From Shovels to DNA

Billy-HatYou could hear the two shots all over Lincoln, New Mexico: noon, April 28.

The date is historic: on that day in 1881, history tells us Billy the Kid broke out of the Lincoln County Jail, shooting to death Deputies James Bell and Bob Olinger.

On that day in 2003, the re-enactment shots launched an investigation that has attracted international attention and promises to be a tourism bonanza for New Mexico: solving the mystery surrounding the life and death of Billy the Kid.

So even before the media caught on, the ranking officers of Lincoln County re-enacted the shots of April 28, 1881, in hope of eventually answering the question: where in the world did Billy get the gun he used to kill the deputies?

History says Olinger was in the Wortley Hotel, having dinner with five inmates when he heard the shots inside the jail that killed Bell. Leaving his prisoners behind, Olinger came running and was himself gunned down.

But can you hear a gunshot in the jail if you’re in the hotel?

“We went to the jail at noon and closed all the windows,” reports Deputy Steve Sederwall. “We shot off two blanks of black powder in the hallway. We had somebody at the Wortley Hotel, to see if you could hear the shots from there. People from the other side of town came running, wondering what was going on. It was so loud it shocked me; I’m a  law officer and I’ve popped off a few in my day, but that was loud.”

So Sederwall is satisfied that this piece of the historical story checks out. “Now we’re working with the state police to do an entire crime scene,” he notes, from examining the jail walls to see if there’s a bullet hiding somewhere to taking up floorboards to see if any blood residue remains.

Step by step, Sederwall and Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan hope to pick apart and examine every aspect of the last days of Billy the Kid.

What a question

“They dug up Jesse James; they dug up Thomas Jefferson, why can’t we dig up Billy?”

Sheriff Sullivan and Sederwall mused over that question during a horseback ride last spring.

Since then, all hell has broken loose. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has joined the hunt, announcing the state will devote its expertise and resources to “shed new light on an old story.”

The international media—from London to India—has come to Lincoln County to report on this spectacular Old West mystery: Did Billy the Kid die with a bullet in the heart shot by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881, or did he escape the sheriff and justice, and live out his life, dying of old age some 60 or 70 years later?

“This episode in the history of New Mexico and the history of the Old West is both fact and legend and continues to stir the imagination and interest of people all over the world,” Gov. Richardson said. “By utilizing modern forensic, DNA and crime scene techniques, the goal of the investigation is to get to the truth. In the process, the reputation of Pat Garrett, still a hero to Lincoln County law enforcement, hangs in the balance.”

Sheriff Sullivan, more than anyone, knows how important that truth will be. “Pat Garrett is the theme of this office,” he stresses to True West. “I designed a patch with his likeness we wear on our uniforms, his image is on our patrol car.”

He has always believed, still believes, Pat Garrett killed Billy in Fort Sumner that summer night.  But if he didn’t, if he killed someone else and passed him off as Billy, that makes Pat Garrett a murderer and a liar.  Does Sheriff Sullivan believe he was? “Absolutely not,” he says, “but we need to know the truth.”

It wasn’t so much a doubt as an uneasiness Sheriff Sullivan felt when he visited Hico, Texas, on the way to see his son last year, and toured a museum devoted to Brushy Bill Roberts, who lived to 1950 and claimed he was really Billy the Kid.

“I didn’t tell anyone in the museum who I was, but when I walked outside, my wife told the museum lady I was the Lincoln County Sheriff and she said ‘You better not tell the people around here that.’ I still don’t know what that means,” he says with a laugh. “But later, someone from Hico came all the way over here to convince us Brushy was the real thing and when I told him I’d visited the museum, he said, ‘everyone in Hico knows the sheriff was in town.’”

That trip convinced Sheriff Sullivan that the lingering doubts needed to be put to rest.

“I think the people in Hico are split 50-50 to know the truth or leave it alone. In our county, 90 percent want to know the truth,” the Sheriff adds.

But there are many problems in getting to the truth.

In theory, the way to do it is this:

• Dig up the grave of Catherine Antrim in Silver City, New Mexico, who was the mother of the real Billy the Kid, and get a sample of her DNA. (There are suggestions Catherine was just a “great aunt,” but Sheriff Sullivan and historians say Brushy spread that story to discredit her.)

• Dig up the Billy killed by Garrett and compare the DNA.

• Dig up Brushy to test his DNA against Catherine’s.

• And while you’re at it, dig up the Arizona contender to the title of the Kid, John Miller, who’s buried in Prescott.

But it’s not that easy

The biggest problem is nobody is certain where the Billy who wears Pat Garrett’s bullet lies in peace.

“I know the people in Fort Sumner are nervous,” Sheriff Sullivan says.  “They’ve got Billy’s tombstone in a park up there and it’s a real tourist attraction.” What if that proves NOT to be Billy’s grave—a situation many see as a probability more than just a possibility?

“I can guarantee you Billy’s body isn’t in that grave,” says Arizona investigator Dale Tunnell. Tunnell says he’s convinced that even if Billy at one time was buried in Fort Sumner (and he’s not buying into the “official story” at all),  the grave was either moved or flooded away. “Or else that’s always just been an empty grave,” he says.

Not everyone is jazzed about the probe. Robert Utley, author of Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, dismisses all the hoopla as “just a hobby of a retired cop.”

Just as blunt is Marcelle Brothers, the webmaster and author of About Billy the Kid and a member of the advisory board for the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang Organization. While she says she would love to see all the fictitious pretenders “discredited once and for all,”  she adds: “I’m completely against this silly project.”

She tells True West: “First of all this whole thing is not about Billy the Kid, it’s about Pat Garrett—it’s more about saving Garrett’s butt and squashing any allegations that he was a dishonest cop.”

She notes so many gravesites are in question—-including Catherine and Billy’s official grave—that whatever DNA is collected will be iffy. “By using DNA that can’t be proven to be from the right person, it won’t end the controversy but add to it, “ she notes. “So is this all really worth it or is the publicity just too tempting  to pass up?”

Loretta Portillo, president of the Billy the Kid Historic Preservation Society, raises another objection: “We are concerned that irreplaceable, fragile landmarks will be damaged and for what? Just to prove that an imposter from Hico, Texas, was fibbing when he said he was the real Billy the Kid.”

Meanwhile, the city council of Fort Sumner has unanimously opposed any attempt to dig up the grave in their city park.

But given the unusual amount of attention the 47th State is garnering over this, Gov. Richardson is moving forward. He expects public costs to be nominal, but is quick to add: “The benefits to our state and to the history of the West far outweigh any cost we may incur. Getting to the truth is our goal. But, if this increases interest and tourism in our state, I couldn’t be happier.”

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