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Flamboyant Texas swindler Billie Sol Estes dies

May 14, 2013 GMT

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Billie Sol Estes’ name was synonymous with Texas-sized schemes, greed and corruption.

The flamboyant swindler became one of the most notorious men in America in 1962, when he was accused of looting a federal crop subsidy program. But he reigned as the state’s king of con men for nearly 50 years, even getting immortalized in songs and on Time magazine’s cover as “a welfare-state Ponzi.”

Estes, who died in his sleep Tuesday at the age of 88, was best known for the scandal that broke out during President John F. Kennedy’s administration involving phony financial statements and non-existent fertilizer tanks. Several lower-level agriculture officials resigned, and Estes wound up spending several years in prison.

“I thought he would meet a very violent end. We worried about him being killed for years,” said his daughter, Pamela Estes Padget. She said her father died peacefully in his recliner, with chocolate chip cookie crumbs on his lips, at his home in DeCordova Bend, a city about 60 miles southwest of Dallas.

At the height of his infamy, Estes was the subject of songs by Allan Sherman (in “Schticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other”) and the Chad Mitchell Trio (in “The Ides of Texas”). Time magazine called him “a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes who makes Dr. Jekyll seem almost wholesome.”

“He considered dancing immoral, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay preacher,” the magazine wrote. “But he ruthlessly ruined business competitors, practiced fraud and deceit on a massive scale, and even victimized Church of Christ schools that he was supposed to be helping as a fund raiser or financial adviser.”

Estes’ name was often linked with that of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, whose associates said their relationship was never as close or as sinister as the wheeler-dealer implied. Johnson, then the vice president, and Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman came under fire during the scandal in the 1960s, though the scheme had its roots in earlier years as Estes edged into national politics from his West Texas power base in Pecos.

After an earlier conviction was thrown out, Estes was convicted in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Estes was freed in 1971 after serving six years. But new charges were brought in 1979, and later that year he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service. He was sentenced to 10 years but freed a second time in 1983.

Former Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran, who covered Estes throughout the 1970s and ’80s, recalled writing about how Estes made millions of dollars in phony fertilizer tanks — and noting, “how many city slickers from New York or Chicago can make a fortune selling phantom cow manure?”

“Billie Sol was a character’s character,” Cochran said Tuesday. “I spent literally years chasing him in and out of prison and around the state as he pulled off all kinds of memorable shenanigans.”

Former reporter Marj Carpenter witnessed the damage that Estes’ huckster schemes wreaked on people in West Texas as she worked alongside Oscar Griffin Jr., the late editor at the Pecos Independent and Enterprise who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for his investigation of Estes.

Griffin nailed down the story about Estes — who was showing investors the same fertilizer tanks over and over — by talking to investors, digging through bank documents and looking for the tanks, which didn’t exist.

“Even though it’s been a long time and a lot of people have forgiven him and a lot people thought he was mistreated in the first place, he still did a lot of bad things and hurt a lot of people,” said Carpenter, who found a snake and threatening note in her car while covering Estes.

“Money was way too important to him and he didn’t seem to care how he got it,” she said Tuesday.

Griffin eventually learned that Estes got someone to change the numbers on the tanks while he drove investors around, approaching the same tanks from different directions and leading investors to believe they were seeing different ones. He also discovered that bank documents listed the same few tank numbers for all transactions.

A go-getter since he was a boy, Estes became a millionaire before he was 30. Many of his deals involved agriculture products and services, including irrigation and the fertilizer products that later led to his downfall.

While he admitted to being a swindler, Estes also portrayed himself as a “kind of Robin Hood” and hoped to be remembered for using his money to feed and educate the poor. He was an advocate of school integration in Texas long before it was fashionable.

Before his release from federal prison in 1983, Estes claimed he’d uncovered the root of his problems: compulsiveness. “If I smoke another cigarette, I’ll be hooked on nicotine,” he said. “I’m just one drink away from being an alcoholic and just one deal away from being back in prison.”

One of the strangest episodes in his life involved the death of a U.S. Department of Agriculture official who was investigating Estes just before he was accused in the fertilizer tank case.

Henry Marshall’s 1961 death was initially ruled a suicide even though he had five bullet wounds. In 1984, Estes told a grand jury that Johnson had ordered the official killed to prevent him from exposing Estes’ fraudulent business dealings and ties with the vice president. The prosecutor conducting the grand jury investigation said there was no corroboration of Estes’ allegations, but a judge ruled it was “clear and convincing” that the death was not self-inflicted.

In 2003, he co-wrote a book published in France that linked Johnson to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, an allegation rejected by prominent historians, Johnson aides and family members.

A 2007 search for correspondence between Johnson and Estes found a 1953 form letter and only sporadic correspondence during Johnson’s Senate years, according to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin. In a 1962 memo prepared by longtime Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, Johnson recalled meeting Estes once and said he had never talked to him on the phone.

Estes’ wife Patsy died in 2000. He later moved to Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth, and remarried. He is survived by his wife, Dorris Estes; four daughters and one son.