7-20-2002: The king of con

Posted Saturday, Jul. 20, 2002

By Mike Cochran

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Billie Sol Estes, King of West Texas.

The map of the state is covered with Xs

That mark the state where Billie Sol worked his magic.

Some say it's tragic, some say it's fine,

That Billie had a little trouble walking the line.

A man of moderation, prone to excesses,

Billie Sol Estes, King of West Texas.

- Singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin

GRANBURY - A jagged bolt of lightning slashed through the darkened afternoon sky, commanding the undivided attention of the trio huddled beside a grave.

"If it hits anybody, it'll hit Daddy," announced the green-eyed blonde, nodding impishly at the portly, rumpled and graying figure at her side. "I'm afraid to get too close to him."

For better or worse - probably both - the "King of Texas Wheeler-Dealers" is back in the eye of the storm, talking books, movies, documentaries and even a Broadway musical.

Is the world ready for a show-stopping tune called Billie Sol Estes, King of West Texas?

Fellow Texan and singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin says it is.

Equally awed by our con man extraordinaire, independent New York filmmaker K.K. Roeder says the Billie Sol Estes saga "excites us because it is so many different stories at once: a tragedy, a comedy, a history, a mystery, a political thriller, an outlaw myth and a Calvinist cautionary tale."

Seemingly unfazed by his acclaim, the mystery man plopped down for a rare free-wheeling interview the other day, sharing his thoughts on promoters, politicians, prison, CEO scandals, life, death and the relentless and ill-fated pursuit of fame and riches.

But the former West Texas financier didn't cough up all his secrets. "I check my blood and my heart every day, and when I see 'em weakening I'm gonna call you," he said. "I'll talk to you right before they haul me off to the morgue."

Before the day was over, Billie Sol and his daughter Pam Padget invited a reporter to accompany them to the grave of Estes' wife, Patsy, who died on Valentine's Day 2000. His daughter says he wanted her mother buried in the Granbury cemetery because he believes soulmate Jesse James is buried there.

"She was my wife and my best friend," Billie Sol said before lightning, rain and volatile winds cut the cemetery visit short.

A friend of Vito's

Remember this: Before Enron, there was Billie Sol. The major difference: Billie Sol has heart and humor and a historical perspective spanning more than half a century.

A millionaire at 21 and a multimillionaire before he was 30, the one-time Crown Prince of Pecos was an inmate in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan., before he was 40 and overnight a pariah to the powerful who once embraced him.

Throughout his stormy career, he remained faithful to the Church of Christ, whether aiding the poor or conning the rich as he waltzed joyfully to the bank.

Asked what his epitaph should say, Estes replied: "He did what he could to help the poor."

He sounded serious.

Back in his golden days, his cronies included Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and powerful Texas congressmen Rayburn, Mahon and Yarborough. Among his prison pals was mobster Vito Genovese.

It was Vito, he revealed, who once quietly suggested, "Keep your big, fat mouth shut or you're gonna get yourself killed."

Pam, the eldest of the five Estes children, remembers sitting with LBJ's daughters, Luci and Lynda Bird Johnson, when Marilyn Monroe breathily serenaded President Kennedy at his memorable 45th birthday gala in Madison Square Garden. That was in May 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was also shortly before Billie Sol's first felony conviction, the one stemming from phantom fertilizer tanks he used as collateral to obtain millions in loans.

Pam, now 54, also remembers fainting on a cold marble floor in a public restroom at the federal courthouse in Dallas in 1979 after her father was convicted of concealing assets.

By then, she says, there were no assets.

Of his prison stints in Leavenworth, La Tuna and Big Spring, which totaled 11 years, Billie Sol says: "I would rather be in jail in this country than free anywhere else in the world."

Besides, he says, he met a lot of interesting people behind bars.

The most interesting person he's ever known, he says, was not an inmate but House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Bonham, whom he describes as sort of the epitome of early cool.

"He was the only man I've ever seen who could tell Lyndon to sit down and shut up."

Not all of his friendships endured. Sen. Ralph Yarborough once posed for photographs with Estes and gave him an autographed portrait with a tender inscription.

"To a Great Friend, True Texan, Good American - Billie Sol Estes of Pecos, with warmest appreciation," Yarborough wrote in 1958. He was less effusive when the scandals erupted in the early 1960s and the curious mad dogs of the media appeared on his doorstep.

"Billie Sol who?" he asked.

Still has that charm

A reporter caught up with Billie Sol recently at the popular Nutshell Eatery in this lakeside community southwest of Fort Worth, where he has lived the last three years. With Estes was daughter Pam, a marriage and family therapist in private practice with her doctor husband at a Granbury medical clinic.

"Whatcha been doing?" asked the reporter, who last spoke with Billie Sol five years ago in Brady.

"Praying," he replied.

"For what?"

"Forgiveness," he confessed, a crooked grin creeping across the once boyish face.

At 77, the state's most outrageously dedicated con man was not much changed since the last rendezvous, interrupting lunch to haggle with friends and a few strangers between bites of barbecue.

He talked used cars with a dishwasher he called "Honey," expensive shirts with a couple of tourists and an option on 40 acres of lake property with some guy dining at the Nutshell.

"I've got more investors than I'd ever want," he confided at one point, triggering an instant response at the lunch table.

"Can you imagine what we go through to keep him out of trouble?" asked Pam, a perpetually upbeat platinum blonde who authored the hot-selling 1983 biography, Billie Sol: King of Texas Wheeler-Dealers.

Her book relates how her father purportedly parlayed his friendship with Lyndon Johnson and other Texas pols into a $200 million empire of governmental largess.

"Caught in the crossfire of the Johnson-Kennedy political bickering, Billie Sol's ride to fortune hit a snag like a pin hitting an over-inflated balloon," Pam wrote.

"He went to prison alone, refusing to testify against the politicians who had befriended him and made his spectacular rise possible."

Hoisting his iced tea glass as if it were a champagne flute, Billie Sol asserted that he "coulda went scot-free" and pocketed millions by blowing the whistle on LBJ and his pals.

Of course, he's never really publicly revealed what LBJ and his pals did, aside from tossing him oodles of government contracts. Apparently he took his buddy Vito's advice and kept his mouth shut.

Today, the book remains in print, though Pam says the publisher went bankrupt. She now markets and sells it personally, with sporadic assists from Billie Sol himself.

He confessed that he sometimes used his wily charms to bamboozle as much as $100 for his autographed copies.

"I sold $1,300 worth of books right out there," he chortled, pointing to a corner on the busy town square. "And I did it in an hour and 10 minutes."

Estes maintains he can sell anything, and he's spent a lifetime proving it. Some suggest the ultimate proof lies, appropriately, in the fertilizer tank scam of the late '50s.

"Only Billie Sol could make a fortune selling phantom cow manure," a friendly acquaintance once said.

It's a comedy

"Life," says Billie Sol, "is a fun trip." Especially so if one enjoys being pursued by publishers, movie moguls, historians, journalists and, most surprisingly, Larry Gatlin.

The singer-songwriter says he followed the Estes escapades as a youngster growing up in Odessa and believes a musical about his life could rival The Will Rogers Follies, a Broadway hit in which he played the replacement lead for seven months. Follies won six Tony awards, including best musical of 1991.

"I'm absolutely fascinated by the man," Gatlin gushed, "and I'm absolutely fascinated by his story."

By phone from his home in Austin, Gatlin confirmed that the working title is simply Sol and that he has composed one original song and started three others, among them "Hey Billie Billie," "Everybody's Got a Little Wheeler-Dealer in 'Em," and "Hey, Mr. Marshal, Do I Have Time to Put on My Shoes?"

It's a comedy, if you haven't guessed.

And don't smirk, because there's big bucks in Texas foibles. A La Grange brothel called the Chicken Ranch awakened from the dead to become The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and make Texan Larry L. King the toast of the Great White Way.

"If the Whorehouse is a hit, so is this," Gatlin proclaimed. "This damn thing will write itself."

Billie Sol says there is also a book nearing completion with the working title Last Man Standing and another being researched that would include his perspective on the nation's current financial shenanigans.

There's also a potential feature film in the making, and Pam confirms that her father is contacted frequently by "Los Angeles movie moguls."

New York filmmaker Roeder was in Fort Worth and other Texas cities early this year researching the Estes project and says it is in the developmental stage.

"It's a historically rich story," she said. "He symbolizes the promise of the American dream as well as its paucity. His story is as much a slice of history as a refusal of history in that it demonstrates the elusive paradoxes of character."

In a subsequent e-mail, Roeder emphasized that the Estes story could not be more topical.

"The questions asked then about his degree of innocence and involvement are the same questions being asked in today's headlines regarding corporate scandals," she wrote.

Besides musical and movie moguls, Billie Sol says that even journalists are hounding him after his misadventures landed him on a Wall Street Journal Top 10 list of major financial scoundrels dating to the 1920s.

"They're really after me," he shrugged.

An early start

According to Pam, Billie Sol's earliest financial endeavors involved hiring a brother to perform his daily chores on the family farm at Clyde near Abilene.

As a 9-year-old, he was already too busy "trading" to deal with the mundane.

By 16, Estes says, he was a hugely successful sheep raiser and was recognized as such with the 4-H Club's National Achievement Award in 1943. Less than a decade later, the Junior Chamber of Commerce honored him as one of five Outstanding Texans.

In 1956, the Jaycees named him one of their 10 Outstanding Young Men in America, but even before the end of the decade sinister rumblings began to surface in his fragile financial kingdom.

"I always thought I could turn a sow's ear into a silk purse," he says.

Contends Pam: "All of us are fascinated with people like daddy who have the vision to go after something big, whether it's power or money. They're risk-takers."

And certainly her father was a risk-taker.

"The big fruit is way out on the end of the limb, and you got to go out there to get it," he says. "Sometimes the limb breaks."

Billie Sol explains it all


That's Billie Sol's explanation for not only his personal problems but the evils that have crippled the U.S. economy and plunged the stock market into a tailspin.

"What they've found is just the tip of the iceberg," he says of the revelations at Enron, WorldCom and ImClone, among others. "It's pure greed. They never get enough. They all want to get bigger."

Because of a contractual agreement on a book project, Billie Sol says he can't address either specifics of the current financial chicanery or his own proposals for cleaning up the mess.

But he does not exclude himself from the warped mindset that brought it on.

"I had it made at 21," he recalled. "I was already a millionaire, and a million dollars was a lot of money then. I started getting in on government contracts as a teen-ager and I just kept on until I got in trouble."

Greed, he said, "was my No. 1 downfall," although he admits strong drink sometimes was running neck-and-neck. Today he is a recovering alcoholic and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

But Pam is quick to point out that, despite everything, "If he'd stayed out of politics he wouldn't have gotten in trouble."

His first venture into governmental wheeling and dealing involved surplus wheat he shipped to farmers in drought-stricken areas. After World War II, and by then in his 20s, he moved on to military barracks.

"I was the biggest government housing dealer in the world," he said. He once purchased 625 structures in Little Rock, Ark., and resurrected them across West Texas and New Mexico and as far south as Austin.

Back then, everyone believed he really could turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.

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