Saturday, December 29, 1950, there was a funeral in Hico, Texas for O. L. Roberts (some accounts call him William Henry Roberts) who claimed to be Billy the Kid. He had come to Hico in the late 1930s from his previous home in Gladewater, claiming to be Billy the Kid, who was born Henry McCarty and also known as William Bonney. We’ll refer to the outlaw as Bonney.
Roberts’ story was that the tale of Billy the Kid having been killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico was untrue. The historically accepted account was that on July 14, 1881, Bonney had been in Pete Maxwell’s house when he heard someone rustling around. Bonney called out and was shot by Garrett, and the outlaw died within seconds. He had escaped from small jail/courthouse in Lincoln, New Mexico where he was being held. In the process of his escape, two deputies were killed.
After the incident in Ft. Sumner, numerous individuals had claimed to be the notorious outlaw from time to time and told tales of their escape. One legend held that Sheriff Pat Garrett had actually been friends with Bonney and had staged the incident to let him escape. An Arizona man named John Miller claimed that he was Bonney. DNA samples of his remains were supposedly obtained and tested against blood samples thought to be from the outlaw but results were reportedly inconclusive.
Roberts’ account was along somewhat similar lines. In 1948, a lawyer named William V. Morrison (supposedly a distant relative of the Maxwells) had come across the name of Roberts while working on another individual’s probate matter. Morrison had been investigating a claim against the estate of a brother of deceased individual, the brother of one Joe Hines. In the process of their discussions, Hines had also claimed to be the outlaw Jesse Evans who had once been part of a faction in the Lincoln County Wars. Evans further stated that in addition to himself, two other members of the gang were still living, one being Jim McDaniels and the other being the outlaw known as Billy the Kid, who Evans said was presently going by the last name of Roberts. Evans said that Bonney was then residing in Texas and living out his years as Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts. The following year, Morrison followed up and contacted Roberts who initially denied being the outlaw. After further discussions, Roberts made his admission that he was the former outlaw. Roberts agreed to an interview and Morrison became convinced that Roberts was indeed Billy the Kid.
One of Roberts’ conditions of working with Morrison was that Morrison would try to help him obtain a pardon from the governor of New Mexico, Tom Mabry. In November, 1950, Morrison and Roberts met with Mabry along with two of Garrett’s sons and a few more descendants of peace officers from New Mexico who had been involved with the career of the outlaw in some way. During the interview, Roberts became ill and was taken to another room to rest. Before he left, witnesses recounted that Roberts was unable to answer simple questions of the events. Morrison explained that Roberts may have suffered a stroke during the meeting and was physically impaired. Nevertheless, Governor Mabry was unconvinced and Roberts returned to Texas without the pardon that he had sought.
Almost one month later to the day, Roberts suffered a heart attack while walking down the street in Hico and he passed away immediately. After his death, his legend spread, giving rise to further investigations of his claims. There is even a nonprofit organization known as the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang historical society. The group states that its purpose is to “preserve, promote and protect the history of Billy the Kid, Billy the Kid Country, and the State of New Mexico.” The group reportedly does not accept that Roberts was the former outlaw and was formed partly to prove his claims to be wrong.
Roberts had a well crafted narrative that the person who died in Ft. Sumner that day was not the outlaw, but rather was another slightly built individual who was misidentified as the outlaw. Roberts could provide his account of how he escaped and evaded detection, settling into a quiet life in Texas. He could show scars from wounds that appeared to match those of Bonney. Detractors point to differences between photos of the youthful outlaw and the aging Roberts. Some also stated that they were able to prove through genealogy records that Roberts was unrelated to the family of Bonney.
Whatever was the truth, Ollie Roberts took it with him to his grave and he is interred in Oakwood Cemetery in Hamilton, Texas.
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