Billy Sol Estes, the infamous Texan con man who made multiple visits to prison after his complex web of mortgage fraud and agriculture swindles came to light in the early 1960s, died May 14 2013, in Granbury, Texas, at age 88. (As if on cue, Mother Nature unleashed a tornado on Granbury the very next day, killing six people.)
Among Estes’ legacies: the allegation that Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
While the charge is unproven, oft-repeated (most recently by Republican political consultant Roger Stone), and oft-rejected, there is no doubt that Estes was friends with LBJ and knew his way around a criminal conspiracy. Even the obituary writers at the New York Times saw fit to report his claims about LBJ and JFK.
As his multi-million dollar empire began to fall apart in 1962, the well-connected Estes became a political liability to the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy himself had to publicly say that the Justice Dept. would get to the bottom of the Estes shenanigans.
Yet, as investigators dug into his labyrinthine schemes, they ended up dead — seven of them in fact; the majority dubiously ruled to be suicide. One victim’s “suicide” included five shots from a bolt action rifle.
In the early 1980s, after serving four years for tax fraud, Estes told Justice Dept. officials that not only did some his ill-gotten proceeds go to LBJ, but that LBJ ordered the investigator murders to avoid being connected to the kickbacks. Estes also said that he knew that LBJ orchestrated the JFK assassination, pointing to LBJ henchman Malcolm Wallace as a triggerman in both the investigator and the JFK killings.
(In 1951, Wallace narrowly avoided execution — getting instead a suspended sentence — for a murder he committed in Texas. In 1998 assassination investigator Walt Brown claimed that a mystery fingerprint taken from a box in the 6th Floor “sniper’s den” matched Wallace’s.)
The Times didn’t shrink from the LBJ accusations in reporting Estes’s departure.
“The Justice Department asked Mr. Estes for more information, and the response was explosive. For a pardon and immunity from prosecution, he promised to detail eight killings arranged by Johnson, including the Kennedy assassination. He said that Mr. Wallace had not only persuaded Jack Ruby to recruit Lee Harvey Oswald, but that Mr. Wallace had also fired a shot in Dallas that hit the president,” wrote the NYT, adding that “none of the Estes claims could be proved.”
On a personal note, I knew a man back in the early 90s who was himself a Texan wheeler and dealer. Smelling money in the wake of Oliver Stone’s “JFK” success, this fellow approached Estes to sit for a documentary. It never went beyond the initial videotaped interview, but I remember well one of Billy Sol’s lines: “Those Harvard boys just couldn’t handle Texan men.”
The wheeler and dealer died a decade ago in Mexico. I don’t know where the videotape ended up.
Billie Sol Estes
Billie Sol Estes, one of six children of John and Lillian Estes, was born on a farm near Clyde, Texas, on 10th January, 1925. According to the New York Times: “He was an average student. His family was poor, but Billie Sol 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. 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.”
After marrying in 1946 he moved to the small town of Pecos. As a result of high irrigation costs, local farmers found it difficult to make profits from their cotton crops. Estes started up a company providing irrigation pumps that used cheap natural gas. Farmers had previously used irrigation pumps powered by electricity. Estes also sold anhydrous ammonia as a fertilizer. This was a great success and Estes soon became a wealthy businessman. In 1953 he was named one of America’s 10 outstanding young men by the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Estes’s business encountered problems when the Department of Agriculture began to control the production of cotton. Allotments were issued telling the cotton farmers how much they could and could not plant. In 1958 Estes made contact with Lyndon B. Johnson. Over the next couple of years Estes ran a vast scam getting federal agricultural subsidies. According to Estes he obtained $21 million a year for “growing” and “storing” non-existent crops of cotton.
In 1960 Henry Marshall was asked to investigate the activities of Billie Sol Estes. Marshall discovered that over a two year period, Estes had purchased 3,200 acres of cotton allotments from 116 different farmers. Marshall wrote to his superiors in Washington on 31st August, 1960, that: “The regulations should be strengthened to support our disapproval of every case (of allotment transfers)”.
When he heard the news, Billie Sol Estes sent his lawyer, John P. Dennison, to meet Marshall in Robertson County. At the meeting on 17th January, 1961, Marshall told Dennison that Estes was clearly involved in a “scheme or device to buy allotments, and will not be approved, and prosecution will follow if this operation is ever used.” Marshall was disturbed that as a result of sending a report of his meeting to Washington, he was offered a new post at headquarters. He assumed that Bille Sol Estes had friends in high places and that they wanted him removed from the field office in Robertson County. Marshall refused what he considered to be a bribe.
A week after the meeting between Marshall and Dennison, A. B. Foster, manager of Billie Sol Enterprises, wrote to Clifton C. Carter, a close aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, telling him about the problems that Marshall was causing the company. Foster wrote that “we would sincerely appreciate your investigating this and seeing if anything can be done.” Over the next few months Marshall had meetings with eleven county committees in Texas. He pointed out that Billie Sol Estes scheme to buy cotton allotments were illegal. This information was then communicated to those farmers who had been sold their cotton allotments to Billie Sol Enterprises.
On 3rd June, 1961, Marshall was found dead on his farm by the side of his Chevy Fleetside pickup truck. His rifle lay beside him. He had been shot five times with his own rifle. County Sheriff Howard Stegall decreed that Marshall had committed suicide. No pictures were taken of the crime scene, no blood samples were taken of the stains on the truck (the truck was washed and waxed the following day), and no check for fingerprints were made on the rifle or pickup.
Marshall’s wife (Sybil Marshall) and brother (Robert Marshall) refused to believe he had committed suicide and posted a $2,000 reward for information leading to a murder conviction. The undertaker, Manley Jones, also reported: “To me it looked like murder. I just do not believe a man could shoot himself like that.” The undertaker’s son, Raymond Jones, later told the journalist, Bill Adler in 1986: “Daddy said he told Judge Farmer there was no way Mr. Marshall could have killed himself. Daddy had seen suicides before. JPs depend on us and our judgments about such things. we see a lot more deaths than they do. But in this case, Daddy said, Judge Farmer told him he was going to put suicide on the death certificate because the sheriff told him to.” As a result, Lee Farmer returned a suicide verdict: “death by gunshot, self-inflicted.”
Sybil Marshall hired an attorney, W. S. Barron, in order to persuade the Robertson County authorities to change the ruling on Marshall’s cause of death. One man who did believe that Marshall had been murdered was Texas Ranger Clint Peoples. He had reported to Colonel Homer Garrison, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, that it “would have been utterly impossible for Mr. Marshall to have taken his own life.”
Peoples also interviewed Nolan Griffin, a gas station attendant in Robertson County. Griffin claimed that on the day of Marshall’s death, he had been asked by a stranger for directions to Marshall’s farm. A Texas Ranger artist, Thadd Johnson, drew a facial sketch based on a description given by Griffin. Peoples eventually came to the conclusion that this man was Mac Wallace, the convicted murderer of John Kinser.
In early 1962, Oscar Griffin Jr., the city editor of The Pecos Independent and Enterprise, published an article arguing that thousands of mortgages had been taking out for nonexistent fertilizer tanks. Soon afterwards Billie Sol Estes was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on fraud and conspiracy charges. Time Magazine reported that “He (Billie Sol Estes) considered dancing immoral, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay preacher. But he ruthlessly ruined business competitors, practiced fraud and deceit on a massive scale, and even victimized Church of Christ schools that he was supposed to be helping as a fund raiser or financial adviser.”
It was also disclosed by the Secretary of Agriculture, Orville L. Freeman, that Henry Marshall had been a key figure in the investigation into the illegal activities of Billie Sol Estes. As a result, the Robertson County grand jury ordered that the body of Marshall should be exhumed and an autopsy performed. After eight hours of examination, Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk confirmed that Marshall had not committed suicide. Jachimczyk also discovered a 15 percent carbon monoxide concentration in Marshall’s body. Jachimczyk calculated that it could have been as high as 30 percent at the time of death.
On 4th April, 1962, George Krutilek, Estes chief accountant, was found dead. Despite a severe bruise on Krutilek’s head, the coroner decided that he had also committed suicide. The next day, Estes, and three business associates, were indicted by a federal grand jury on 57 counts of fraud. Two of these men, Harold Orr and Coleman Wade, later died in suspicious circumstances. At the time it was said they committed suicide but later Estes was to claim that both men were murdered by Mac Wallace in order to protect the political career of Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also began to look into the case of Billie Sol Estes. Leonard C. Williams, a former assistant to Henry Marshall, testified about the evidence the department acquired against Estes. Orville L. Freeman also admitted that Marshall was a man “who left this world under questioned circumstances.”
It was eventually discovered that three officials of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in Washington had received bribes from Billie Sol Estes. Red Jacobs, Jim Ralph and Bill Morris were eventually removed from their jobs. However, further disclosures suggested that the Secretary of Agriculture, might be involved in the scam. In September, 1961, Billie Sol Estes had been fined $42,000 for illegal cotton allotments. Two months later, Freeman appointed Estes to the National Cotton Advisory Board.
It was also revealed that Billie Sol Estes told Wilson C. Tucker, deputy director of the Agriculture Department’s cotton division, on 1st August, 1961, that he threatened to “embarrass the Kennedy administration if the investigation were not halted”. Tucker went onto testify: “Estes stated that this pooled cotton allotment matter had caused the death of one person and then asked me if I knew Henry Marshall”. As Tucker pointed out, this was six months before questions about Marshall’s death had been raised publicly.
However, the cover-up continued. Tommy G. McWilliams, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, came to the conclusion that Marshall had indeed committed suicide. He wrote: “My theory was that he shot himself and then realized he wasn’t dead.” He then claimed that he then tried to kill himself by inhaling carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipe of his truck. McWilliams claimed that Marshall had used his shirt to make a hood over the exhaust pipe. Even J. Edgar Hoover was not impressed with this theory. He wrote on 21st May, 1962: “I just can’t understand how one can fire five shots at himself.”
Joseph A. Jachimczyk also disagreed with the FBI report. He believed that the bruise on Marshall’s forehead had been caused by a “severe blow to the head”. Jachimczyk also rejected the idea that Marshall had used his shirt as a hood. He pointed out that “if this were done, soot must have necessarily been found on the shirt; no such was found.”
The Robertson County grand jury continued to investigate the death of Henry Marshall. However, some observers were disturbed by the news that grand jury member, Pryse Metcalfe, was dominating proceedings. Metcalfe was County Sheriff Howard Stegall’s son-in-law. On 1st June, 1962, the Dallas Morning News reported that President John F. Kennedy had “taken a personal interest in the mysterious death of Henry Marshall.” As a result, the story said, Robert Kennedy “has ordered the FBI to step up its investigation of the case.”
In June, 1962, Billie Sol Estes, appeared before the grand jury. He was accompanied by John Cofer, a lawyer who represented Lyndon B. Johnson when he was accused of ballot-rigging when elected to the Senate in 1948 and Mac Wallace when he was charged with the murder of John Kinser. Billie Sol Estes spent almost two hours before the grand jury, but he invoked the Texas version of the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer most questions on grounds that he might incriminate himself.
Tommy G. McWilliams of the FBI also appeared before the grand jury and put forward the theory that Henry Wallace had committed suicide. Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk also testified that “if in fact this is a suicide, it is the most unusual one I have seen during the examination of approximately 15,000 deceased persons.” McWilliams did admit that it was “hard to kill yourself with a bolt-action 22”. This view was shared by John McClellan, a member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He posed for photographs with a .22 caliber rifle similar to Marshall’s. McClellan pointed out: “It doesn’t take many deductions to come to the irrevocable conclusion that no man committed suicide by placing the rifle in that awkward position and then (cocking) it four times more.”
Despite the evidence presented by Jachimczyk, the grand jury agreed with McWilliams. It ruled that after considering all the known evidence, the jury considers it “inconclusive to substantiate a definite decision at this time, or to overrule any decision heretofore made.” Later, it was disclosed that some jury members believed that Marshall had been murdered. Ralph McKinney blamed Pryse Metcalfe for this decision. “Pryse was as strong in the support of the suicide verdict as anyone I have ever seen in my life, and I think he used every influence he possibly could against the members of the grand jury to be sure it came out with a suicide verdict.”
Estes trial began in October 1962. John Cofer, who was also Lyndon Johnson’s lawyer, refused to put Estes on the witness stand. Estes was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to eight years in prison. Federal proceedings against Estes began in March 1963. He was eventually charged with fraud regarding mortgages of more that $24 million. Estes was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
In 1964 the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reported that it could find no link between Marshall’s death and his efforts to bring to an end Billie Sol Estes’ cotton allotment scheme. The following year Billie Sol Estes went to prison for fraud relating to the mostly nonexistent fertilizer tanks he had put up for collateral as part of the cotton allotment scam. He was released in 1971 but he was later sent back to prison for mail fraud and non-payment of income tax.
In 1964 J. Evetts Haley published A Texan Looks at Lyndon. In the book Haley attempted to expose Johnson’s corrupt political activities. This included a detailed look at the relationship between Estes and Johnson. Haley pointed out that three men who could have provided evidence in court against Estes, George Krutilek, Harold Orr and Howard Pratt, all died of carbon monoxide poisoning from car engines.
The case was taken up by the journalist Joachim Joesten. In his books, The Dark Side of Lyndon Baines Johnson (1968) and How Kennedy was Killed: The Full Appalling Story (1968), Joesten argues that Lyndon B. Johnson was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and was as a direct result of the scandals involving Estes and Bobby Baker.
Clint Peoples retired from the Texas Rangers in 1974 but he continued to investigate the murder of Henry Marshall. In 1979 Peoples interviewed Billie Sol Estes in prison. Estes promised that “when he was released he would solve the puzzle of Henry Marshall’s death”.
Billie Sol Estes was released from prison in December, 1983. Three months later he appeared before the Robertson County grand jury. He confessed that Henry Marshall was murdered because it was feared he would “blow the whistle” on the cotton allotment scam. Billie Sol Estes claimed that Marshall was murdered on the orders of Lyndon B. Johnson, who was afraid that his own role in this scam would become public knowledge. According to Estes, Clifton C. Carter, Johnson’s long-term aide, had ordered Marshall to approve 138 cotton allotment transfers.
Billie Sol Estes told the grand jury that he had a meeting with Johnson and Carter about Henry Marshall. Johnson suggested that Marshall be promoted out of Texas. Estes agreed and replied: “Let’s transfer him, let’s get him out of here. Get him a better job, make him an assistant secretary of agriculture.” However, Marshall rejected the idea of being promoted in order to keep him quiet.
Estes, Johnson and Carter had another meeting on 17th January, 1961, to discuss what to do about Henry Marshall. Also at the meeting was Mac Wallace. After it was pointed out that Marshall had refused promotion to Washington, Johnson said: “It looks like we’ll just have to get rid of him.” Wallace, who Estes described as a hitman, was given the assignment.
Billie Sol Estes also told the grand jury that he met Clifton C. Carter and Mac Wallace at his home in Pecos after Marshall was killed. Wallace described how he waited for Marshall at his farm. He planned to kill him and make it appear as if Marshall committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. However, Marshall fought back and he was forced to shoot him with his own rifle. He quoted Carter as saying that Wallace “sure did botch it up.” Johnson was now forced to use his influence to get the authorities in Texas to cover-up the murder. The grand jury rejected the testimony of Billie Sol Estes. Carter, Wallace and Johnson were all dead and could not confirm Billie Sol’s testimony. However, the Grand Jury did change the verdict on the death of Henry Marshall from suicide to death by gunshot.
On 9th August, 1984, Estes’ lawyer, Douglas Caddy, wrote to Stephen S. Trott at the U.S. Department of Justice. In the letter Caddy claimed that Estes, Lyndon B. Johnson, Mac Wallace and Clifton C. Carter had been involved in the murders of Henry Marshall, George Krutilek, Harold Orr, Ike Rogers, Coleman Wade, Josefa Johnson, John Kinser and John F. Kennedy. Caddy added: “Mr. Estes is willing to testify that LBJ ordered these killings, and that he transmitted his orders through Cliff Carter to Mac Wallace, who executed the murders.”
Four days later, the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics ruled that there was now “clear and convincing” evidence to prove Henry Marshall was murdered and State District Judge Peter Lowry ordered that the death certificate should be changed to “homicide by gunshot wounds”.
In 1984 Billie Sol Estes’ daughter, Pam Estes, published Billie Sol: King of Texas Wheeler-Dealers. This was followed by JFK, the Last Standing Man (co-written with William Reymond) in France (Le Dernier Temoin). In the book Estes claims that Lyndon B. Johnson was involved in assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When interviewed by the American journalist, Pete Kendall, Estes said: “He (Johnson) told me if I wouldn’t talk, I would not go to jail.” Estes has had no contact with LBJ’s other long-ago associates, he said, since the book’s publication. “About all of them are dead, really. I think I’m about the last one standing.” That’s partly why, he said, he wasn’t interested in doing a book sooner. “I’ve been accused of being dumb,” he said, “but I’m not stupid.”
(1) I give great credibility to the accusations made by Billie Sol Estes in the relevant 1984 letter to the U.S. Department of Justice. There were contemporaneous newspaper reports of the untimely deaths of almost all of the persons listed by him in the letter. In addition, Texan historian J. Evetts Haley in his 1964 book, A Texan Looks at Lyndon, wrote in great detail about Estes and the victims.
(2) I don’t think my having met Estes, which originally occurred in 1983 when I was asked to do so by Shearn Moody, Jr., of the Moody Foundation in connection with a grant request from Estes, influenced my assessment of the accusations one way or the other. This is because there already existed in the public record much evidence to support Estes’ accusations.
(3) U.S. Marshal Clint Peoples (former Texas Ranger also), who had closely followed Estes’ activities for 25 years, told me on several occasions that his research supported Estes’ accusations. His exact words to me: “It is about time that the truth comes out.” It was Marshal Peoples who arranged for Estes to testify in 1984 before the Robertson County grand jury. Press reports at the time disclosed that Estes reiterated his accusations in his grand jury testimony.
(4) There was no signed and notarized document of Estes dating before I met him that recorded his accusations. He had not determined to tell what he knew until while still in federal prison at Big Spring, Texas, he contacted Shearn Moody, Jr. in 1983 and indicated he was prepared to relate for the public record what he knew.
(5) Estes has maintained that he has taped recordings of conversations of the conspirators that support his accusations. I have not heard the recordings and have no knowledge of their whereabouts.
(6) He confided in U.S. Marshal Peoples of what he knew. Peoples is now deceased. However, the transcript of Estes’ testimony before the Robertson County grand jury in 1984, if it were unsealed, would clarify much.
(7) At the time of JFK assassination, LBJ was facing criminal proceedings stemming from his involvement in the Billie Sol Estes and the Bobby Baker scandals that were reaching the explosive stage. LBJ’s involvement in these two scandals certainly adds credence to what Estes has alleged.