The Lunacy of Billy the Kid You can't make this stuff up!

You can't make this stuff up!
You can’t make this stuff up!

Two New Mexico lawmen receive death threats after digging up a body in Arizona.

One of them later finds his daughter’s horse so terribly maimed—somebody nearly cut off its left hind leg—that the animal has to be put down.
A former LA LA-land shrink says those same lawmen are part of a huge conspiracy, and she fears they’re out to kill her.

An internationally-known Southwest politician thinks a long-dead outlaw is the key to a modern day P.R. campaign (starring that same pol)—and woe be unto him who disagrees.
A not-so-jolly old Englishman says that the lawmen and the pol can’t handle the truth.
And some enterprising journalists try to find out just what the hell is going on.

No wonder that a New York Times reporter, looking at the whole thing, says he won’t cover the story because “…both sides are crazed.”
He’s right. Everyone is “Kid Krazy” in this story. None of their claims can be proven 100 percent. Yet a bunch of dead bodies, buried in four cemeteries in three states, have incited and united these folks for the past seven years.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The Genesis of Lunacy

By all accounts, a full moon shone on that summer night of July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, 129 years ago. The superstitious claim a full moon causes acts of craziness, insanity—lunacy. On this particular night, madness came in the form of violence as the calm and peace was shattered by two gunshots. Sheriff Pat Garrett had opened fire on escaped killer Billy the Kid in Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom; the first shot proved fatal.

In the annals of the Wild West, the shooting was not a particularly remarkable event. More famous victims fell to violence, and certainly some were much more controversial. But this killing would take on mythic proportions, catapulting the lawman and the outlaw into a pantheon occupied by few others. The grandest point of contention, at least to some: did the lawdog shoot the right man?

We’re not here to prove or disprove Garrett’s claim that he killed the Kid on that New Mexico night. Our tale stretches over the last seven years, as a group of lawmen tried—so they claim—to dig up the truth (and body) of the Kid.

 

The Full Moon Rises

In 2003, three New Mexico peace officers decided to investigate the death of the Kid, despite the fact that a coroner’s jury had closed the case just after Garrett killed his man in 1881.

The lawmen—we’ll call them the Investigators—seemed to have individual reasons for reopening the books.

Then-Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan says the ball opened when he visited Hico, Texas, and first heard about Kid Claimant 2, Brushy Bill Roberts. Sullivan wanted to prove the Texan was not the Kid, once and for all.

Steve Sederwall, who was then the mayor of Capitan, New Mexico, had doubts about Garrett’s account of the Kid’s escape from the Lincoln County Jail on April 28, 1881. He didn’t believe Deputy J.W. Bell was killed as he ran down the stairs, away from an armed Billy. “I was pretty sure that Bell was shot at the top of the stairs. And if Garrett lied about what happened there, then what else did he lie about?”

Others say the motives of these first  two Investigators were not so pure. Scot Stinnett, the publisher of the De Baca County News, claims he got some back-channel messages from them: Fort Sumner could play ball with them and make big bucks … or else.

On the 122nd anniversary of Billy’s bold bid for freedom, Sullivan and Sederwall (who was appointed a volunteer reserve Lincoln County deputy—a designation not provided by county or state statutes) announced their plans to reopen the case of Billy the Kid. They filed official paperwork the next day (an important point, as we’ll see later).

The New York Times carried the news on its front page. On June 7, 2003, just two days after the Times piece, then-De Baca County Sheriff Gary Graves—whose territory included Fort Sumner—started a new investigation in his bailiwick.  His take: “I kind of feel ’ol Pat might have been behind [the Kid’s] escape. If we were back in those days, we’d have arrested Billy, and we’d end up arresting Pat Garrett right beside him.” Graves believes Ol’ Pat might have killed the Kid to cover up his role in it.

Three days after that, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced the state was sanctioning the investigation. “I want to keep Billy the Kid a New Mexico legend” by helping to disprove the claims of men such as Brushy Bill and John Miller, he said. He also hoped that the attention would bring tourist dollars to his state. The governor later said he was deciding if he should grant a pardon to the Kid for his role as a Regulator in the 1878-79 Lincoln County War—something Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace had promised the outlaw but failed to deliver. Yet some critics of the dig, as Gale Cooper wrote in her 2009 book Mega Hoax, think the politically ambitious Richardson was hitching his star to an internationally-known Wild West figure, with hopes it would take him to the Oval Office.

Richardson appointed University of New Mexico Professor (and True West Historical Consultant) Paul A. Hutton as case historian. Hutton’s job was to make sure history was respected, but also to support the Investigators. Hutton’s view was clear in the April 2007 issue of True West: “The myopia of those opposed to the project is astonishing but predictable.”

Richardson named Houston, Texas, attorney Bill Robins to represent the Kid, pro bono. A Billy buff, Robins thought the outlaw deserved the pardon. He argued his client wanted to be exhumed—and wanted his mom dug up as well (how the attorney learned of that desire is unclear). In effect, he was saying the Kid would have supported the efforts of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. The moon must have been full again that night….

Oh, and Robins and his law firm were big donors to Richardson’s political campaigns, contributing nearly $110,000 from 2002 to 2009.

 

Dark Side of the Moon

The Investigators wanted to exhume the bodies of the Kid at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and his mother Catherine Antrim in Silver City, and see if any DNA could be recovered. They would then compare the two to confirm a match, as well as compare the Kid’s DNA to that found in what looked to be bloodstains on a workbench that allegedly held the Kid’s body after he was killed. Forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee (of O.J. Simpson murder trial fame) apparently had found the genetic material on the bench.

The bench had been in the possession of the Maxwell family since 1881. Hutton and True West Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell, caught up in all the excitement, believed it might be the real deal when they heard about the existence of the bench in early 2004. Both are a bit more cautious nowadays, especially since the Investigators found two different blood types on the bench. Which (if any) might be from Billy? “I believe that the family believes that it is the bench,” Hutton now says. “I’m not certain.”

The plan seemed doomed from the start. The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator released a statement that getting usable DNA from the remains of the Kid or his mother was impossible.

Kid scholars Robert Utley, Leon Metz, Drew Gomber and Frederick Nolan publicly noted their contempt for the digs. Nolan still is especially livid. “This disgraceful charade is historical inconsequentiality gone mad,” he says. “It’s sad to have to, yet again, rev up a steam engine to squash such an insignificant bug.”

Government officials in Fort Sumner and Silver City argued that exhumations would be “desecrations” of the burial sites. They also said Billy and his
mom might not be buried under their monuments, so a dig would be useless. Several also posited that even if their bodies were buried there, few, if any, remains would be left, lessening the chance of getting DNA.

Yet those officials might just be watching out for their tourist dollars. As Lincoln County historian Drew Gomber puts it, “This is about money and nothing else, make no mistake about it.”

The graves of the Kid and his mother are tourist draws for their respective locales. What would happen if it turned out that the Kid was not buried at Fort Sumner, that he in fact had lived to an old age someplace else? No doubt about it, a lot of folks would take their vacations in other places. Lincoln, Silver City and Fort Sumner would take big hits in the wallets.

Better to maintain the status quo.

The ordeal went to the courts. Over several months in 2003-04, judges blocked the Investigators from digging up Billy and his mother.

Perhaps coincidentally, not long after Silver City declared victory in its fight to keep Catherine’s grave closed, Gov. Richardson line-item vetoed $250,000 allocated by the legislature for a much needed expansion of Memory Lane Cemetery—the location of Catherine’s final resting place. Payback is hell, ain’t it?

No, you can’t make this up.

The Investigators had to try a different approach.

 

Lunar Eclipse

By 2005, Sullivan had retired from the sheriff’s office. Yet incoming Sheriff Rick Virden appointed both Sederwall and him as deputies, tasking them with continuing the Kid project. Their De Baca County compadre Graves was off the case and out of a job—voters had recalled him in a special election after he was accused of misappropriation of funds and prisoner abuse, charges unrelated to the Kid project.

The remaining Investigators turned their attention to Claimant 1, John Miller. This time, they didn’t go through the courts; the cemetery superintendent, in a questionable and controversial move, gave the lawmen the okay to dig.

Sederwall claims that then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano also approved the exhumation, yet the Arizona Governor’s Office has not confirmed his statement.

Sullivan and Sederwall allowed a TV crew to record the dig. After all, Kurtis Productions was footing the bill for the exhumation. Since Miller’s last resting place was unmarked, the Investigators located the grave through guesswork. A map gave them a range of 20 square feet, provided the remains had not shifted over time.

The duo ended up with two skeletons. The forensic anthropologist overseeing the project thought one set of remains was Miller. The Investigators believed it was the other, which, coincidentally, was also the only set that contained DNA.

Although the DNA was sent off to a Dallas lab for analysis, we still don’t know if it matches either of the samples taken from the bench. Sederwall says the tests have yet to be done, in part because of the $50,000 price tag. But De Baca County News Publisher Stinnett says that’s not true, claiming that Sederwall was deposed under oath in 2009 and admitted the tests had been done—although he didn’t comment on the results.

After the Miller dig, the public accused the Investigators of being “grave robbers;” prosecutors in Arizona considered bringing charges against them. That idea was eventually abandoned, but Sullivan and Sederwall took a huge P.R. hit.

Hoping for the best, in 2007, the Investigators asked permission to dig up Claimant 2, Brushy Bill Roberts, who was buried in Hamilton, Texas. Local officials denied their request.

In the meantime, another challenge to their investigation had slowly been building against Sederwall and Sullivan.

 

Shootin’ the Moon

In 2003, syndicated columnist Jay Miller became a vocal critic of the Investigators and their work. His coverage was crucial in blocking the exhumations of Billy and his mother.

The journalist posed a number of questions: Why were three modern-day lawmen investigating a case that closed in 1881? Was the Kid investigation taking away from solving current crimes?  Where was the money for the Kid investigation coming from? Why weren’t the Lincoln County and De Baca County Sheriff’s Departments’ records on the case open for public scrutiny?

The Investigators were none too thrilled, and they publicly attacked Miller, calling him pretty much every name in the book (“scumbag” being a particular favorite). They never answered the first question. They denied that the investigation took away from their modern-day crimefighting duties. They claimed the funding came from private sources—although they would not say from where.  And they refused to open the case files, saying it was an ongoing criminal investigation.

As Miller’s reporting continued, Gale Cooper joined the fight. The Harvard-educated psychiatrist had relocated to New Mexico from Beverly Hills, California, and found a new subject—Billy the Kid.

Some might say that her interest became an unhealthy obsession as she dug deep into the Kid’s story. Her 2009 book Mega Hoax: The Strange Plot to Exhume Billy the Kid and Become President outlined a huge conspiracy involving almost anyone and everyone in the Kid field (including True West’s Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell). As the title says, the aim was to get Richardson elected president—although the book offers little proof of that claim. The hoax-buster also believed a grand conspiracy was out to get her.

The good doctor read everything she could on the subject, especially many of Nolan’s books. She began corresponding with Nolan, and he eventually became something of a mentor. Nolan could only do so much from his vantage point across the Atlantic, but Cooper could work for the both of them in New Mexico.

According to her Mega Hoax book, Cooper worked behind the scenes for the first few years, helping to block the plans to dig up the Kid and his mom. After the Miller exhumation, she and publisher Stinnett took journalist Jay Miller’s work to the next level.  In 2008, they filed suit, demanding that the Investigators and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office open their files and reveal the findings from the DNA tests.

Sederwall and Sullivan had put themselves in a difficult position.  They told the judge that the work had been done on their own time and with private money, and thus wasn’t “official” and open to the public.  Both men had turned in their deputy badges in the summer of 2007; they claimed the dig documents  were their personal property.

But Sullivan had put a Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department case number on the investigation back in 2003; Graves had done the same in De Baca County.  On numerous occasions, the Investigators had publicly referred to their “official investigation” into the death of the Kid. Most of their work, up to and including the John Miller dig, had been done while both still served Lincoln County. The Investigators were also represented by lawyers hired and paid for by Lincoln County.

The court decision was almost a foregone conclusion; in November 2009, it ordered the Investigators to turn over their dig papers to Cooper and Stinnett.

By June 2010, the documents still had not been produced. Two former lawmen seem to be ignoring a legal decision. That crazy ol’ moon again, perhaps?

 

Bad Moon Risin’

Where does our cast of characters stand now?

The Investigators are trying to distance themselves from the Billy the Kid dig. In fact, Steve Sederwall and Tom Sullivan had a falling out late last year and don’t talk much. They face contempt of court charges if they fail to turn over their investigation documents.

Governor Richardson is finishing up his second and final term as New Mexico governor. It’s not clear what comes next for Richardson. A 2009 investigation into alleged “pay for play” schemes resulted in no charges—but a black eye for the governor. He’s still considering a pardon for Billy.

Jay Miller continues to turn his reportorial eye on all things New Mexico. He has no plans to stop writing or fighting for the public’s right to know.

Hoax-buster Cooper is holed up in New Mexico. She doesn’t respond to interview requests, and she doesn’t want her picture taken. Acquaintances say Cooper genuinely fears for her safety from the Investigators and others who were part of the “Mega Hoax.” (When I asked Sederwall if he was out to get her, he just laughed. After a few seconds of silence, he started talking about guns.)

Lincoln County is on the hook for an unspecified amount in legal fees—not just for its lawyers and those representing Sheriff Virden and the Investigators, but also for the expenses incurred by Cooper and Stinnett.

And, just for the record, John Miller, Brushy Bill Roberts, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are all dead.  Aren’t they?

I mean, that full moon can do some crazy things, can’t it?

 

 

Mark Boardman knows many of the people featured in this article, particularly Frederick Nolan (I also officially distribute his book Bad Blood), Paul Hutton and, of course, True West’s Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell.

What do you think?

Mark Boardman

Mark Boardman is the features editor for True West Magazine as well as the editor of The Tombstone Epitaph. He also serves as pastor for Poplar Grove United Methodist Church in Indiana.