Washington imbroglios - from Watergate and Iran-contra to the current criminal investigation of the IRS -have come and gone over the years. But few were as sensational, or as intriguing, as the mid-1960s scandal surrounding the infamous Texas swindler Billie Sol Estes. It was a saga replete with witnesses who died mysteriously, tales of millions paid to politicians, a defendant who accused a president of having plotted to assassinate his predecessor and, at one point, the exhumation of a pet cat so that authorities could search the grave for a missing $52 million.
Had it all happened after rather than before Watergate, in fact, no doubt the scandal would have been dubbed Estesgate.
Estes, who died on May 14 at age 88 in DeCordova, Texas, had a life story with so many bizarre twists that a Hollywood screenwriter would have hesitated to make them up, for fear of seeming far-fetched. He was born to a West Texas family so impoverished that it paid the obstetrician by giving him two hound dogs. Estes grew up plowing fields barefoot while he dreamed of becoming a business tycoon. He became a cotton farmer, and by age 28, was so successful that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named him one of the nation's 10 most outstanding young businessmen in 1953. According to a 1962 Time cover story on him, when he received the award, he uttered some prophetic words: "You have to walk out on a limb to the far end - that's where the fruit is."
For Estes, that meant the ammonia fertilizer business. He concocted a scheme that enabled him to steal $24 million from finance companies by getting them to write mortgages on nonexistent fertilizer tanks on farms, and a second cabal to swindle farmers out of federal cotton subsidies. Eventually, in 1965, he was convicted on federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges and sentenced to prison, but not before the Kennedy administration was scandalized by his connections with Agriculture Department officials and then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to whom he claimed to have slipped vast amounts of cash - though the allegation was never proven.
Other weird details of the Estes affair made most of today's political scandals look bland by comparison. A sampling:
- He claimed that then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson once called him at 5 a.m. to demand a half-million dollars. "The first thing I said was, 'Lyndon, do you know what time it is?'" Estes told a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in 1996. "He says, 'I didn't call you to find out what time it is. I called about that money.'" In exchange, he claimed, Johnson helped him to get lucrative federal contracts. He never quite backed up those allegations with proof, just as he failed to substantiate a subsequent claim, made in a 2003 book, that Johnson had plotted JFK's assassination.
- People connected with the case had an unfortunate habit of turning up dead under mysterious circumstances. They included USDA investigator Henry Marshall, who began looking into Estes' affairs in 1961 and soon afterward was found shot to death on his farm. After Estes' arrest in 1962, his accountant was found dead in an apparent suicide, in a car with the windows closed and a hose leading from the exhaust pipe - but with no carbon monoxide in his lungs. Both deaths, oddly, were ruled suicides, according to a Washington Post article on Estes.
- He had songs written about him. Phil Ochs sang "The Ballad of Billie Sol," while in "The Ides of Texas," the Chad Mitchell Trio warbled the memorable line: "Here's to a fella who couldn't think small/Here's to the biggest embezzler of all."
- He lived in the biggest house in Pecos, Texas. According to a 1989 Texas Monthly article, Estes and his family lived on an estate that took up an entire city block and included a 7,000-square-foot mansion, two tennis courts, a large swimming pool, palm trees imported from Florida and a barbecue pit big enough to accommodate two entire steers at the same time.
- His case caused a feline exhumation. The federal government believed Estes had stashed millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains, though they never were able to put their hands on the money. But it wasn't for lack of trying. After learning that Estes had buried a friend's cat in the early 1970s, government agents dug it up, in hopes that he had concealed money in the grave, according to the Chronicle article.
- After his release from prison, he became a T-shirt peddler. According to the 1989 Texas Monthly profile, after his release from prison in the late 1970s, Estes went into business with his daughter Pam, selling T-shirts and goods from the back of a station wagon at West Texas truck stops and barbecue-stand parking lots. "I have to watch him," she told the magazine. "If he tells me he's sold 200 t-shirts, it's more like 20."
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