Digging for the Truth

      As predicted, right here in this column, reopening the Billy the Kid case has created worldwide interest--and controversy.
      In every country where western movies are popular, and that's just about everywhere, people know about Billy. It is claimed that Hollywood has made more movies about the Kid than any other historical character.
      Actors including Paul Newman, Audie Murphy, Buster Crabbe, Roy Rogers, Kris Kristofferson and Emilio Estevez have portrayed the guy in movies dating back to 1911. Many strayed far from historical fact, such as the 1966 flick Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, but the name, by itself, is a grabber.
      What makes Billy the Kid such a compelling character? Maybe it's the fact he was young, good at what he did, wasn't getting rich from it and was a victim of the circumstances in which he grew up. People evidently see more good in him than bad.
      His first victim was purportedly a traveling salesman who got fresh with his mother, a waitress in a Silver City eatery. He worked for the side in the Lincoln County war that is portrayed as the good guys. And he survived an amazingly long time considering the odds. His life was ended only by someone who may have shot him from ambush.
      The end of Billy's life was surrounded by enough ambiguity to foster many tales of conspiracy. According to some accounts, the body was buried before a coroner's jury arrived and all it could do was take statements from Sheriff Pat Garrett.
      Since Garrett and the Kid were supposedly close, that has led to many stories about Garrett killing someone else and letting Billy and has Spanish girlfriend escape. Thus, all the stories about Billy's long life in Texas or Arizona.
      The folks in Hico, Texas have been making much noise lately about their guy, Brushy Bill, being the real Kid despite all evidence pointing otherwise. His family bible lists Brushy as being born two years before Billy died. The Kid was a young gun, but not that young.
      These are the same Texans who claim Jesse James died of old age in those parts, along with John Wilkes Booth, who evidently gave up his acting career to be a bartender. Guess we should feel sorry for the fellow having to stand up all night on that broken leg.
      The Texans like New Mexico's idea of DNA testing, except that they don't want any of it done on their guy. "If they've been telling the truth for 120 years about the gravesite," says one, "why would they need to come to Texas?"
      Our Governor's Office doesn't think much of that idea. It wants to test Catherine Antrim, who is buried in Silver City, and then test the claimants in Texas and Arizona. The folks in Fort Sumner are adamant about not digging up Billy's grave there. The head of the Chamber of Commerce says she will chain herself to the fence surrounding the grave if anyone starts digging.
      So while both sides want only to prove the negative, the DNA talk continues. But it really won't go anywhere. Graves can't just be dug up. Court orders are necessary. And if the local folks don't want it, it's not going to happen.
      It seems likely that everyone has a pretty good idea that no DNA matches will be found. Both Catherine's and Billy's graves have been moved and even if their remains could be found, it is unlikely they would produce enough to work with after 120 years. The bones of Jesse James were exhumed a few years ago and the findings were inconclusive.
      As noted historian Robert Utley observes, "Something this far in the past is not a fit subject for police methods, only for historical methods."
      And Governor Bill Richardson has that covered. He plans to appoint a defense counsel and a prosecutor to present evidence at hearings in Silver City, Mesilla, Fort Sumner and Lincoln, all places where major events in Billy's life occurred.