and lawman are still good friends and talk by phone at least once a month.
The drawl is all Texas with a heavy dose of the East and Southeast parts.
Rowles said he grew up in the South Park area of Beaumont. His parents divorced, and he traveled around with his father. He ended up graduating from Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, where his father moved to work as a contractor for a military base.
He joked about his high school athletic career. He played all sports, but said he was best at basketball and track. It was at Sam Houston where he met his sweetheart and wife, Jamie. She was 14 and he was 16. They’ve been married 55 years.
Rowles spent two decades working highway patrol for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Five of those years were spent in Orange County, where he made friends with law enforcement officers and learned the roads.
Jamie also had a law career in Orange. She retired a number of years ago after working 20 years in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office under sheriff’s Huel Fontenot and Mike White.
The couple has live for years on acreage in the Buna area with land on the border of the Jasper-Newton county line. They were living in Jasper County when Rowles chose to run, successfully, for sheriff.
He held the position when the 49-year-old Byrd was murdered by being chained and dragged by a pickup truck down a rural road. Rowles said when he realized Byrd was killed because he was black, he went straight to the FBI and his golfing buddy, Special Agent Zack Shelton.
Teamwork tracked down the killers and prosecuted three men, Rowles said. Two of the men have been executed. The third is in prison.
The infamous murder affected Rowles in many ways. He said he had been healthy, but developed high blood pressure and other problems while Jasper sheriff.
Stelly asked if Jamie had said she would not vote for her husband if he ran again. Rowles laughed. And replied it was time to leave the job again after eight years. He retired again.
Then a few years ago, the south Newton County constable position became vacant. By that time, the Rowles couple had built a house and were living on the Newton County side. A judge asked Rowles to step in for a while. He served the Deweyville area.
After some political problems in the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Rowles was asked to run for sheriff. He won.
Rowles is retiring after one term in the position. He told Stelly the department will have a good sheriff with Robert Burby, who is a graduate of the FBI Academy and is former Texas City police chief.
Rowles told Stelly his secret to being a law officer, which he learned from writer and former cop Joseph Wambaugh. “Have a sense of humor.”