Editor’s Note: Jack Becker is the editor of Caprock Chronicles and Librarian Emeritus, Texas Tech University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s article about Billie Sol Estes is the second of a two-part series by frequent contributor Chuck Lanehart, Lubbock attorney and award-winning Western history writer.
Seven men connected to Billie Sol Estes probes died. U.S. Department of Agriculture Investigator Henry Marshall — found bludgeoned with carbon monoxide in his blood and five rifle wounds to his chest — died of suicide, Robertson County, Texas, officials ruled. After an exhumation, the cause of death was changed to homicide, but the murder was never solved. Billie Sol’s accountant and five others involved in the case were killed under suspiciouscircumstances.
The scandal rocked Washington, as chronicles of Billie Sol’s escapades filled newspapers and magazines. The story inspired books and at least two popular songs, as comedians and conspiracy theorists thrived on the juicy details. On May 25, 1962, the swindler’s dimpled, smiling face graced the cover of Time Magazine, its all-time best-selling issue to that date.
The New York Times portrayed him as a combination predator and modernday Robin Hood. “Billie Sol Estes is a product of the limitless plains of West Texas and the limitless spirit of the American frontier. And though it is many years since there was ‘no law west of the Pecos,’ some of the old frontier freedoms remain — the right of a man to dream of new worlds, for instance, and to set about finding them the quickest way he can.”
As shocking disclosures seemed to mount daily, and with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Agriculture Secretary Orville L. Freeman under pressure from the scandal, President Kennedy said, “This government is staying right on Mr. Estes’ tail.”
In 1963, Billie Sol was convicted on state and federal charges. The state conviction was later reversed because of prejudicial news coverage, but all appeals failed in his 15-year federal sentence. In 1971, he was paroled after serving six years in prison.
In 1979, new charges involving mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service were brought against him. He was convicted, returned to federal prison and was released in 1983.
“My problem,” Billie Sol explained, “is that I’m overanxious to do something for the poor. When I die, I want them to put one thing on my tombstone: ‘He did all that he could to help the poor.’ ”
It is true the modern-day Robin Hood/swindler was benevolent. Even before he arrived in Pecos, Billie Sol gave generously to Black and Hispanic communities. At his financial peak, he funded 40 Black students’ college educations. When a big rain came to Pecos, he sent his limousine to the flooded east side of town, where minorities lived, to deliver kids to school on the west side. When he learned the only funeral home in Pecos refused to serve minority families, he opened his own funeral home to serve their needs. He ran — and lost — a school board election on a platform urging integration, and he supported civil rights reform.
Billie Sol always sought the spotlight, and in 1984 — in an effort for a pardon and immunity from prosecution — he told state and federal authorities Lyndon Johnson ordered killings of witnesses during the Estes investigations. He also implicated Johnson in the Kennedy assassination, told of a White House plan to kill Fidel Castro and another plot by Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa to kill Robert Kennedy.
None of Billie Sol’s claims were corroborated. A 1953 form letter and sporadic correspondence in Johnson’s presidential archives are the only evidence of Johnson’s relationship with the swindler. Johnson told an aide he met Billie Sol once and never talked to him by phone. The autographed photo of Kennedy on Billie Sol’s wall was the only evidence of his relationship with the slain president.
Considering his many foibles, Billie Sol’s family life was fairly stable, with one glaring exception. In 1946, Billie Sol and Patsy Howe had been married, and the couple reared five children.
Shortly after his release from prison in the early 1970s, Billie Sol carried on an affair with a 30-ish dark-haired beauty, Sue Goolsby. His justification for committing adultery: “In the eyes of the Lord, we’re married.” Years later,
Sue said, “Billie’s problem is that he’s a liar, and he just can’t help it.”
After Billie Sol’s fall from grace, the couple moved to wife Patsy’s hometown of Brady, where they were active in the Church of Christ. She rationalized his swindling — in the eyes of the church — was not grounds for divorce. She gave serious consideration to divorce for his philandering but stuck with Billie Sol until her death in 2000.
Following Patsy’s death, Billie Sol married Dorris Brookover and moved to Granbury, where he lived until his death in 2013 at age 88. He was survived by his five children, 11 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren. His tombstone did not include his chosen epitaph: “He did all that he could to help the poor.”