The ultimate cold-case file

SUN JOURNAL

Billy the Kid: For decades, the death of the outlaw was considered solved, but now lawmen want to put the original account to the DNA test.

February 08, 2004|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT SUMNER, N.M. -- It's a classic Old West showdown, a ruckus involving righteous sheriffs and brazen outlaws, but with a modern-day twist: The weapons are not six-shooters but DNA samples.

Billy the Kid is being raised from the dead, figuratively and maybe even literally.

A group of lawmen in New Mexico, with the support of the governor, is seeking to exhume long-buried bodies to resolve a running dispute over Billy the Kid, the young-gun outlaw who, most historians and countless books, movies and songs agree, was shot dead here in 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

Or was he?

"There is reasonable doubt," says Tom Sullivan, who holds Garrett's old job as sheriff of Lincoln County. "We'd just like to know the truth."

That Garrett's successor has joined the skeptics who over the years have questioned the official version of the Billy-and-Pat story has raised hackles in this remote part of the state. Here, the myth and reality of the Old West loom large, and the dueling legends of Billy the Kid, the gunslinger who was said to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, and Pat Garrett, his one-time friend turned avenging lawman, continue to inspire periodic re-examination.

Sullivan and two other officials filed a petition last year to exhume the body of Billy's mother, Katherine Antrim. They want to then match her DNA with that of the Kid -- or whoever is buried beneath his gravestone here -- and that of one or more of the men who over the years have claimed to be the real Kid.

Sullivan's petition initially was scheduled to be heard this month, but a state judge granted an extension until August to give the sheriff's forensic expert, George Washington University professor James Starrs, time to study the case and prepare a report on it. Starrs joins a host of interested parties who have jumped into the case.

"Everyone's lawyered up," Sullivan says with a sigh. (Even Billy the Kid has an attorney, appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson -- who, as a former ambassador to the United Nations, knows something about resolving disputes -- to make sure the outlaw has a voice in these postmortem proceedings.)

Here in Fort Sumner, where thousands flock every year to see the Billy the Kid grave, tour the Billy the Kid museum and stay at the Billy the Kid Country Inn, the suggestion that the outlaw survived Garrett's manhunt and lived to old age elsewhere is blasphemy.

"Billy the Kid is ours," says Raymond Lopez, mayor of this town of 1,250 in the tumbleweed-strewn eastern plains of the state. "He belongs to Fort Sumner, and we will fight to keep him."

Lopez says he is motivated in part by money. Without the lure of the local folk hero, there's not much reason to drive to this town on the Pecos River, 150 miles and worlds away from chic Santa Fe.

"To me, it's an industry. It's tourism," Lopez says. "We're not a big metro area; we're a small community in the middle of a rural area."

Fort Sumner struggles to boost its economy. Its World War II-era Army airfield shut down long ago, although it is occasionally used as a launch site for NASA research balloons. Most of the retail trade has moved 60 miles east, to Clovis. "You can't buy a pair of socks in Fort Sumner," Lopez says. "Slowly, we've gone down, but Billy has kept us level."

Fort Sumner and Silver City, a town in southwestern New Mexico where Katherine Antrim is buried, are fighting the efforts to exhume her body in an effort to determine the identity of the real Billy the Kid.

Lopez says he has all the proof he needs: a coroner's report, dated July 15, 1881, in which a jury of six men reported on its inspection of the body of the man killed by Pat Garrett the previous night. They concluded the victim was Billy the Kid and that he died of a bullet wound to the left side of the chest in a justified homicide.

Detractors such as Sullivan say that report is inconclusive. He says some think Garrett wrote it himself and had the men sign it. Among their theories are that Garrett shot someone else or that the sheriff and the outlaw, one-time friends turned nemeses, conspired to make it look as if Garrett finally got his man.

Sullivan is particularly intrigued by one possible motivation for a conspiracy between Garrett and Billy. As is documented in a series of letters, Lew Wallace, the territorial governor of New Mexico, offered Billy the Kid a pardon in exchange for information about a crime. Billy supplied the information, but Wallace, a Union Civil War general who was also the author of Ben Hur, never lived up to his end of the bargain.

"I've had informants," says Sullivan, a 36-year veteran of law enforcement, "and if you tell them to do something and promise them something in return, and they do it, you should say, `OK, here's what I promised you.' Instead, the governor reneged."

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