Shootout over Billy the Kid

Two towns battle over which one is home to the remains of the notorious outlaw

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to Billy the Kid - arguably the most famous outlaw in the Old West - there is only one history that matters in these parts: He lived, died, and was buried in Fort Sumner.

In this eastern New Mexico village, Billy the Kid is considered a gunslinging Robin Hood, a balladeer, a ladies' man, and a member of the family. He's also the town's only tourist attraction. You can sleep in the Billy the Kid Hotel, buy your own Billy the Kid keychain, and saturate yourself in his history at the Billy the Kid Museum, where his rifle is on display.

It's true that the Kid (variously known as William Bonney, William Antrim, and Kid Antrim) lived here - and he is also supposed to have died here. The town's big draw is that he is buried in the old Fort Sumner cemetery.

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But not everyone is so sure that's really his final resting place. Gary Graves, sheriff of DeBaca County, where Fort Sumner is located, and Tom Sullivan, sheriff of Lincoln County, where the Kid supposedly died, think there's plenty of room for doubt. So they want to open the grave to determine if Billy's remains are truly interred there.

At stake are the town's honor and plenty of tourist dollars.

The accepted history says that around midnight on July 14, 1881, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett ambushed and fatally shot Billy the Kid in the boardinghouse of Billy's friend, Pete Maxwell. The Kid was on the lam after murdering two guards during an escape from the Lincoln County jail.

Dozens of witnesses said they recognized the body lying on the boardinghouse floor as Billy's. A coroner's inquest was convened, and the next morning, the most feared hombre in the territory was buried in the Fort Sumner cemetery, a short walk from the boardinghouse.

But residents of tiny Hico, Texas, southwest of Dallas, dispute that account. Their Billy the Kid Museum insists that the 21-year-old outlaw escaped Garrett's trap, took the name of Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts, and lived a long life in Mexico and the Southwest, eventually moving to Hico and dying there in 1950, at the age of 90.

How to decide between these rival theories? Enter the law - and a very modern weapon, DNA.

To settle the matter, the two sheriffs are hoping New Mexico courts will grant them permission to extract DNA from the remains in the Fort Sumner grave to compare with a sample from the remains in the Silver City grave of Billy's mother, Catherine Antrim.

To bolster the case, Sullivan and Graves have enlisted DNA expert James Starrs, a professor of forensic sciences and law at George Washington University, who used DNA to identity the remains of another Wild West icon, Jesse James.

But matching the DNA may prove next to impossible, cautions Tim Stepetic, assistant director for New Mexico's Office of Medical Examiner. More than a century later, no one is quite sure who is buried in the gravesites known as Billy's and his mother's.

Mrs. Antrim was originally interred in a different cemetery and moved to the present location around 1900, and the cemetery has been flooded numerous times over the decades, he notes. A further complication is that her headstone has been moved a few times.

The situation is similar at Fort Sumner. The Kid's original gravestone was stolen many years ago, and in 1932 friends marked what they believed to be his gravesite, but the marker may be off by as much as five feet, Mr. Stepetic says.

Because of these issues, the state of New Mexico is arguing against exhumation.

Sullivan and his supporters are confident the remains in Antrim's grave are indeed those of the Kid's mother. Antrim was 45 years old when she died of tuberculosis; this would have left telltale signs in her bones, Mr. Starrs says.

He may be able to identify the Fort Sumner remains as Billy's even without exhuming the body in the Silver City grave, Starrs adds. All he needs is one of Antrim's descendants who's willing to give a DNA sample.

They can track down every known relative they want, says Fort Sumner Mayor Raymond Lopez,but Sullivan and his cohorts aren't setting one foot inside Fort Sumner's cemetery:

"We're not going to allow it," he declares. "Billy the Kid belongs to us. We've had him here for over a hundred years."

Not so, according to Hico, which also claims to be Billy's final resting place. Sullivan discounts that theory, but is willing to match DNA from Roberts's body with both sets of New Mexico remains.

There's more than bragging rights at stake in this battle, Mr. Lopez acknowledges: "This is one of the biggest industries for the village of Fort Sumner." He adds that if he has to chain himself to the Kid's grave to keep it closed, he will.

On the other side of the issue, Graves is equally adamant, saying that he will take the issue all the way to the US Supreme Court.

For Sullivan, it's not just Fort Sumner's reputation on the line. He and Graves - noting that they are mandated by law to reopen a homicide if new evidence raises questions about a verdict - are continuing to investigate the famous Lincoln County jail escape as well as the Kid's death.

He also sees other issues: If some stranger was shot and buried as Billy, and Billy was allowed to escape, then Pat Garrett was a dirty cop. If that's true, Sullivan wants to know. "I hope it's just like history says. I'm prepared if it isn't," he says.

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