Billie Sol Estes, a flamboyant Texas huckster who became one of the most notorious men in America in 1962 when he was accused of looting a federal crop subsidy program, has died. He was 88.
Estes, whose name became synonymous with Texas-sized schemes, greed and corruption, died in his sleep at his home in DeCordova Bend, a city southwest of Dallas, his daughter said Tuesday.
Estes reigned in the state as the king of con men for nearly 50 years. At the height of his infamy, Time magazine even put him on its cover, calling him "a welfare-state Ponzi ... 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 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 he wound up spending several years in prison.
"I thought he would meet a very violent end. We worried about him being killed for years," his daughter, Pamela Estes Padget, said Tuesday, adding that her father died peacefully.
Estes' name was often linked with that of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, but the late president's 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, though the scheme had its roots in the waning years of President Dwight Eisenhower's administration, when Estes had edged into national politics from his West Texas power base in Pecos.
Estes was convicted in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. An earlier conviction had been thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court over the use of cameras in the courtroom. Sentenced to 15 years in prison,Estes was freed in 1971 after serving six years.
But new charges were brought against him 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 more years but was freed a second time in 1983.
Former Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran, who covered Estes' trials and schemes throughout the 1970s and '80s, recalled writing about how Estes made millions of dollars in phone fertilizer tanks — and noting, "how many city slickers from New York or Chicago can make a fortune selling phantom cow manure?"
"Billie Col was a character's character," Cochran said. "I spent literally years chasing him in and out of prison and around the state as he pulled off all kinds of memorable shenanigans."
A go-getter since he was a boy, Estes was one of the Junior Chamber of Commerce's 10 most outstanding men of 1953 and 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.
Before his release from federal prison for a second time 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. But 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 who conducted the grand jury investigation said there was no corroboration of Estes' allegations, though a judge ruled that 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, said Claudia Anderson, supervisory archivist at 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.
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.
Estes' wife Patsy died in 2000. He later moved to Granbury, a picture-postcard town southwest of Fort Worth, and remarried.