Billie Sol Estes, a colorful and unapologetic Texas wheeler-dealer who boasted of his political connections even as he went to prison two times for fraud, died May 14 at his home in DeCordova, Tex. He was 88.
A daughter confirmed his death to news outlets, but the cause was not immediately known.
For a short time in the early 1960s, Estes was one of the most famous people in America, written about in Time and Life magazines, commemorated in song and pursued by federal authorities who once dug up a dead cat from a back yard, believing that Estes had buried it with hidden treasure.
Estes was a multimillionaire in his early 30s, but his expanding business empire turned out to be built on a foundation of fraud that led to his sudden downfall.
When authorities began to close in on Estes, several people who knew about his business practices died under peculiar circumstances.
He often claimed to be closely allied with powerful Texas political leaders, most notably longtime speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Lyndon B. Johnson.
At the peak of his wealth and influence, Estes said, he was sending payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Johnson.
He said he once got an angry call in the middle of the night after he was late delivering money to Johnson.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Lyndon, do you know what time it is?’ “ Estes told the Houston Chronicle in 1996.
“He says, ‘I didn’t call you to find out what time it is. I called about that money. You get somebody down to the airport and get it on a plane.’ “
Many historians and people close to Johnson have said that Estes exaggerated how closely he knew Johnson. But it is hard to overstate the breadth and audacity of some of Estes’s schemes.
His fortune — ill-gotten or not — was once estimated as high as $400 million, but by the time his empire collapsed, he was millions in debt.
“The sad part of it is,” a Texas bank president once told Time magazine, “that he could have been an honest millionaire instead of a broke crook.”
Billie Sol Estes was born Jan. 10, 1925, in Alanreed, Texas, near Abilene.
By the time he was 15, he had a herd of 100 sheep. Before he was 30, he was named one of the 10 most outstanding young men in America.
He found early success with an agricultural supply company in the West Texas town of Pecos. On the sides of his trucks, he had the slogan, “You name it, we make it.” He bought up abandoned military barracks, cut up the buildings and resold them as houses. His holdings included cotton farms, real estate, salvage yards, construction and trucking firms, grain storage, fertilizer and well-digging.
Always active in Democratic politics, Estes thought he could win the 1956 presidential election for Adlai Stevenson by buying flocks of trained parakeets to fly over U.S. cities saying, “I like Adlai.”
A banker turned the idea down.
Estes owned private airplanes and Cadillacs, threw barbecues for 2,000 people and often considered himself something of a Robin Hood. He reportedly paid the college tuition for hundreds of black and Hispanic students.
Estes owned a fleet of tanks used to transport liquid fertilizer for farmers. He inflated the number of tanks that he owned — claiming he had more than 33,000 — and used non-existent tanks as collateral to secure more than $20 million in loans.
He also took advantage of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program of price supports for cotton to swindle farmers out of federally subsidized payments.
When a USDA investigator named Henry Marshall began to look into Estes’ affairs in 1961, he turned up dead at his Texas farm, shot five times in the stomach with his own bolt-action .22-caliber rifle. Marshall’s death was initially ruled a suicide.
In April 1962, less than a week after Estes was arrested by the FBI, his accountant, George Krutilek, was found dead in a car with the windows closed and a hose leading from the exhaust pipe — but there was no carbon monoxide in his lungs. That death was also declared a suicide despite a large bruise on Krutilek’s forehead.
Two other business associates of Estes also died under strange circumstances.
In 1965, Estes was convicted in federal court of mail fraud and conspiracy. An earlier state conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the presence of TV cameras led to an unfair trial. He was freed after six years in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., where he became friends with mafia kingpin Vito Genovese.
Estes said he became an alcoholic in prison, where he became fond of the scotch allegedly smuggled in by Genovese.
In 1979, Estes was convicted of fraud and other financial crimes and served four more years in prison.
His first wife, Patsy Estes, died in 2000 after 54 years of marriage. They had five children. Survivors include his second wife, Dorris.
For years, the IRS had a $52 million judgment against Estes, believing that he had stashed millions of dollars in offshore accounts. The money never turned up, even after federal agents dug up a cat, suspecting that Estes had hidden cash in a feline coffin.
“I don’t have any money, and I don’t care about money anymore,” Estes said in 1996.
“A lot of people wouldn’t believe that. . . . They think I won, but I didn’t win. I spent the best years of my life in prison.”