Sunday, November 27, 2005

BILLY, YOU'RE SO FAR AWAY FROM HOME

The New Mexican Web site today has a feature I did on Jay Miller s new book Billy the Kid Rides Again: Digging for the Truth. CLICK HERE.

It's a collection of Miller's columns about the strange effort by three New Mexico law enforcement officials -- aided and endorsed by Gov. Bill Richardson -- to "learn the truth" about the death of Billy the Kid -- a truth most serious historians thought they already knew.

I didn't work this story nearly as much as Miller, but I had a little fun with this investigation. Here's a column I did a couple of years ago:


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 14, 2003


Billy the Kid's head in a jar at Highlands University? Is New Mexico's most famous cop killer buried beneath a Santa Fe hotel?

Ever since Gov. Bill Richardson earlier this summer announced his support for reopening the case of the death of Billy the Kid (and some of the desperate deeds that he did), theories and rumors about the fate of the boy bandit king have flown around like ghost riders in the sky.

It seems the story of Richardson pledging state resources to aid in the investigation -- including the possibility of exhuming the grave of the woman believed to be Billy's mother as well as a couple of Billy claimants -- still has legs after all these weeks.

As has the fear that investigators might try to dig up Billy himself from his grave in Fort Sumner.

The Discovery Channel's Unsolved History series is planning to go to Fort Sumner later this month to shoot an hour-long program about the death of the Kid. Gary Tarpinian, president of Morning Star Entertainment, said Wednesday the Kid program was in the works even before he knew of the official investigation. The program is expected to air next spring he said.

Paul Hutton, the University of New Mexico history professor assigned to the new investigation, said he has been contacted by The History Channel, which plans to produce a documentary about the Kid hosted by Bill Curtis.

And the story made it to the cover of this month's True West magazine. The cover story, titled "Digging Up Billy," by Jana Bommersbach, quotes filmmaker John Fusco saying despite the fact his movie Young Guns II helped revive the claim of "Brushy Bill" Roberts that he was Billy the Kid, he doesn't really believe the story.

She also quotes Fusco as saying, "Many years ago in New Mexico, old timers told me that the Kid's remains had been relocated with other graves years ago and most likely rests today somewhere beneath the Santa Fe Sheraton."

This is similar to an e-mail The New Mexican received a few weeks ago that quoted Marcelle Brothers, who runs a Billy Web site.

There was a huge flood of the Pecos River circa 1905 near the Fort Sumner cemetery where most people believe Billy was buried.

And shortly after that the graves of soldiers in the cemetery were exhumed to be relocated in the national cemetery in Santa Fe (not far from the former Sheraton, which was built about 70 years later, and is now the Radisson Hotel.)

Therefore, Brothers wrote, "I highly doubt Billy the Kid's remains are under that slab of cement (in Fort Sumner; his bones may be in the military cemetery in Santa Fe or in the Gulf of Mexico or sunken into the riverbed of the Pecos River miles away from the Fort -- who knows?"

Hutton said the flood and the relocation of the soldiers' remains do raise concerns about the actual whereabout of Billy's grave.

But this e-mail wasn't as interesting as another recent e-mail to the paper.

According to the writer -- Earl Chafin, a historical researcher from Riverside, Calif. -- Billy "is most likely buried in Las Vegas, N.M., according to the Las Vegas Optic newspaper of 1881. He is not buried in Fort Sumner. His body was claimed as a medical cadaver and his head placed in a jar of formaldehyde."

Contacted by telephone recently, Chafin said he came across this information on microfilm about 30 years ago while researching an unrelated matter.

Hutton said he'd never heard this theory. "It's a standard story," he said. "Pancho Villa's head is supposedly roaming around there somewhere."

But despite all the theories, Scott Smith, director of the Fort Sumner State Monument -- which is adjacent to the cemetery -- insists that Billy is where he's supposed to be. "The grave is accurately marked," he said in a telephone interview.

And people in Fort Sumner -- as well as tourists who visit -- are dead set against anyone literally digging up Billy, residents say. Sandy Paul, executive director of the Fort Sumner Chamber of Commerce, said she has told her family she'd chain herself to the cage around Billy's grave if anyone tries to exhume.

She sounded serious.

Richardson and the Lincoln County lawmen who initiated the latest investigation say the plan is to exhume Billy's mother in Silver City, Brushy Bill in Hico, Texas, and another man in Arizona to conduct DNA testing. "The intent is to debunk the impostors," Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks said Wednesday.

Sparks said exhuming the grave in Fort Sumner is "unlikely." But because it's a serious investigation, it can't be ruled out, he said. "It would be the last thing to happen," he said.

In general, Sparks said, the new investigation is "an opportunity to educate a new generation of New Mexicans and individuals from all over the world about Billy the Kid."

Educational it has been.

And by the way, Sparks said if anyone has that jar with the Kid's head, please send a photo -- but not the jar -- to the governor's office.

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