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Friday, September 24, 2010


The Greeks once use the term SYMPOSIUM meaning “Lets Drink together” today used to mean any Academic Conference. What better topic among us than the myths, the facts and the legend behind Billy the Kid, Hero or Thug. To set the room of justice, the New Mexico Governor has been requested to remain outside since he too is a “Billy” commonly known as Governor Bill Richardson. Our gun belts hang among the coat pegs, whiskey kept behind the bar and name calling left behind so we can review the many stories, some myths, legends or folk lore of the notorious gunman.

One can quickly state that the young man known as “The Kid” has both thug and heroic qualities. His aliases Henry Antrim, William H. Bonney and Henry McCarty makes him mystic as much his small frame standing at 5 feet 8 inches with blue eyes, smooth complexion and prominent front teeth. He was said to be friendly and personable at times and many recalled that he was as "lithe as a cat". Contemporaries described him as a "neat" dresser who favored an "unadorned Mexican Sombrero.” These qualities, along with his cunning and celebrated skill with firearms, contributed to his paradoxical image, as both a notorious outlaw and beloved folk hero.

A relative unknown during his own lifetime, he was catapulted into legend the year after his death when his killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett, along with co-author M.A. "Ash" Upson, published a sensationalistic biography titled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Beginning with Garrett's account, Billy the Kid grew into a symbolic figure of the American Frontier of the Wild Old West. This is the first “Penny Dreadful” illustrated book written about the Kid.

Was this dime novel more to bring exaggerated frame to Pat Garrett rather than boasting the true life of the Kid? Perhaps to the over ego of Garrett who often failed running for public offices and also later murdered. The characters often painted by authors or movie directors placing the roles on one side of the fence or the other. Although, I often find myself seeing and understanding much reasoning for perhaps how these characters are portrayed.

American Cowboy reviewed the book “To Hell on a Fast Horse” mentions his behavior often spoken as charming likable young man who more often made poor mistakes, such as becoming a horse thief and the gun fight killing Frank "Windy" Cahill. Even Bob Boze Bell reviewed this stating: Billing his book as a dual biography of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Mark Gardner bails into the oft-told tale (there are more than a thousand books on Billy the Kid) of the Las Vegas, New Mexico, train station where Garrett’s posse stands off a mob intent on getting to one of the Kid’s band. From there the story takes off lickity split like the locomotive that propelled Garrett and crew out of Las Vegas. Expertly marshaling all the known facts and utilizing quotes from the public record and solid sources, Gardner spins out a concise and quick moving tale. Even though I have been reading and studying this story for almost a half century, I still found details in almost every episode I did not know. (For example, in the train standoff, some of the hispanos gathered around a pile of railroad ties.) Gardner also takes the story up through the Brushy Bill fiasco and even includes the Steve Sederwall digging up Billy controversy. Perhaps the best part of the book for me is the section on the death of Garrett. All of the controversial, and sometimes confusing, aspects are covered. Gardner really takes you on a ride, and when you think about it, that’s what we want: a thrilling ride to hell on a fast horse. 

Nevertheless, the actions he further took when his employer is murder is no more than any young devote male today would want to do. "Get the men who killed his boss". No, this does not make him a hero nor justify his actions. Punk kid perhaps, but it makes for a mystic story glorified by dime novels over and over. Likely, most of his accounts are highly exaggerated to the benefit of others, be it be the underhanded dealings in Lincoln County, the sale of dime-back novels, and so on. I never glorified the man, Hollywood and music did. I see him as he was but understand the reason a boy becomes what he is.

The Kid from Texas (1950) Directed by Kurt Neulmann / Starring Audie Murphy who was WWII most decorated Hero portrays a heroic honest like young man that greed of Lincoln County and controlling big businessmen makes for a likable KID. The Left-Handed Gun (1958) Directed by Arthur Penn / Starring Paul Newman makes for an unlikable ruthless gunman. Although I seem to still like the works “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) directed by Sam Peckinpah / Starring Kris Kristofferson as the best Billy the Kid western. However, these are movies and while they have some truth, some facts….there is many unknowns to this mystic character.

Did long time friend Pat Garrett really kill his long time friend. Garrett was also once on the other side of the fence before being appointed Sheriff. Perhaps he shot someone else, perhaps they staged it. Then there comes a man name Brushy Bill Roberts who said he’s Billy the Kid.

Governor Bill Richardson will be a remembered Governor in history. However, he will surely make history if he does sign the pardon that Lew Wallace had promised. Why not, the controversy has already been laid over 100 years ago. I say, go for it Billy…..because 100 years from now, like the penny Dreadful of Pat Garrett’s book that made Billy the Kid a hero, will also make Bill Richardson a hero of tomorrows remembering.

Shootin' the Moon by Mark Boardman

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.


  1. This is indeed investigative reporting covering the attempts to dig up Billy the Kid over the past seven years. True West magazine has been covering this story in numerous articles, starting with our August/September 2003 cover story, and this article sums up the whole crazy ordeal up to today. The story does sound too crazy to be true, at times, which is why Mark Boardman went to great pains to reaffirm "You can't make this stuff up" throughout his article.

    We don't cover fiction in the pages of our magazine, so if you're reading it here, you can count on it being fact. What's exciting about covering Old West history, though, is that revelations do come about that change the accepted history. You can also count on us to continuously pursue the truth as much as it can be known.


    Meghan Saar
    True West Magazine

  2. Speaking of fact, here's one for you: in July 1881, the full moon was on the 11th. It would still have been pretty bright the night of the 14th, but it was well past full by then.

    Sorry. ;-)
    posted by Janet Erwin