If anyone knows Billy the Kid, it’s the sheriff in the town that claims to hold the outlaw’s grave.
Sheriff Gary Graves has ridden the “last ride of Billy the Kid” on horseback and wants it to become a yearly trek from Lincoln County to Fort Sumner. He lives on the ranch where Billy once visited, the very place the legendary outlaw supposedly scratched “The Kid” onto a rock, which was placed in downtown Fort Sumner years later. He wears Billy’s likeness on his official uniform, which means something special when he drives down Billy the Kid Road to the cemetery where tourists from around the world take pictures of Billy’s grave.
So Sheriff Graves wasn’t surprised that some people went nuts when all this business about digging up Billy the Kid started—when the lawmen in Lincoln County said they wanted to prove once and for all that the guy Sheriff Pat Garrett shot in the heart in 1881 was the notorious Kid, or when people began suggesting Fort Sumner had an empty hole where their tourist attraction lay, or when some claimed any body found in that grave wouldn’t be Billy in the first place.
It’s not hard to imagine how upset all this made the good folks of Fort Sumner.
“You’ve got your diehards that are scared of their shadow and say leave it alone,” says Sheriff Graves in his soft twang, during a phone interview from his home. “The mayor says he wants nothin’ to do with it.”
A good politician would be expected to bow to loud and powerful voices and let sleeping dogs lie. But that’s not the kind of sheriff the folks here elected a year ago.
“I’m not anybody’s ‘yes-man,’” Sheriff Graves says. “I think it’s great.”
But then he takes a dramatic turn, because this guy has no doubt the real Billy the Kid was killed in his town some 120 years ago and that the real Billy is planted in a grave outside town. “That talk about the flood washing the grave away—the flood never went that far—we’re going to find him, no doubt about that.”
Sheriff Graves says he has no doubt Garrett fatally shot Billy in Fort Sumner, but he says that’s about all he’s sure of. He doesn’t know exactly where Billy was shot, or how or when. And he’s not even sure why. “I want to provide [proof] if Billy the Kid was killed legal or illegal,” he says. “I want to know if Sheriff Pat Garrett was a murderer.”
Garrett always said he went after the Kid because he had escaped from jail and killed two deputies. He shot the Kid when he resisted arrest in Pete Maxwell’s house. Then, Garrett buried him the next day.
But Sheriff Graves says there’s more to that story than has ever been told.
“I don’t think he killed him in the Maxwell house,” the sheriff says. “And I think they held him until dark and then killed him.”
He suspects Garrett came gunning for Billy, not so much to catch a cop killer as to protect himself and his complicity with the outlaw. “I think Pat Garrett was afraid people would hear the real story,” he says.
“I kind of feel ol’ Pat might have been behind the escape,” says Graves, as he notes the lingering suspicions that the sheriff had planted a gun to help Billy, never dreaming two of his deputies would be killed.
Why does the sheriff feel the story is a legacy of lies? He says he’s uncovered two major points that fuel his suspicions:
• While Billy the Kid was in Fort Sumner, he was involved with Pat Garrett’s sister-in-law.
• Garrett’s long-rumored friendship with the Kid is allegedly underscored by paperwork that has the men buying property together.
All told, “it smells like a rat,” says the sheriff, adding that he is still pursuing the documents.
On June 7, 2003, two days after The New York Times alerted the world that officials in New Mexico were planning to dig up Billy and two of the major contenders to his name, and three days before New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed on to make this a state investigation, Sheriff Graves opened his own homicide investigation into the death of Billy the Kid. He can recite the case number by heart: 03-06-136-01.
Whatever he finds, he’s convinced of this: “If we were back in those days, we’d have arrested Billy, and we’d end up arresting Pat Garrett right beside him—nobody was wearing a white hat.”
Graves says he’s supported by his Lincoln County counterparts, who launched the original probe, Sheriff Tom Sullivan and Deputy Sheriff Steve Sederwall. “They want to know the truth too,” he says, since they wear Garrett’s likeness on the badges of their uniforms.
And about the contenders? Sheriff Graves laughs. Jim Miller in Arizona? “There’s just no way two and two are gonna make four there,” he says. “It’s a good story, but there are so many good stories that aren’t true.”
Brushy Bill, buried in Hico, Texas, where there’s a whole museum claiming he’s the real Billy the Kid? “That man’s story just does not match,” the sheriff says. “He’s a smart ol’ bird, he had a lot of things that was close, but he was off—some stories he had backwards.”
Besides, he adds, “Texas has taken our water, it doesn’t need to take our heroes.”
And to him, Billy—outlaw and all—is a hero of New Mexico because he’s part of its rich history. “Billy the Kid romped here, he played here and he was shot here,” he says. “I love our history. It barks at you.” That is why the sheriff takes his six-year-old daughter, nicknamed Triscuit, out to ride through the hills that are part of America’s past.
And if his stubbornness to get to the bottom of this ruffles some feathers and costs him the next election three years off?
“If they don’t want me, it won’t be over Billy the Kid,” Graves says with a laugh.
His quest is to find the truth: “I believe when we come to the bottom of this homicide investigation, Pat Garrett will either have a black eye or a hero’s bath.”