Billie Sol Estes: Businessman and notorious conman

 

Billie Sol Estes was a flamboyant Texan huckster who became one of the most notorious men in America in 1962 when he was accused of looting a federal crop subsidy programme. His name synonymous with Texas-sized schemes, greed and corruption, he reigned in the state as king of conmen for nearly 50 years. Time put him on its cover, calling him "a welfare-state Ponzi ... a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes who makes Dr Jekyll seem almost wholesome."

Time continued, "He considered dancing immoral, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay preacher. But he ruthlessly ruined business competitors, practiced fraud and deceit on a massive scale, and even victimised Church of Christ schools that he was supposed to be helping as a fund-raiser or financial adviser."

Estes was best known for the scandal that broke out during John F Kennedy's administration involving false financial statements and non-existent fertiliser tanks. Several lower-level agriculture officials resigned, and he spent several years in prison. "I thought he would meet a very violent end. We worried about him being killed for years," his daughter said.

Estes was often linked with fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, but the late president's associates said their relationship was never as close or as sinister as the wheeler-dealer implied. Johnson, then Vice President, and Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman came under fire, though the scheme had its roots in the waning years of the Eisenhower administration, when Estes had edged into national politics from his West Texas power base.

He was convicted in 1965 of mail fraud; an earlier conviction had been thrown out by the Supreme Court over the use of cameras in the courtroom. Sentenced to 15 years, Estes was freed after serving six. But new charges were brought in 1979, and he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the IRS. He was sentenced to 10 years but freed in 1983.

A go-getter since he was a boy, Estes was one of the Junior Chamber of Commerce's 10 most outstanding men of 1953 and was a millionaire before he was 30. Many of his deals involved agriculture products and services, including irrigation and the fertiliser products that later led to his downfall. Before his release from prison for a second time in 1983, he claimed he had uncovered the root of his problems: compulsiveness. "If I smoke another cigarette, I'll be hooked on nicotine," he said. "I'm just one drink away from being an alcoholic and just one deal away from being back in prison."

Former reporter Mike Cochran, who covered Estes' trials and schemes, recalled, "I spent literally years chasing him in and out of prison and around the state as he pulled off all kinds of memorable shenanigans."

Another reporter, Marj Carpenter, witnessed the damage that Estes' schemes wreaked on people in West Texas; she also found a snake and a threatening note in her car while covering Estes. "Money was way too important to him and he didn't seem to care how he got it," she said.

Carpenter worked alongside Oscar Griffin Jr, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for his investigation. Griffin nailed down the story about Estes, who was showing investors the same fertiliser tanks over and over again, by talking to investors, digging through bank documents and looking for the tanks, which didn't exist. He learned that Estes got someone to change the numbers on the tanks while he drove investors round, approaching the same tanks from different directions and leading investors to believe they were seeing different ones.

One of the strangest episodes in Estes' life involved the death of a Department of Agriculture official who was investigating Estes just before he was accused in the fertiliser tank case. Henry Marshall's 1961 death was ruled a suicide even though he had five bullet wounds. But in 1984 Estes told a grand jury that Johnson had ordered the official killed to prevent him from exposing Estes' fraudulent business dealings and ties with the Vice President. In 2003, he co-wrote a book published in France that linked Johnson to Kennedy's assassination.

While he admitted to being a swindler, Estes also portrayed himself as a "kind of Robin Hood" and hoped to be remembered for using his money to feed and educate the poor. He was an advocate of school integration in Texas long before it was fashionable.

Betsy Blaney

Billie Sol Estes, businessman: born Abilene, Texas 10 January 1925; died Granbury, Texas 14 May 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor