Billie Solomon Estes was born January 10, 1925 to John Levi, Sr., a farmer, and Lillian Alice Coffman Estes in a rural area near Clyde, Callahan County, Texas. It may be a legend, but the story was told of the thirteen year old Billie’s “parlaying” of a single lamb that he was given into what became the sum of $38,000. He is said to have raised a flock of sheep with his one lamb, selling them two years later and investing the proceeds into a sow and piglets which, along with some dealings in feed, he turned into the final sum of $38,000 by the time he was eighteen.
Estes served in the Merchant Marine in World War II. After that, he married Patsy Dondaleen Howe in 1945 and the couple moved to Pecos, Texas in 1946 where Billie was engaged in marketing irrigation pumps and fertilizer to farmers. He became a success at this and in 1953, Estes was named one of ten outstanding young men by the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce.
(Image credit – Dallas Morning News)
Estes came to the attention of the United States Department of Agriculture after the government had begun paying subsidies to United States farmers for not growing cotton in an effort to stabilize and maintain a suitable price for the commodity. The cotton allotment program provided that the agreements were nontransferrable unless the land was obtained by eminent domain, but Estes was accused of having allegedly profited from contracting to the rights to farmer’s Department of Agriculture subsidies through a series of transactions.
In 1962, during the Kennedy Administration, articles began appearing in area newspapers alleging that fraudulent transactions had been executed involving loans on fertilizer tanks. Estes’ image appeared on the cover of Time magazine on May 25, 1962 after the story broke. Following an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Estes was arrested and charged in federal court with fraud and conspiracy. He had also been in the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer business and was accused of contracting with farmers to rent (allegedly nonexistent) fertilizer tanks by leasing them at a rate close to the mortgage payments. The trial pertaining to the fertilizer tank charges took place in 1963. Estes was convicted and sentenced to more than twenty years in prison. However, this conviction was appealed and overturned by the United States Supreme Court. The trial had allowed television coverage and Estes’ legal team had argued that the television coverage made it impossible for Estes to receive a fair trial. After having served in prison for a number of years, he was paroled around 1971.
In the late 1970s, he was again tried and convicted of other fraud charges. He eventually was returned to prison after this conviction and was finally released in 1983. Estes and his business enterprises were also brought into bankruptcy in the early 1960s concurrently with the above cases. According to an Associated Press article in 1963, his assets were sold for $5.8 million on September 22, 1962 against an unstated amount of debt which included federal income tax. In the same article, it stated that Internal Revenue Service was claiming a tax lien against Estes and his wife totaling over $10.5 million.
Questions were also raised after the ruling of suicide in the 1961 death of a Agriculture Department investigator named Henry Marshall who died from multiple gunshot wounds from his own .22 rifle. No one was arrested in connection with the death and his cause of death was initially ruled to be a suicide. Marshall also had a bruise to the head and unusually high concentrations of carbon monoxide in his system. The investigator had been working on the cotton allotment subsidy situation and other business dealings in the area. Texas Ranger Clint Peoples is said to have investigated the USDA employee’s death but had not been able to find sufficient evidence to give rise to a murder charge. In the 1980s, federal district judge Peter Lowry changed the official cause of death and the ruling was changed to homicide, as opposed to suicide.
After his release from prison in 1983, there were various attempts to link Estes with the deaths of Marshall and three of Estes’ other associates. A grand jury was convened in Robertson County and sought Estes’ testimony on the deaths and other matters, but it is believed that no charges were filed in connection with the grand jury investigation. The four deaths remain unsolved. It was a contentious time in United States politics. Former President Johnson had died about ten years earlier in 1973 but during and after Estes’ testimony, claims were made that Johnson was connected to the Kennedy assassination and possibly other crimes. However, such claims were disputed by those close to Johnson and others as being untrue and politically motivated.
For the next two decades, Estes lived a relatively quiet life, living in Abilene and later moving to Granbury, Texas. He died at the age of eighty-eight at his residence outside Granbury, Texas on May 13, 2013 and is interred in the Granbury Cemetery, along with his first wife Patsy who had predeceased him in 2000.
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