Billie Sol Estes, the ‘king of Texas wheeler-dealers,’ dies

Posted Thursday, May. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Service Visitation: 5-7 p.m. Friday at Acton United Methodist Church Funeral: 2 p.m. Saturday at the church.

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Billie Sol Estes, a West Texas millionaire, con man and friend of politicians, was found dead Tuesday morning at his home in DeCordova, daughter Pamela Padget said.

He was 88.

Mr. Estes was a legendary wheeler-dealer who went to prison three times, the first for a scheme involving phantom anhydrous ammonia fertilizer tanks that he used as collateral to obtain millions of dollars in loans.

In all, he spent 11 years of his life behind bars in Leavenworth, Kan., La Tuna and Big Spring. One of his fellow prisoners was the mobster Vito Genovese.

His escapades were the subject of books and news articles for more than 50 years, fueling speculation about his associations with political power brokers, including former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mike Cochran, a longtime reporter for The Associated Press, wrote about Mr. Estes for more than three decades, and the two eventually became friends. Cochran recalled Tuesday that Mr. Estes often claimed to know enough dark secrets about powerful people that he could have avoided prison and been well-paid.

“He indicated that if he had squealed on everyone, he wouldn’t have gone to prison,” Cochran said. “But he wouldn’t do it. He said he got advice from Genovese to keep his mouth shut.”

In an earlier interview Mr. Estes told Cochran, “I’m just lucky to be alive, knowing what I know.”

“He said one of these days, he’d tell me what LBJ and his pals did,” Cochran said, “but he never got around to it.”

In 2003, Mr. Estes co-authored a book, published only in France and in French, titled JFK, le dernier temoin (The Last Man Standing), in which he implicated Johnson in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In more than 30 years as a journalist, Cochran said, he never met anyone as “colorful and offbeat as Billie Sol Estes.”

Mr. Estes was born Jan. 10, 1925, in Abilene and grew up on the family farm near Clyde. As a young man, he made a fortune selling surplus military barracks and surplus wheat. He claimed he was a millionaire by age 21. But he later embarked on the fertilizer tank caper in the early 1960s, which landed him in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan.

Cochran said Mr. Estes also drew a lot of interest because while he was “very much a scoundrel,” people believed he was genuinely committed to the Church of Christ.

Mr. Estes, a recovering alcoholic, deeply loved his first wife, Patsy, who died in 2000, Cochran said. They had five children. Mr. Estes married his second wife, Dorris, in 2003.

“Yet he could go and pull off all these scams,” Cochran said. “It was just a split personality, I guess.

“He told me more than once, ‘You can shear a sheep every year, but you can’t skin him but once.’ And, of course, the idea was, he’d keep scamming and scamming people, but he didn’t want to do the grand deal that would end his scheme with them.”

Mr. Estes seemed to understand his foibles and gave two explanations: greed and compulsion.

Cochran recalled that in a 1983 interview, Mr. Estes told him: “If I smoke another cigarette, I’ll be hooked on nicotine. I’m just one drink away from being an alcoholic and just one deal away from being back in prison.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Miller, 817-390-7684 Twitter: @Bill_MillerST

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