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Texas con man Billie Sol Estes dies at 88

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Billie Sol Estes' name was synonymous with Texas-sized schemes, greed and corruption.

The flamboyant swindler became one of the most notorious men in America in 1962, when he was accused of looting a federal crop subsidy program. But he reigned as the state's king of con men for nearly 50 years, even getting immortalized in songs and on Time magazine's cover as "a welfare-state Ponzi." Estes, who died in his sleep Tuesday at the age of 88, was best known for the scandal that broke out during President John F. Kennedy's administration involving phony financial statements and nonexistent fertilizer tanks. Several lower-level agriculture officials resigned, and Estes wound up spending several years in prison.

"I thought he would meet a very violent end. We worried about him being killed for years," said his daughter, Pamela Estes Padget. She said her father died peacefully in his recliner, with chocolate chip cookie crumbs on his lips, at his home in DeCordova Bend, about 60 miles southwest of Dallas.

At the height of his infamy, Estes was the subject of songs by Allan Sherman (in "Schticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other") and the Chad Mitchell Trio (in "The Ides of Texas"). Time magazine called him "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 fundraiser or financial adviser."

Estes' name was often linked to that of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, whose 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 in the 1960s, though the scheme had its roots in earlier years as Estes edged into national politics from his West Texas power base in Pecos.

After an earlier conviction was thrown out, Estes was found guilty in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was freed in 1971 after serving six.

But new charges were brought in 1979, and later that year he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service. He was sentenced to 10 years but freed a second time in 1983.

Former Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran, who covered Estes throughout the 1970s and '80s, 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 Tuesday. "I spent literally years chasing him in and out of prison and around the state as he pulled off all kinds of memorable shenanigans."

While he admitted to being a swindler, Estes also portrayed himself as a "kind of Robin Hood" and hoped to be remembered for using his money to feed and educate the poor.

He was an advocate of school integration in Texas long before it was fashionable.

Before his release from federal prison in 1983, Estes claimed he'd uncovered the root of his problems: compulsiveness. "If I smoke another cigarette, I'll be hooked on nicotine," he said. "I'm just one drink away from being an alcoholic and just one deal away from being back in prison."

Estes is survived by his wife, Dorris Estes, four daughters and one son.

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