Amy Reading: How a Texas Paper Brought Down Billie Sol Estestags: Texas, Bloomberg Echoes, Amy Reading, Billie Sol Estes, con men
Amy Reading is the author of “The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge and a Small History of the Big Con,” recently published in paperback by Vintage.
Billie Sol Estes, the Texan con man whose exploits rattled the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died in his sleep May 14. From a penniless background, Estes built up a $40 million West Texas empire of cotton, grain, real estate and fertilizers, and then lost it all when a series of newspaper articles in 1962 revealed that many of his dealings were fraudulent.
Estes once wrote that “Everything I touched made money.” The truth was that everything he touched was tainted. His downfall toppled five federal officials, was linked to seven mysterious deaths and was rumored to have almost cost Johnson his spot on the 1964 presidential ticket (though you won’t read a word about Estes in Robert A. Caro’s four-volume biography, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”). As it turns out, even the story behind the story that brought down Estes has a shady element.
On Feb. 12, 1962, the Pecos Independent published the first of four unsigned articles that referred to Estes only as a “Pecosite.” They detailed a huge swindle in 11 West Texas counties. The paper’s editor, Oscar Griffin, wrote that farmers had been approached by a businessman who offered to pay a 10 percent commission if they would take out a mortgage to buy anhydrous ammonia tanks, used to store fertilizer for growing cotton on the alkalized Texas soil. The tanks would then be leased back to the businessman for the exact amount of the monthly mortgage payments....
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