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Billie Sol Estes, 88; built Texas­-sized legacy of scandals

Billie Sol Estes arrived at court in El Paso, Texas, to face myriad federal charges.

1962 File/Ferd Kaufman/AP

Billie Sol Estes arrived at court in El Paso, Texas, to face myriad federal charges.

NEW YORK — Billie Sol Estes, a fast-talking Texas swindler who made millions, went to prison, and captivated America for years with mind-boggling agricultural scams, payoffs to politicians, and bizarre tales of covered-up killings and White House conspiracies, was found dead Tuesday at his home in Granbury, Texas. He was 88.

His daughter Pamela Padget said he died in his sleep and was found in his recliner.

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Nonexistent fertilizer tanks. Faked mortgages. Bogus cotton-acreage allotments. Farmers in four states bamboozled. Strange ‘‘suicides,’’ including a bludgeoned investigator shot five times with a bolt-action rifle. Assassination plots. Jimmy Hoffa and Fidel Castro. Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald.

The rise and fall of Billie Sol Estes was one of the sensations of the postwar era: the saga of a good-ol'-boy con man who created a $150 million empire of real and illusory enterprises that capitalized on his contacts in Washington and the gullibility and greed of farmers, banks, and agriculture businesses.

He was a Bible-thumping preacher who gave barbecues for governors and senators, rode his bike to work in Pecos, Texas, and his airplane to Washington, and was named one of America’s 10 outstanding young men of 1953 by the US Junior Chamber of Commerce. Later, autographed photos of John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and others lined his walls.

As his empire crumbled in 1962, the notoriety of Billie Sol, as nearly everyone called him, might have been passing had it not been for the bodies that kept cropping up, for the bribery scandals, and for Mr. Estes’ lurid accounts of how it all happened and who was involved.

Many of his statements were self-serving and never proved — particularly allegations about Johnson. Mr. Estes said he had given millions to Johnson, and that Johnson, while he was vice president, had ordered seven killings and then set up the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 to become president.

The Estes chronicles filled newspapers and magazines, inspired books and songs, created lines for comedians and conspiracy theorists, and played out politically in myriad ways. Scandal-loving Americans lapped them up. Mr. Estes’ smiling, dimpled moon face — with a liquid fertilizer tank in the background — was on the cover of Time magazine on May 25, 1962, then its all-time best-selling issue.

“This government is staying right on Mr. Estes’ tail,’’ a harried Kennedy said at an overflowing news conference as he, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Agriculture Secretary Orville L. Freeman were thrown on the defensive by almost daily revelations in the serpentine scandal.

Administration officials were fired. Congressmen who had taken favors were mortified. Scores of FBI agents were dispatched to Texas to investigate suspicious deaths. Richard M. Nixon, then running for governor in California, called it ‘‘the biggest national scandal since Teapot Dome.’’

Born near Clyde, Texas, Billie Sol Estes showed early promise as a financier. 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. By 18, he had $38,000.

In the late 1950s, he launched a bewildering array of interlocking enterprises involving liquid fertilizer, grain elevators, illegally borrowed money, secret payments, and sham mortgages. It leaned heavily on government programs that compensated farmers for storing surplus grain.

The cover was blown in early 1962, when The Pecos Independent and Enterprise published an expose on thousands of mortgages for nonexistent fertilizer tanks. The articles, which did not name Mr. Estes, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and led to an avalanche of investigations.

Mr. Estes was arrested in frauds that reached from farms in Texas to the halls of Washington. Three agriculture officials were fired for taking bribes. An assistant secretary of labor who took $1,000 resigned.

Soon after the indictments, however, Mr. Freeman, the agriculture secretary, disclosed that a key investigator on the case, Henry Marshall, had been found dead — bludgeoned on the head, with nearly fatal amounts of carbon monoxide in his bloodstream, and five chest gunshot wounds. Local officials ruled it suicide, but the body was exhumed and the cause changed to homicide.

Six other men tied to the case also died. Three perished in accidents, including a plane crash. Two were found in cars filled with carbon monoxide and were declared suicides. Mr. Estes’ accountant was also found dead in a car with a rubber tube connecting its exhaust to the interior but no poisonous gases were found in the body.

In 1963, Mr. Estes was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to 15 years. After exhausting appeals and serving six years, he was paroled in 1971. In 1979, he was convicted of tax fraud and served four more years.

In 1984, in what he called a voluntary statement to clear the record, Mr. Estes told a Texas grand jury that Johnson, as vice president in 1961, had ordered that Marshall be killed to prevent him from disclosing Johnson’s ties to the conspiracies. He said a Johnson aide, Malcolm Wallace, had shot him.

The Justice Department asked Estes for more information, and the response was explosive. For a pardon and immunity, he promised to detail eight killings arranged by Johnson, including Kennedy’s.

As with similar allegations in books, articles and documentaries, none of the Mr. Estes claims could be proved. Johnson had died in 1973, and everyone else was also dead.

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