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.

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