The Billie Sol Estes Scandal
Billie Sol Estes ( born January 10, 1925, in Clyde, Texas) was a flamboyant Texan who became one of the most notorious men in America. He was best known for his involvement in a business fraud scandal that complicated his ties to friend and future U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.
Estes demonstrated a natural talent for business at an early age. At 13 he received a lamb as a gift, sold its wool for $5, bought another lamb, and went into business. At 15, he sold 100 sheep for $3,000. He borrowed $3,500 more from a bank, bought government surplus grain, and sold it for a big profit. By 18, he had $38,000. He served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.
Billie Sol Estes married Patsy "Mimi" on July,1 946.
In the late 1950s, Estes was heavily involved in the Texas anhydrous ammonia business. He made mortgages on nonexistent ammonia tanks by convincing local farmers to purchase them on credit, sight unseen, and leasing them from the farmers for the same amount as the mortgage payments. He used the fraudulent mortgage holdings to obtain loans from banks outside Texas who were unable to easily check on the tanks.
He worked out a method to purchase large numbers of cotton allotments, by dealing with farmers who had been dispossessed of land through eminent domain. Estes had purchased the cotton allotments with the lease fees. However, because the original sale and mortgage were a pretext rather than a genuine sale, it was illegal to transfer the cotton allotments this way. Estes, a smooth talker, convinced many of his fellow members of the Church of Christ to join in.
In 1962, word got out that Estes had paid off four Agriculture officials for grain storage contracts. President Kennedy ordered the Justice Department and FBI to open investigations into Estes' activities and determine if Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman had been "compromised" (Freeman was cleared). Congress conducted hearings on Estes' business dealings, including some that led to Vice President Johnson, a long-time associate of Estes.
In 1963 Estes was tried and convicted on charges related to the fraudulent ammonia tank mortgages on both federal and state charges and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. His state conviction was overturned in 1965. His federal appeal hinged upon the alleged impossibility of a fair trial due to the presence of television cameras and broadcast journalists in the courtroom. Estes was paroled in 1971. Eight years later, he was again convicted on other fraud charges and served four more years.
Oscar Griffin, Jr. the journalist who uncovered the storage tank scandal, later received the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for his articles for a weekly newspaper in Pecos, Texas.
New charges were brought against him in 1979, he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service. He was freed a second time in 1983.
One of the stranger episodes involved the death of an Agriculture Department official who was investigating Estes just before he was accused in the fertilizer tank case. The 1961 death of Henry Marshall was initially 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. The prosecutor who conducted the grand jury investigation said there was no corroboration of Estes’ allegations.In 2003, Estes co-wrote a book published in France that linked Johnson to Kennedy’s assassination, an allegation rejected by prominent historians, Johnson aides, and family members.
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.
Estes died in his sleep at his home in DeCordova, Texas on May 14, 2013, at the age of 88. Estes’ wife Patsy died in 2000.