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Billie Sol Estes' presence still makes for lively theater

By Bill Whitaker

Local attorney Jim Norvell called a press conference last week to proclaim famed Texas wheeler-dealer Billie Sol Estes innocent, but that won't tilt the scales in anyone's mind.

Nor did Billie Sol really expect it would.

After his attorney spent the better part of an hour haranguing over the wrongful persecution of Estes decade after decade, all 72-year-old Billie Sol Estes could say was that it was way beyond his understanding, that he didn't even see why they were having a press conference in the first place.

"I don't call this a press conference," the heavyset, white-haired Big Country native told reporters upon entering the room after Norvell's remarks. "I call this a meeting with friends. I'm honored y'all would even show up."

And that's how this particular press conference went.

True, Jim Norvell made plenty ado over a letter penned by retired Internal Revenue Service agent J. Kenneth Bradberry - now dead - and his conclusions Billie Sol was wrongfully prosecuted for obtaining federal agriculture loans using phantom fertilizer tanks as collateral.

Instead, Norvell insisted, the whole, complex scheme to wildly manipulate federal farm-aid programs was more fantasy than fact, the outgrowth of political turmoil involving the Kennedy White House and Billie Sol's ties to Lyndon B. Johnson.

Only problem is, when fantasy is allowed to snowball over three decades to the point somebody like Billie Sol Estes becomes a bona fide Texas icon - a sort of predecessor to J.R. Ewing - it's pretty hard for most of us to accept anything else.

Which is why Billie Sol's case wasn't helped when he was indicted yet again, just days after his colorful press conference in Jim Norvell's office.


Stories are rampant about Billie Sol in our area, at least among those old enough to remember. Just last week, a veteran newsman at the Hitchin' Post recalled Billie Sol's amazing business acumen in Pecos and how at one point he even got into selling cemetery plots.

One farmer who'd bought a burial plot from Billie Sol later rethought the idea, backed out of the deal and even got his money back. A friend asked what difference it really made, buying a burial plot from Billie Sol or someone else.

"Because if I'd kept that plot ol' Billie Sol sold me," the farmer said, "I would've been buried 250 feet deep and been the last one out on Resurrection morning!"

Last week's press conference did little to change anyone's mind about Billie Sol, other than to link Jim Norvell - a sometimes blustery attorney with a crusading style - to the defense of Texas' most famous flim-flam man.

For his part, Norvell went on so long and so hard about Billie Sol's innocence and lifelong misery at the unclean hands of politicians, he literally wore down the equipment batteries of TV photographers in attendance.

<I>Reporter-News<I> staffer Jerry Reed's tape recorder also gave up the ghost, forcing the longtime reporter to replace the dead batteries with those from his police radio, which somehow survived the onslaught.


More interesting was the fact some reporters in the room seemed to have no idea what Norvell was talking about, especially as he waged into minute detail. Even if they'd been twice the age they were, they still might not have known of Billie Sol's troubles with the law in the early 1960s.

One young TV reporter spent her very first day on the job trying to make heads or tails of Billie Sol's confounding, tangled web of legal problems.

But for those reporters who did know Billie Sol, it was lively theater, typical of the roly-poly con-man. Even Norvell found it hard to deny Billie Sol's flamboyance, such as when the attorney cited some dubious evidence bearing a questionable signature, "B.S. Estes."

"Now, Billie Sol may be full of B.S.," Norvell admitted to reporters, "but he's never signed his name B.S. Estes."

Anxious to show Billie Sol was not a rich man, Norvell invited reporters to go out to the parking lot and look at his client's car - an old green Chevy with a bumper sticker that read: "Support your local farmer. Cotton Patch Cafe."

Estes' strangely enduring appeal as a sort of cultural outlaw - not such a bad sort, as long as you didn't go into business with him - was evident when he at last joined the press conference. One of the TV photographers walked up, stretched out his hand and said he wanted to shake Billie Sol's hand.

"Your daughter used to clean my teeth at the dentist's office," the TV photographer said proudly.


At another point, when Billie Sol politely admitted he wasn't much for talking with the press, he was reminded how he had gladly sat for an interview and even had his picture taken with longtime Associated Press reporter and Stamford-reared Mike Cochran just a few months ago.

Billie Sol acknowledged his fondness for the hefty, boisterous reporter, once a staffer at the Reporter-News.

"If I was gonna rob a bank," Billie Sol joked, "Mike Cochran is the one who'd help me rob it."

For all the time devoted to last week's press conference, Billie Sol seemed to accept that his reputation wouldn't be improving anytime soon, especially with new questions raised about his alleged money-making activities conducted through the non-profit Lone Star Inn, a local halfway house for ex-inmates.

The indictment came down last week, too, just three days after meeting the press in Abilene. Billie Sol denies the charges.

Asked why he continued to be such a subject of conversation on the tongues of so many Texans, lawmen among them, the old wheeler-dealer shook his head and replied: "Well, I think Billie Sol just has a nice ring to it."

Bill Whitaker, whose own camera batteries died at the aforementioned press conference, can be reached at 676-6732. You can e-mail Bill at WTWARN@aol.com.

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Copyright ©1996 or 1997, Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews / E.W. Scripps. Publications