Billie Sol Estes’ name became synonymous with Texas-sized schemes, greed and corruption. He reigned in the state as the king of con men for nearly 50 years. Time magazine put him on its cover, calling him “a welfare-state Ponzi … a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes who makes Dr. Jekyll seem almost wholesome.”
“He considered dancing immoral, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay preacher,” the magazine wrote. “But he ruthlessly ruined business competitors, practiced fraud and deceit on a massive scale, and even victimized Church of Christ schools that he was supposed to be helping as a fund-raiser or financial advisor.”
Estes was best known for the scandal that broke out during President Kennedy’s administration involving phony financial statements and non-existent fertilizer tanks. Several lower-level Agriculture Department officials resigned, and Estes spent several years in prison.
His name was often linked to fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, but the late president’s associates said their relationship was never as close or as sinister as the wheeler-dealer implied.
Johnson, then the vice president, and Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman came under fire during the scandal, though the scheme had its roots in the waning years of President Eisenhower’s administration, when Estes had edged into national politics from his West Texas power base in Pecos.
In 1965 Estes was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. He served six years in prison and was freed in 1971.
After new charges were brought against him in 1979, he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service. He was freed a second time in 1983.
Former Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran, who covered Estes’ trials and schemes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, recalled writing about how Estes made millions of dollars in phony fertilizer tanks — and noting, “How many city slickers from New York or Chicago can make a fortune selling phantom cow manure?”
“Billie Sol was a character’s character,” Cochran said…” – Read more www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-billie-sol-estes