In the summer of 2003 three men, (Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan, Mayor of Captian in Lincoln County Steve Sederwall and De Baca County Sheriff Gary Graves) announced a new investigation into the death of Billy the Kid.
Using the newest in DNA evidence gathering techniques, the team would exhume the bodies of Billy the Kid and his mother, Catherine Antrim, to prove that Billy the Kid was buried in Fort Sumner Cemetery. This would clear Pat Garrett’s name and show that he did, in fact kill Billy the Kid. They would also test this DNA against claimants of the mantle of Billy the Kid Brushy Bill Roberts and John Miller to lay these stories to rest.
Since the announcement of the investigation in 2003 the matter has become a major controversy in New Mexico and throughout the country. Legal battles have ensued with issues that still have not been resolved.
The Death of Billy the Kid
The story of the death of Billy the Kid is one of the most famous stories of the Old West. In July of 1881, 3 months after his harrowing escape from prison (and two months after he was supposed to have been hanged), Sheriff Pat Garrett and his deputies were searching for the Kid. According to sources the Kid was still in the area of Fort Sumner, and it was Garrett’s intention to find him.
On the night of July 14th, 1881, Garrett went to the home of ailing Pedro Maxwell, a friend of Billy the Kid’s. According to reports, while sitting in the darkened room with Maxwell Billy the Kid entered the room. Not recognizing Garrett in the darkness the Kid as “Ã?Â¿Quien es? Ã?Â¿Quien es?” (“Who is it? Who is it?”) . Garret recognized the voice as belonging to the Kid, drew his pistol and shot him in the chest.
The body was then quickly examined on the floor of Maxwell’s room. Shortly after it was moved to a carpenter’s bench on the Maxwell property for a more thorough investigation. A coroner’s jury was called, who determined that it was in fact Billy the Kid. The body was carried away by the people of the town who loved Billy the Kid and was buried not long after.
Where is Billy the Kid Buried Now?
In 1904 a great flooding of the Pecos River rushed through Fort Sumner, completely destroying the cemetery. Many tombstones and grave markers were washed out, and there are stories that even some skeletons were washed to the surface as a result of the flood. No one is really sure how much damage was done by it.
One of the marker’s moved was Billy the Kid, and no move was made to put the marker back until 30 years later. Because of this fact, it is not known exactly where Billy the Kid is buried. This is one of the major concerns of those who oppose the DNA investigation. In order to find Billy the Kid, one would have to dig up the entire cemetery until one was found that matched his mother’s DNA, Catherine Antrim. Given the age of the bodies and the complete disarray of the cemetery, it is possible that no match will ever be found. If a match was found, they would be able to definitively mark his final resting place, once and for all.
When a figure as notorious as Billy the Kid is killed, it is not uncommon to have pretenders claiming themselves as the fallen figure. Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all have had their own pretenders.
Although stories of being Billy the Kid have abounded throughout the southwest since his death, two have been seen as the most prominent. The most well-known case is that of Brushy Bill Roberts, who made headlines in 1950 when he petitioned the governor of New Mexico for a pardon.
Roberts actually met with the governor, but was denied the pardon because in the eyes of the governor it was not shown he was in fact the Kid. His story has become fairly famous, and he was even featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Young Guns II, where he is represented as being the real Billy the Kid and the story of the Kid’s life after the Lincoln County War (which was shown in Young Guns I) is narrated by him in the film.
The other claimant is John Miller. Miller never went public with his claims and his story is thus much less well known. However, prior to his death he told many of his friends that he was the real Billy the Kid, and after Miller’s death in 1937 these stories began to spread.
According to Miller’s story, Miller was shot by Garrett in the Maxwell home. (Brushy Bill claims he knew something was up and sent someone else to the house in his stead). However, after being carried away by the townspeople he showed signs of life, having only been playing dead for Garrett.
Billy was spirited away and his body was replaced with that of a Mexican who had died the previous day. He was nursed back to health by a woman named Isadora whom he would marry in August of 1881, the first appearance of a man named John Miller occurring in the public record of New Mexico. Most discount the claim of Miller even more readily than that of Brushy Bill, but there are many who still believe him to be the real Billy the Kid.
The Fate of the DNA Investigation
As soon as the investigation was announced opposition began. Both cities of Silver City (where Catherine Antrim is buried) and Fort Sumner are fighting to defend their cemeteries so they are not disturbed. The Office of the Medical Investigator of New Mexico also opposes the plan and will not be a part of it, saying nothing will come of it.
For the ensuing court battle the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, appointed an attorney to represent the interests of the long deceased Billy the Kid. The attorney, Bill Robins, has declared that his client wants to be exhumed in order to put all of the stories surrounding him to rest. In fact, the attorney even signed as Billy the Kid in a petition to that effect, a most unusual circumstance to say the least.
In September of 2004 the investigation was dismissed: there would be no exhumation of the body of Billy the Kid. The investigators, however, are still fighting to perform the investigation in any way they can. Talks have resumed of exhuming the body of Catherine Antrim, although nothing as of yet has come of this.
The investigation team also claims to have in their possession the carpenter’s bench on which Billy lay shortly after being shot, and that this bench has blood stains on it. They hope to take a DNA sample of the bench.
In December of 2005 a DNA sample was taken from the body of John Miller. They hope to match it to the DNA on the bench to see if there is a match. If the body of Catherine Antrim is ever exhumed they will also match it against her DNA.
Billy the Kid at Rest
Although Billy the Kid’s body will stay at rest, for the time being, the truth of his death is still up in the air to many, and investigators are continuing to fight to perform their investigation in whatever way possible. Only time will tell what will happen, but for now it seems that little if anything will come of it.