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Billie Sol Estes: Texas’ legendary con man dies

Bill Sol Estes headed to prison. Associated Press photo

Mike Cochran Special to the Business Press

EDITOR’S NOTE: For nearly half a century, Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran of Fort Worth wrote about Billie Sol Estes, the crafty, elusive con man who bounced in and out of prison since the 1960s. The legendary Texas scoundrel died May 14 at age 88 in his DeCordova Bend home near Granbury, where he had uncharacteristically avoided the spotlight in recent years. In 1997 Cochran caught up with the Abilene native in the Texas Hill Country, where Estes talked of his colorful past. Cochran, now retired and who has written previously for the Fort Worth Business Press, recounted in that article how a buddy of Estes attempted to kill him and an AP photographer in 1971. This 1997 article from Cochran captures the flavor of the legend.

BRADY – Grinning like a fat, wily old fox, Billie Sol Estes confirmed what I long suspected: His pal Crooked John tried to kill me one night on a mountain road overlooking El Paso. “Yeah, he intended to kill you,” Estes said. “He was as serious as a heart attack. He even told me the oil well where he was going to throw you.” So began another encounter with my favorite con man, now 72, a former Bible-toting, big-bucks wheeler-dealer whose circle of friends once included Lyndon Johnson. After two federal prison stints, and a couple of near misses, Estes has quietly settled into this small town on the fringe of the Texas Hill Country. A bit plumper, his bushy graying mane and familiar horned-rim glasses remain intact and he still fractures the King’s English as his mouth races to keep up with his mind. “I don’t usually talk to reporters,” he said during the first of two informal meetings, first over coffee at the Club Cafe and later over ribs at Mac’s Bar-B-Q. “The young ones don’t even know World War II ended …,” he grumped. “They don’t know Texas history. They don’t know Texas politics. They don’t know nothin’. “They don’t have no Texas roots.” Being young is not among my shortcomings, but, anyway, I’d been writing about Billie Sol for so long that we’d become, if not friends, at least mutually tolerant. It was in 1983 that he told me he had rooted out the cause of all his problems: compulsiveness. “If I smoke another cigarette, I’ll be hooked on nicotine,” he said in a prison interview in Big Spring. “I’m just one drink away from being an alcoholic and just one deal away from being back in prison.” I asked him now if he recalled that diagnosis. “Exactly,” he replied. In both our recent meetings [in 1997], Estes reminisced for hours about the “good old days,” comparing the Washington scandals of his era with the shenanigans of the current capitol crowd. “Those kids up there now, they don’t know nothing about fundraising,” he said, dismissing both the political fundraising and Whitewater intrigue as bush league. “There ain’t nothing there. There’s no story. Money’s never been [President] Bill Clinton’s thing. He don’t fly with the other ducks. He looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but nobody knows where he’s at. … Back then, people had power and used that power. They could make a decision and they could get it done. “They lived by their own set of rules.” Back in his freewheeling political days, Estes indicated, they often got things done with suitcases stuffed with cash. While branding himself as a “kind of Robin Hood,” Estes sidestepped questions about his most recent legal misadventures and said he’s working now on behalf of the “poor and underprivileged.” His voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, Estes revealed also his involvement in a movie project that he said he just couldn’t fully discuss. Actually, he confessed, “I’m just lucky to be alive, knowing what I know.” Which got us back to Crooked John. “Crooked John was big-time in whatever he done … big-time more than anybody ever knew,” Estes said. “If you’d really knew who you were dealing with, you would have run and hid. He had access to a lot of money, and he was good at what he did.” And just what was it that he did? “I’m not sure what he did,” Estes replied. He said Crooked John showed up once with a body in the trunk of his car and started to explain what was going on. Aghast, Estes remembered that he quickly interrupted. “You’ve done told me more about it than I want to know. Don’t tell me no more.” Crooked John once disclosed that he was indebted to Billie Sol for getting him out of jail in Pecos, where Estes owned a noisy daily newspaper and amassed his early fortune. True? “Oh, hell yeah,” Billie Sol said, grinning. “I knew the chief. I just called and told them to let him go. He wasn’t bothering anybody. Back then, people in office, if they liked you, they’d help you. “It was a different world back then.” After the mountain road intrigue, Estes said he told Crooked John it wouldn’t have looked all that good if, on his first night out of prison, Crook had killed a reporter on his behalf. Crook was hardly repentant. “He needed killing,” Estes recalled him saying, “bothering you that first night out.” With what I considered unnecessary gusto, Estes recounted the episode for Mac McBee, who owns the barbecue joint. “Crooked John was a smokin’ gun, was what he was,” he explained. “He had a beautiful history. He told me he never killed nobody who didn’t need killing.” Pointing at me and grinning, he continued: “Crooked John wanted to kill him. He tried to kill him. He was mean enough to kill him. And,” Estes added with a great flourish, “he needed killing.” I first encountered Crooked John that fateful night in 1971 at the La Tuna correctional institute near El Paso, where Estes was serving a 15-year sentence for mail fraud and conspiracy. That conviction stemmed from a multimillion-dollar swindle involving phantom fertilizer tanks and federal agriculture loans. Paroled after serving six years, Estes, to escape a media crush, was making his getaway at one minute after midnight. Acting on a tip, I was camped out at the gate with Ferd Kaufman, an AP photographer from Dallas. Shortly before midnight, a big white car drove up and a big surly guy stepped out. He wore a nasty frown and a string tie anchored by a rock larger than a golf ball. “Get the (expletive) out of here,” he said by way of greeting. While we debated the issue, a car slipped through the gate and sped away, Estes smiling and waving from the back seat. With Ferd at the wheel of my Mustang, we chased Estes into the Franklin Mountains above El Paso. In turn, the guy in the big white car raced after us. As we rounded a curve, I remember glancing down the mountainside at the lights of El Paso and thinking this not only was dangerous but just a mite foolish. Suddenly, the white car pulled alongside and attempted to force us over the cliff. Fright turned to real terror when Fearless Ferd, a typical wire service photographer, released the steering wheel, grabbed his camera off the car seat and began snapping photos of our mysterious assailant. Later, I would conclude that the guy was so startled by the flashing camera that he backed off. At any rate, we survived and Estes escaped. With no interview, I wrote about the midnight getaway and the encounter with the mystery man. Ferd’s photos illustrated the mountain adventure. Two days later, totally by chance, I stumbled across the man in the string tie at a hotel coffee shop in Midland. A journalist friend was introducing me to some folks as the “guy who chased Billie Sol through the mountains above El Paso.” From a corner of the restaurant came a booming voice: “Yeah, but the son of a bitch didn’t catch him!” His name was John Ernst and his business card read “Crooked John From El Paso.” He was a wonderful character and a great interview and I wrote again about Billie Sol’s mystery buddy. Back home in Fort Worth, I got a call. “Crooked John,” he said. “Hi, Crook,” I replied. He said he’d been traveling around West Texas and discovering my Crooked John stories and pictures in most of the newspapers. I didn’t know if this was good or bad. “I’m going to send you a little something,” he said. “Please don’t,” I told him. Three days later, two misshapen rocks like those in Crook’s string tie arrived by mail at my AP office in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram [building]. They were wrapped in toilet paper. Crook had told me to give one to my wife and keep one for myself. I showed off my treasures to one and all and recounted in glorious detail my rendezvous with Crooked John. Over dinner with friends that night, I asked my wife, as an afterthought, to get the rocks appraised. If they had any value, it was a safe bet the AP would not be amused by my windfall. She called the next day from Haltom’s Jewelers to say she thought she was about to be arrested. The jeweler told her the rocks were black opals and that in 40 years he had seen nothing like them. He appraised them at $8,000 but indicated he was just guessing. After insuring them, we reluctantly mailed them back to Crooked John. He was insulted and furious, but eventually got over it. Before his death years later, he sent me a silver-plated telephone cover with a simple inscription: “Crooked John From El Paso … 915-751-7133.” I never even thought about returning it.   

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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