In a state famous for making something out of nothing, no Texan was better at it than Billie Sol Estes.For most of 88 years, the former lay church preacher from Clyde was sweet-talking financiers or selling something, whether it was anhydrous ammonia that didn’t exist or conspiracy books that didn’t make sense.As a retired resident of DeCordova, near Granbury, he spun yarns about his time in and out of Texas business swindles, White House political scandals and federal prison.In the early 1960s, he owned a $100 million empire, same as $800 million today. Except he borrowed it all against 33,500 West Texas fertilizer tanks that were completely imaginary.“This is something else that Texans are really good at,” said writer Joe Nick Patoski of Wimberley, a chronicler of Texans and Texas icons from Willie Nelson to the Dallas Cowboys.“Along with preachers, guitar pickers and politicians, we created some larger-than-life swindlers and embezzlers.”By age 17, Estes was in Chicago winning a national 4-H Club Presidential Award for turning the childhood gift of a Christmas lamb into a sheep herd.In his 20s, resettled in the far West Texas town of Pecos, he was building both a business and political empire that led the Jaycees to name him one of the 10 “Outstanding Young Men of America.”The Amarillo Daily News called him “the biggest wheeler and dealer in all of West Texas.”“Just think,” Patoski said. “He did all this with fertilizer tanks? If you were going to scam people in Texas, lesser lights worked deals with cattle or oil wells. Only a true dreamer could come up with fertilizer tanks.”In the 1980s, after two prison terms, Estes found new easy money. He told writers that he had inside knowledge of a plot tying then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.“I wasn’t really interested in writing a book,” Estes told Hood County News writer Pete Kendall in 2003, but a French writer “wanted to do it, and they offered me a few hundred thousand dollars. I took a few hundred thousand dollars, and they got started.”The book was published in French only.From the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, curator Gary Mack wrote by email that Estes’ claims ignore basic assassination details. For example, one of Estes’ central characters was in San Diego at the time, not Dallas.Estes “doesn’t fit into the story at all,” Mack wrote.In the 2003 interview, Estes said: “I know the story, and I don’t care what anybody else says. My deal will stand up.”“You’ve got to understand,” Patoski said.“He came from a part of West Texas where it’s so dull, you can’t help but dream.”He dreamed up deals.
Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538 Twitter: @BudKennedy