Image: Billy the Kid
AP
William Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, is believed to be depicted in this undated ferrotype picture, circa 1880, provided by the Lincoln County, N.M., Heritage Trust Archive.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/27/2004 11:39:54 AM ET 2004-09-27T15:39:54

Three New Mexico law-enforcement officials on Friday dropped their yearlong legal effort to have the remains of Billy the Kid exhumed for genetic testing, a court official told MSNBC. The officials had hoped to confirm scientifically whether the remains were truly those of the Old West outlaw, but they ran into fierce opposition from officials in the town where the Kid is thought to be buried.

Friday's filing in New Mexico's 10th District Court in Fort Sumner, N.M., marks a surprising end to a case that had been due for its first full-blown hearing on Monday, after months of preliminary wrangling. The case touched on Old West legends as well as the economics of New West tourism.

Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Bonney, ranked as one of the most notorious figures of the Western frontier, and most historians accept the traditional view that he was shot to death by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881.

However, through the decades, several people have claimed to be Billy the Kid, saying that the wrong man was killed and buried in Fort Sumner. Last year, De Baca County Sheriff Gary Graves, Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan and Capitan Mayor Steve Sederwall (who was deputized by Sullivan) announced that they were reopening the 123-year-old case. They petitioned for the exhumation of the remains beneath the Kid's gravestone as well as those of his mother in Silver City, N.M., and planned to have DNA tests conducted to confirm the Kid's identity.

Resistance in court
That idea didn't sit well with the mayors of Fort Sumner and Silver City, who contested the officials' petition. The mayors argued that digging up the graves would ruin the historic atmosphere of their towns' cemeteries, with no benefit other than publicity for the sheriffs. Historians noted that the remains buried in the cemeteries may have been moved through the years, due to construction and flooding — meaning there would be no way to confirm the precise location of the Kid's purported remains or his mother's.

Last November, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson appointed a lawyer to represent the Kid's interests, and that attorney, Bill Robins, joined with the sheriffs in seeking the disinterment of his client. At the time, Robins argued that the genetic findings could affect the Kid's chances of getting a posthumous pardon. But last month, Robins and fellow counsel David Sandoval had themselves dismissed from the case, arguing that their time would be better spent tracking down the historical facts.

On Friday, attorneys for the sheriffs and Fort Sumner filed a document stipulating that they were dropping the case "with prejudice," meaning that the petition cannot be filed again, said Janean Grissom, deputy clerk for the 10th District Court.

"The sheriffs were the only ones left, so now this ends the case," Grissom told MSNBC.com. A hearing on the matter had been scheduled for Monday before District Judge Ted Hartley, but that court date has been canceled, she said.

Is it really over?
The court documents do not specify why the three officials sought dismissal of the case.

When contacted by MSNBC.com, Sheriff Graves declined to comment on the development, other than to confirm that Monday's hearing would not take place. Efforts to contact Sullivan and Sederwall, as well as their attorney in the case, were unsuccessful Friday.

The attorney for Fort Sumner, Adam Baker, said the sheriffs agreed to drop the case in the course of pre-hearing negotiations. Baker's motion to dismiss the case outright would have been taken up on Monday.

He noted that Henry Lee, a forensic expert who is working with the sheriffs, had recovered some samples from a bench in Fort Sumner said to be stained with Billy the Kid's blood. Baker speculated that legal action focusing on the Kid's mother might be renewed, depending on what those samples reveal.

"I have a sinking feeling that we haven't heard the last from these sheriffs," Baker told MSNBC.com.

But Trish Saunders, who opposed the exhumation as a co-founder of the Billy the Kid Historic Preservation Society, said the sheriffs may have decided the effort was no longer worth pursuing.

"I think all this has just proved an acute embarrassment for them, and they finally realized it," she said.

Graves was hit with a recall petition drive this summer, fueled in part by sharp local criticism of  his role in the case. Sullivan is due to leave office at the end of this year. And questions had been raised about Sederwall's standing as a plaintiff in the Billy the Kid petition, Saunders said.

In a news release, Saunders hailed Friday's development as "a victory for common sense."

"This is a great day for anyone who cherishes the wonderful history of the American West," she said. "We were just not going to sit by and let a cherished old landmark be torn apart just for a brief spark of publicity."

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