Two investigators say they have obtained DNA from a cowboy who claimed to be Billy the Kid.
Before dying in the 1930s, John Miller purportedly told friends and a son that he was the legendary Western outlaw.
Former Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan and Capitan Mayor Steve Sederwall say they obtained the DNA last May from Miller's remains, which are buried in Prescott, Ariz.
They say they will compare it with blood traces taken from a 19th-century bench that is believed to be the one the Kid's body was placed on after he was shot by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881. The bench was discovered on a Fort Sumner ranch.
Should the samples match, Sullivan and Sederwall say they could have a break that upends accepted historical accounts of the Kid's life and death.
"Wouldn't it be a coincidence if someone we dug up in Arizona, and who died in 1934 and claimed to be Billy the Kid, bled on that bench? That's like winning the lottery," Sullivan told the Albuquerque Journal.
But Fort Sumner city officials and most historians say the tale of the Kid's death and burial in DeBaca County is well-established. Trish Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Billy the Kid Historic Preservation Society, told MSNBC.com that the efforts being made by Sullivan and Sederwall showed a "blatant disregard" for the cemeteries and the lore of the Old West.
"These guys either need to find a hobby or devote more time to legitimate criminal investigation," she said Tuesday.
Two alternate claims
Over the last century, at least two men surfaced supposedly claiming to be Billy the Kid — Miller and Ollie P. "Brushy Bill" Roberts of Hico, Texas. Such stories presuppose that Garrett killed the wrong man in Fort Sumner and lied about it, with the collusion of Fort Sumner's residents.
Sullivan and Sederwall were rebuffed in their 2003 and 2004 efforts to exhume the remains of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner and those of the outlaw's mother in Silver City.
Sullivan has said the impetus for uncovering the truth about the Kid began more than a decade ago when he visited a Hico, Texas, museum dedicated to Roberts.
Sederwall said if Miller's DNA does not match the blood on the bench, investigators will try to exhume Roberts' remains, which rest in Hamilton, Texas.
DNA analysis has yielded solutions to historical mysteries ranging from the fate of Russia's last czar to the identity. However, Saunders said any blood samples from the bench would likely be too degraded to yield any useful DNA samples after decades of exposure to the elements.
"Frankly, we're disappointed that they're back to stirring up all this old dust and trying to rewrite history again," she said. "The bottom line hasn't changed. There's no question that Billy the Kid was killed on July 14, 1881."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Alan Boyle.