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Who Shot Billy the Kid? - 2003-08-20

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One of the most notorious outlaws of the old American West may be given a pardon. Henry McCarty, who called himself William Bonney, and who was better known as "Billy the Kid," was shot and killed 122 years ago by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, for the murder of two deputies.

Pat Garrett has long enjoyed legendary status for putting an end to the gun-slinging career of one of the old West's wildest. But variations to the story have made the legend one of New Mexico's most hotly debated. This summer, local officials, including the office of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, plan to get to the truth of the story by exhuming bodies and conducting forensic tests to see who really killed whom and who was the "real" Billy the Kid. As a result, public interest in the western legend has never been greater or media attention more far flung.

Lincoln, New Mexico, population 38, is one street really, not even a kilometer long, dotted with houses and historic buildings that have been preserved to look just as they did more than a century ago. But the bucolic Rocky Mountain setting barely recalls the wild and violent days of the 1870s when local businessmen, competing for financial control of the region, set off a series of events that became known as the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid, a 21-year-old ranch hand, inadvertently got pulled into that war when his employer, British rancher John Tunstall, was gunned down.

"This is a raw country. The law of the gun prevails," explained Lee Metzger, great-nephew of Sheriff Pat Garrett, who once owned the Wortley Hotel.

"The Kid was not an outlaw," he explained. "What made him an outlaw? Logic has it that the young Kid says, 'Hey, there goes my employer, there goes a good friend of mine. What am I going to do? What could he do? He went out to avenge it. And that's what got the whole ball rollin'."

Mr. Metzger believes what history has recorded - that Billy the Kid was shot by Pat Garrett and died at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. But others believe the story of a Texas man named "Brushy" Bill Roberts who lived to the ripe old age of 90, and died in Texas in 1950. He claimed he was the real Billy the Kid, and that Pat Garrett killed someone else and covered up the lie. If that story is true, then Pat Garrett's reputation would change from hero to murderer, and questions would be raised about who really killed the deputies at Fort Sumner. At the time - in 1881 - there was no formal investigation.

"We looked at it as, a police officer was killed, there was never a case opened, they ended up killing the Kid over it and that was the end of it," said Steve Sederwall, Mayor of Capitan, New Mexico, a small town near Lincoln. "And we think we owe it to a fellow officer to find out as much as we can and put a lot of the fairy tale to rest."

Mr. Sederwall is working with Tom Sullivan, Sheriff of Lincoln County, whose idea it was to re-open the investigation. They have hired forensic scientists to look for fragments of bullets that may still be lodged in the walls of the Lincoln County Courthouse, which could be traced to the gun that killed the two deputies. The body of Billy the Kid's mother is scheduled to be exhumed in August for DNA analysis to see if it matches that of "Brushy" Bill Roberts, who went to his death trying to prove he was the real 'Kid.' And Mayor Sederwall says he and Sheriff Sullivan plan to ride to Fort Sumner with a group of archeologists to try to locate the body of Billy the Kid.

"Tom and I thought it might be kind of neat to just send a posse over," he said. "We ride horses all the time, we thought it would be a kind of 'city slicker' kind of deal to just ask anyone who wants to go. We'll swear them in in the Lincoln County courthouse, we'll give 'em badges, we'll make them Lincoln County Sheriff's officers, and they can tell their grandkids they were in the last posse to chase Billy the Kid. Of course there's not a big chance that he's going to shoot any of us," he joked.

The investigation has even gotten the attention of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has pledged state support of the project, although he says it will be funded through private donations.

"A lot of questions need to be answered," he said. "Did Pat Garrett kill Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner in July 1881? Is that a fact? Secondly, who helped Billy escape from the Lincoln County Jail when he killed two Lincoln County deputies. Three: Who is this Brushy Bill they say is really Billy the Kid? The last question is, there is a former governor of New Mexico, his name was Lou Wallace. Territorial governor in the 1800s. He told Billy the Kid he was going to pardon him. Now, if we uncover evidence to suggest that Billy the Kid was not in fact the man that killed two deputies, that yes, he was an outlaw but had some redeemable qualities, I will consider pardoning him." Today, interest in the legendary outlaw has never been greater. Over 36,000 visitors have passed through Lincoln County, New Mexico, this year, and news organizations from around the world have come to the region to report on the investigation. Some residents are skeptical that anything significant will be discovered and regard it as little more than a publicity stunt. Governor Richardson, however, sees it as positive for the region and the state of New Mexico.

"Americans generally are curious," Governor Richardson explained. "So when they're confronted with the fact that Billy the Kid, who's a western legend, people might say, 'Hey, he might not have been as bad as everyone says he was,' in fact he was supposed to be pardoned and he wasn't.' and maybe he wasn't killed by Pat Garrett. Maybe he didn't kill those lawmen. So let's look into it. All we're doing is with science, with historians, with national labs that have technology, we want to get to the bottom of it. And if it means New Mexico gets a little attention, so be it. I'm the Governor, I want to see promotion, I want to see tourism go up, I want to see people fascinated by Billy the Kid. And that means a fascination with New Mexico."

In July, a memorial service was held and a monument placed over the unmarked grave of James W. Bell, one of the deputies killed in Billy the Kid's 1881 prison escape. Mayor of Capitan, Steve Sederwall says he is pleased they were able to locate the grave of that fallen officer saying, "If nothing else turns up, then at least we have done that."

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