Legend has it that Billy the Kid was gunned down by a sheriff in 1881. But was he?
Homer Overton will tell you that the dead man was an unwitting impostor, a drunk shot point-blank in the face by two unlikely chums — the lawman and the legendary gunfighter himself.
Overton learned this some 63 years ago, at age 9, from the widow of the sheriff, Pat Garrett.
Overton’s sworn statement was offered as evidence for exhuming the body of the Kid’s mother, Catherine Antrim, to compare her DNA with that of a Texas man who claimed until his death in 1950 that he was William Bonney, known in Western lore as Billy the Kid.
Authorities in Lincoln County, where the Kid was convicted of killing a sheriff in the 1870s, want to know if that man — named Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, of Hico, Texas — was the real Billy the Kid.
A hearing on the exhumation petition is set for Jan. 27 in Silver City, where Antrim is buried. Town officials oppose disturbing the gravesite.
The widow's tale
Coroner’s jurors concluded in 1881 that Garrett killed Bonney that July in the Fort Sumner bedroom of Pete Maxwell, son of New Mexico land baron Lucien B. Maxwell.
Garrett’s widow, Apolonaria Garrett, told Overton and a buddy that her husband and the Kid shot a drunk passed out in a street. With no face left, the drunk was just a body that could be passed off for Bonney, Overton’s court affidavit says.
Overton’s boyhood friend, Bobby Talbert, has not been located for comment.
Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan has said it is important to determine what is true and what isn’t. He has noted that Garrett’s image is part of the logo on Lincoln County sheriff’s department uniforms.
Overton lives in Alta Loma, Calif., where he issued a notarized sworn affidavit Dec. 27, 2003, that was filed in court in Silver City a week ago.
The affidavit says the boys visited Apolonaria Garrett in the summer of 1940, about 32 years after her husband was shot to death in 1908 near Las Cruces.
“I believe what Mrs. Garrett told us that day was the absolute truth. ... It made such an impression on me that I have remembered it in detail these 63 years,” Overton’s affidavit says.
Historian Leon Metz has said word of a faked death would have leaked; Silver City’s motion to reject exhumation says suggesting that such a cover-up could have worked “strains credulity.”
Stories have persisted for generations of connections between Bonney and Garrett, said Sherry Tippett, attorney for Sullivan, Deputy Steve Sederwall and DeBaca County Sheriff Gary Graves, who favor exhumation.
“It varies from ‘They just knew each other from a card game’ to ‘They were pals,”’ she said.
In oral histories recorded during the 1930s under the federal Works Progress Administration, or WPA, several interviewees said they doubted Garrett shot Bonney, she said.
“There are a number of people who believe that,” Tippett said. “And now that we have the tools to determine the truth, don’t we have the responsibility?”