A judge agreed Friday to postpone a hearing until August on whether to allow the exhumation of the body of Catherine Antrim, mother of Billy the Kid, from a Silver City cemetery.
The sheriffs of New Mexico's Lincoln and DeBaca counties have petitioned the court to allow Antrim's DNA to be tested and eventually compared with DNA taken from up to three other sources:
- Remains buried under the Kid's gravestone in Fort Sumner, N.M.
- The remains of Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts, a Texas resident who claimed to be Billy the Kid until his death in 1950.
- Remains from the Kid's brother, Joseph Antrim, who died in 1930 — if those remains can be located.
The sheriffs' attorney, Sherry Tippett, said their forensic expert, George Washington University Professor James Starrs, "needs several months to prepare his report and testimony in this case."
The hearing had been set to go forward next week, but state District Judge Henry Quintero granted the postponement to mid-August. Tippett said that between now and then, "we're going to do a lot of scientific and records research."
Starrs has been involved in several other controversial cases involving historical figures, including the exhumation of Jesse James and self-confessed "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo, as well as efforts to exhume the remains of 19th-century explorer Meriwether Lewis.
Tippett expects Starrs in Silver City in late February or early March. He will do "some forensic research, ground-penetrating radar, to determine where she is and if she can be removed without disturbing other bodies," Tippett said.
Opponents state their case
Silver City Mayor Terry Fortenberry opposes the exhumation, saying that Catherine Antrim's remains and the Old West cemetery where they reportedly lie should be left in peace. An attorney representing Silver City, Adam Baker of the firm Kennedy & Han, said the postponement could be seen as a setback for the sheriffs.
"Petitioners are kind of struggling to put their case back together at this point," he told MSNBC.com.
Initially, the sheriffs were quoted as saying their effort had the backing of forensic anthropologist Debra Komar and New Mexico's Office of Medical Investigator. But Baker provided copies of affidavits filed this month by Komar and Dr. Ross Zumwalt, the director of the medical investigation office, saying that they did not support the exhumation.
"Any such attempted exhumation has very little possibility of contributing any information to the petitioner's alleged investigation, threatens the disturbance of unrelated burials, is a very great waste of public resources and a distraction of the OMI from its mandated work," the Office of Medical Investigator said in a court filing.
A spokeswoman for the Billy the Kid Preservation Society, a private group that is opposed to the exhumation, said she was "optimistic" that the judge would eventually rule against the sheriffs.
“Call us old fashioned, but we really hate the idea of dragging a backhoe through an historic old pioneer cemetery, just to find old bones and perform DNA testing for no real purpose, other than a brief blip of publicity,” spokeswoman Trish Saunders said in a statement e-mailed to MSNBC.com. “Surely this woman deserves to rest in peace.”
Friday's developments mark yet another chapter in an Old West tale that goes back more than 122 years.
A coroner's jury in Fort Sumner concluded Sheriff Pat Garrett killed William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner.
"Brushy Bill" Roberts of Hico, Texas, claimed that he was the Kid and that he was freed while the death in Fort Sumner was faked, with some other body in place of the Kid's. If that's true, Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan has said, then Garrett may have killed the wrong man and covered it up.
Gov. Bill Richardson supports the investigation, saying it's time the truth is known now that DNA technology is available. Richardson has appointed a special counsel to represent Billy the Kid's interests, and has indicated that the investigation could lead to a pardon.