Legendary Western outlaw Billy the Kid is supposed to have died after pistol shots rang through the night in the New Mexico desert 122 years ago, and a local sheriff’s office has reopened the books on the event to find out just who shot whom.
There are many stories about the death of Billy the Kid, with the prevailing history saying that Billy was gunned down by one the state’s most famous Wild West lawmen, Sheriff Pat Garrett.
There are others who say the Kid fled to England and died of old age, while another story has the gunslinger dying in Hico, Texas at the age of 90.
Tom Sullivan, a sheriff in Lincoln County, New Mexico earlier this month opened case number 2003-274, in which his office, with the cooperation of the state of New Mexico, will use 21st century technology to hopefully put to rest questions about what actually happened at shoot-outs in 1881.
Sheriff Sullivan says that DNA testing can prove where the body of the real Billy the Kid rests, and that Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him dead on July 14, 1881 in a house in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
“Now DNA comparisons can be done. They dug up the bones of Jesse James and even the bones of Thomas Jefferson to do DNA testing — and it worked,” Sullivan said. “Right now we’re just waiting for some advice on the proper procedures of exhumation of a body.”
Sullivan said he already has the go-ahead from the family to exhume the body of the Kid’s mother, who is buried in Silver City, New Mexico.
The Kid, whose real name was Henry McCarty but who also went by William Bonney and Kid Antrim, is supposedly buried near the house in Fort Sumner where he was gunned down. A body reported to be the Kid will be exhumed for DNA testing, but the state may need seek permission to exhume a few more bodies near the site due to uncertainty over where the Kid’s actual grave is.
Sullivan hopes to compare the DNA of the Kid’s mother to that of the body in Texas, and to others closely linked with the Western outlaw.
The project started three months ago after Sullivan visited a museum in Hico, Texas dedicated to Brushy Bill Roberts, who claimed in 1950 to be Billy the Kid. Claims by the museum that Billy the Kid died there suggests that Sheriff Pat Garrett shot someone other than the Kid in New Mexico and covered it up.
“That would make Pat Garrett a murderer. Now he’s our most famous sheriff — and a hero in my book — so I want to clear his name,” Sullivan said.
Billy the Kid was said to be involved in cattle rustling gangs and in the murder of at least four people — and as many as 21 — in the late 1800s. He was captured and jailed, then killed two deputies during his escape. He finally was tracked down by Sheriff Garrett and shot in the heart at age 21.
Sullivan and retired federal officer Steve Sederwall also want to recreate the crime scene of Billy the Kid’s escape from prison on April 28, 1881, and his shooting of law enforcement officers to determine once and for all what happened in the jailhouse.
“We’re going to look at this like a cold case file — though this one is extra cold,” said Sederwall, who said he has enlisted two Texas DNA experts to help in the investigation.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has thrown his support behind the investigation.
“Billy the Kid is an American legend. It is important that we historically uncover the true events,” Richardson said.