Billie Sol Estes, Texas Con Man Whose Fall Shook Up Washington, Dies at 88
Ferd Kaufman/Associated Press
Published: May 14, 2013
Billie Sol Estes, a fast-talking Texas swindler who made millions, went to prison and captivated America for years with mind-boggling agricultural scams, payoffs to politicians and bizarre tales of covered-up killings and White House conspiracies, was found dead on Tuesday at his home in Granbury, Tex. He was 88.
Don Blakley/Abilene Reporter-News, via Associated Press
He died in his sleep and was found in his recliner, Mr. Estes’s daughter Pamela Padget said.
Nonexistent fertilizer tanks. Faked mortgages. Bogus cotton-acreage allotments. Farmers in four states bamboozled. Strange “suicides,” including a bludgeoned investigator shot five times with a bolt-action rifle. Assassination plots. Jimmy Hoffa and Fidel Castro. Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald.
The rise and fall of Billie Sol Estes was one of the sensations of the postwar era: the saga of a good-ol’-boy con man who created a $150 million empire of real and illusory farming enterprises that capitalized on his contacts in Washington and the gullibility and greed of farmers, banks and agriculture businesses.
He was a Bible-thumping preacher who gave barbecues for governors and senators, rode his bike to work in Pecos, Tex., and his airplane to Washington, and was named one of America’s 10 outstanding young men of 1953 by the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce. Later, autographed photos of John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and others lined his walls.
As his empire crumbled in 1962, the notoriety of Billie Sol, as nearly everyone in America called him, might have been passing had it not been for the bodies that kept cropping up, for the bribery scandals and fraud in federal farm programs, and for Mr. Estes’s own lurid accounts of how it all happened and who was involved.
Many of his statements were self-serving and never proved — particularly allegations about Johnson. Mr. Estes said that he had given millions to Johnson, and that Johnson, while he was vice president, had ordered seven killings disguised as suicides or accidents to cover up his connections to the frauds and had then set up the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 to become president.
The Estes chronicles filled newspapers and magazines, inspired books and songs, created new lines for comedians and conspiracy theorists, and played out politically in myriad ways. Scandal-loving Americans lapped them up. Mr. Estes’s smiling, dimpled moon face — with a liquid fertilizer tank in the background — was on the cover of Time magazine on May 25, 1962, then its all-time best-selling issue.
“This government is staying right on Mr. Estes’s tail,” a harried President Kennedy said at an overflowing news conference as he, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Agriculture Secretary Orville L. Freeman were thrown on the defensive by almost daily revelations in the serpentine scandal.
Administration officials were fired. Congressmen who had taken favors were mortified. Scores of F.B.I. agents were dispatched to Texas to investigate suspicious deaths. Richard M. Nixon, then running for governor in California, called it “the biggest national scandal since Teapot Dome.” Political cartoonists had a field day, caricaturing Mr. Estes and Washington as mired in the same farm muck.
In 1962, Tom Wicker of The New York Times, portrayed Mr. Estes as both a predator and a romantic outlaw, writing, “Billie Sol Estes is a product of the limitless plains of West Texas and the limitless spirit of the American frontier.” He added, “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 politicians ran for cover, the protest singer Phil Ochs wrote “The Ballad of Billie Sol,” whose refrain caught the mood of the day:
Stand tall, Billie Sol, we don’t know you at all,
We’ve taken down your pictures from the wall.
Well, we don’t want to handle an agriculture scandal,
We have got to face elections in the fall.
Billie Sol Estes was born on Jan. 10, 1925, on a farm near Clyde, Tex., one of six children of John and Lillian Estes. He was an average student. His family was poor, but Billie Sol showed early promise as a financier.
At 13, he received a lamb as a gift, sold its wool for $5, bought another lamb and went into business. At 15, he sold 100 sheep for $3,000. He borrowed $3,500 more from a bank, bought government surplus grain and sold it for a big profit. By 18, he had $38,000.
He never attended college, but served in the merchant marine in World War II, and later sold war surplus materials and converted barracks into housing.
In 1946 Mr. Estes married Patsy Howe, and the couple had five children. After the death of his wife in 2000, he married Dorris Brookover. Granbury, where he lived at his death, is about 35 miles southwest of Fort Worth. In addition to his daughter Pamela and his wife, he is survived by a brother, Word Estes; a sister, Jean Holcomb; three more daughters, January Harman, Joy Lovell and Dawn Stevens; a son, Billie Sol Jr.; 11 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Estes moved to Pecos in 1951. He bought land and farmed cotton, eventually acquiring 26,000 acres. He acquired mineral rights, sold farm equipment, built grain elevators and went into real estate, construction, trucking, a mortuary and the newspaper business. At 35, he employed 4,000 people and was worth $40 million.
“Everything I touched made money,” he once recalled.
A major contributor to Democrats, Mr. Estes held lavish parties for them in his 52-foot-long living room, complete with a waterfall at one end, and on the grounds of estate, where barbecue pits would roast three steers simultaneously. On Sundays he preached against vices — drinking, profanity, promiscuity, even dancing — as an elder of the Church of Christ.
In the late 1950s, Mr. Estes launched a bewildering array of interlocking enterprises involving liquid fertilizer, storage tanks, grain elevators, cotton crops, illegally borrowed money, secret payments to farmers and thousands of sham mortgages. It leaned heavily on government programs that compensated farmers for storing surplus grain and for lands taken under eminent domain laws to build public works projects.
There were clandestine lease-back arrangements, phony mortgages on nonexistent fertilizer storage tanks, illegal transfers of federal-compensation rights, kickbacks for bankers and bribes for Washington. The scams were so complex that prosecutors eventually had to break them down into 50 state and federal indictments.
The cover was blown in early 1962, when The Pecos Independent and Enterprise published an exposé by its city editor, Oscar Griffin Jr., on thousands of mortgages for nonexistent fertilizer tanks. The articles, which did not name Mr. Estes, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and led to an avalanche of investigations.
Mr. Estes was arrested in frauds that reached from farms in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama to the halls of power in Washington. Three agriculture officials were fired for taking bribes. An assistant secretary of labor who took $1,000 resigned. Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Texas Democrat, and Representative H. Carl Anderson, a Minnesota Republican, acknowledged accepting political contributions. Congressional investigators found disarray at the Department of Agriculture but no systemic corruption.
Soon after the Estes indictments, however, Mr. Freeman, the agriculture secretary, disclosed that a key investigator on the case, Henry Marshall, had been found dead in Texas — bludgeoned on the head, with nearly fatal amounts of carbon monoxide in his bloodstream and five chest wounds from a single-shot bolt-action rifle. Local officials ruled it suicide, but the body was exhumed and the cause changed to homicide.
Six other men tied to the case also died. Three perished in accidents, including a plane crash. Two were found in cars filled with carbon monoxide and were declared suicides. Mr. Estes’s accountant was also found dead in a car, with a rubber tube connecting its exhaust to the interior, suggesting suicide, but no poisonous gases were found in the body, and his death was attributed to a heart attack.
In 1963, Mr. Estes was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to 15 years. A state conviction was overturned on grounds of prejudicial news coverage. After exhausting appeals and serving six years, he was paroled in 1971. In 1979, he was convicted of tax fraud and served four more years. He was released in 1983.
A year later, in what he called a voluntary statement to clear the record, Mr. Estes told a Texas grand jury that Johnson, as vice president in 1961, had ordered that Mr. Marshall be killed to prevent him from disclosing Johnson’s ties to the Estes conspiracies. He said a Johnson aide, Malcolm Wallace, had shot him.
The Justice Department asked Mr. Estes for more information, and the response was explosive. For a pardon and immunity from prosecution, he promised to detail eight killings arranged by Johnson, including the Kennedy assassination. He said that Mr. Wallace had not only persuaded Jack Ruby to recruit Lee Harvey Oswald, but that Mr. Wallace had also fired a shot in Dallas that hit the president.
Mr. Estes also claimed knowledge of a White House plan to kill Fidel Castro and a plot by the former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa to kill Robert Kennedy. Mr. Estes reiterated his allegations in a book, “JFK, the Last Standing Man” (2003), written with William Reymond, and a memoir, “Billie Sol Estes: A Texas Legend” (2004).
As with similar allegations in books, articles and documentaries over the years, none of the Estes claims could be proved. Johnson had died in 1973, and everyone else, except Mr. Estes, was also dead.