The Controversy on the Billy the Kid DNA Investigation


It happened to Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so it was only a matter of time till they got to Billy the Kid. In the summer of 2003 an announcement was made that there would be an investigation on the mystery surrounding Billy the Kid's death and whether or not he was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881. At the time those conducting the investigation was the now former Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan, his partner Steve Sederwall (the now former Mayor of Captian in Lincoln County) and the now former Sheriff Gary Graves of De Baca County. The trio's goal was to exhume the graves of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner and his mother, Catherine Antrim in Silver City and compare DNA to that of any Billy the Kid claimant, such as Brushy Bill Roberts and John Miller.

The "investigators" -as we'll call them-  stated that their purpose for this investigation is to save the reputation of Pat Garrett who is accused of killing an innocent man and then passing him off as Billy the Kid while letting the real one escape. Of course, at the same time, this would then put to rest the any debates that Billy the Kid lived to be an old man.

Well, sounds good to those of us that have been battling the Billy vs. Brushy war for years, but hold wonít work. Unfortunately the last resting place of Billy the Kid is questionable, so to exhume his grave for DNA comparison would be pointless. Itís not that he was never buried in the Fort Sumner cemetery, itís just that the gravesite was left unmarked for over 30 years after the cemetery was washed out in the great Pecos River flood in 1904. The cemetery was so badly damaged that there were even stories of skeletal remains surfacing from the muddy ground that had to be reburied. Basically the cemetery was a mess, so itís impossible to know whose buried where. In 1932, a new headstone was placed in memory of Billy the Kid and the odds of that headstone being placed in the exact location of Billy the Kidís grave is slim to none. Now it's possible that some bone fragments may be under that grave, but itís doubtful that it will be Billy the Kidís.

Well of course the big boys figured that one at themselves, so they decided theyíll dig up Billy the Kidís mother Catherine Antrim in Silver City and use her as a DNA sample. That way they can compare any remains they find in Fort Sumner to her and hope to find a match to Billy the Kid. They also plan to test her DNA to Brushy. Well, there's a few things wrong with this:

1) The idea of digging up the Fort Sumner cemetery until a match is found is not only a ridiculous thought but an expensive one and a bill that the taxpayers will get slapped with; not to mention, the disruption of other peopleís graves.

2) Catherine Antrimís grave was relocated in 1882 when the Silver City cemetery was moved outside of town limits. There is nothing to convince us that Catherine was indeed relocated and not just her gravemaker was moved. The man that did the relocating was the buyer of the first cemetery and if he wanted the land he had to move the bodies and there is nothing to tell us that he did an appropriate job.  There is even a possibility that others were buried on top of her or sheís not even buried at the current gravesite location, but elsewhere in the cemetery in a unmarked grave. So if an exhumation is done, the likelihood of finding Catherine's remains are -once againĖ slim to none.

3) If they donít find a match between the "mystery" DNA from Silver City compared to "God-Only-Knows-Who" in Fort Sumner, it doesnít necessarily mean that Billy the Kid isnít buried there, but they just didnít find him or it could also mean they didnít find Catherine Antrim either. In a more practical sense, after 122 years the Kidís remains (and that of his mother -129 years) have completely decompose and there is nothing left of him.

4) In the Brushy Bill Roberts claim, Catherine Antrim wasnít his mother, but his half aunt. So DNA comparison wouldnít work to discredit Brushy.

So it doesnít take a genius to figure out the DNA test results will be negative or inconclusive, which will have an objectionable impact on the history of Billy the Kid (as if there isn't enough on him already). No matter what the results are either side will cry foul and absolutely nothing will be resolved. Just like with the Jesse James/J. Frank Dalton DNA investigation, all it will do is stir up the pot and fuel an already heated debate between the two sides.

Although, not historians or archeologists, these investigators believe their experience in ďlaw enforcementĒ qualifies them to pull this stunt off. But as ďofficers of the lawĒ you think common sense would tell them that to find accurate DNA under these circumstances will be impossible, but instead could really foul things up. If DNA samples under these circumstances were used in a legitimate court case today, it would get thrown out, but in the case of Billy the Kid it would be completely acceptable?

Basically, those in favor of the DNA investigation see dollar signs, self-promotion, and a few actually believe it will bring tourism to New Mexico. Yeah, the DNA hype will bring media attention, those involved will have their moment in the spotlight, and people may flock to see the dig, but when itís all over the general public won't care less, tourists will question the history of Billy the Kid, and there will be new debates to argue for historians, biographers, and Billy the Kid followers.

Those of us worldwide that oppose the DNA testing are NOT worried that Brushy Bill Roberts or any other claimant may turn out to be Billy the Kid. We KNOW Billy the Kid lies in the Fort Sumner cemetery killed by a bullet from Pat Garrett and there is plenty of proof that says so. We would love to end the debate once and for all, but we know the odds are against this DNA investigation and that it wonít end the debate but add to it. We know Brushy supporters wonít change their minds if the DNA test discredits their guy. We know the negative repercussion the DNA investigation will have concerning tourism and the history of Billy the Kid. This is a no win situation.

Those of us that oppose this investigation are NOT against solving the mystery surrounding Billy the Kid's death, we're just against this exhumation and DNA testing because not only will it resolve nothing, but stir up more controversy.

A quick outline of the latest on this investigation:

*Since January 2004, both Silver City and Fort Sumner are fighting to protect their historical grave sites and are preparing to fight it out in court.

*The Office of the Medical Investigator of New Mexico declined to be involved in the DNA investigation, but instead opposes it. The OMI said it can't scientifically be done and will be a waste of money.

*The New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has appointed an attorney, Bill Robins, to represent Billy the Kid and the lawyer is saying that Billy the Kid wants to be exhumed.

*In January a judge in Silver City granted the investigators a continuances till August to get their case in order. So now the investigators are targeting Billy the Kid's grave in Fort Sumner (unless they can dig up Billy the Kid, it would be no use to start digging up Catherine Antrim).

*In early March 2004 a petitioned was filed in Fort Sumner to exhume Billy the Kid and the investigators went as far as listing Billy the Kid as one of those petitioning to have his own corpse exhumed. So not only is a 122 year old corpse have an attorney to represent him, but now he's signing petitions! This just goes to show the absurdity of this whole DNA investigation and it is only the beginning.

*Fort Sumner has filed a motion to oppose the petition to exhume Billy the Kid.

*The town of Fort Sumner is struggling to raise money for their legal battle and is now accepting donations (see below).

*Silver City asked the governor to step down from his support for the exhumation, but the governor said he will continue to support the DNA investigation.

* The investigation claimed to have the carpenter's bench where Billy the Kid's corpse was laid on the night he was killed and they stated they found blood deposits on it -but it can't be authenticated because there's no way of proving that it's the Kid's blood or the "actual" bench.

* The Billy the Kid exhumation hearing is set for Sept 27, 2004.

* On Sept 24, 2004 the DNA investigation is dismissed -there will be no hearing.

* Following the dismissal, it was announced that the investigation will continue regarding the deaths of deputies Bob Olinger & J.W. Bell, and there are talks again of exhuming Catherine Antrim.

* As of December 2005, both Billy the Kid and his mother's graves have not been disturbed, but there is a DNA investigation in progress concerning the Billy the Kid imposter, John Miller. They hope to compare his DNA to "supposed" blood found on the carpenter bench.

* In April of 2006 word came out that on May 19, 2005, Sullivan and Sederwall snuck into the
Pioneers' Home Cemetery and removed remains believed to be John Miller without legal permission. The two grave robbers face possible charges.

*As of May 2009, no new interest or really significant has surfaced, but Sullivan and Sederwall said they're not giving up and plan to continue their objective.

*The end of 2009, Sullivan and Sederwall apparently had a falling out. I think it's safe to say the investigation is off, but whatever information they had discovered, whether it be accurate or not, remains a secret.

For more on this controversy, I strongly suggest reading Billy the Kid Rides Again: Digging for the Truth by Jay Miller. Search online, but here's one lead :Billy the Kid Rides Again by Jay Miller (Used, New, Out-of-Print) - Alibris


Drawing by Dallas Moore


Below is a letter to the editor of the Ruidoso News by Fred Nolan (a reputable Billy the Kid biographer and writer of many books)  -dated June 12, 2003.

I hate to be a party-pooper, but this whole project is a complete and utter nonsense and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Sheriff Sullivan and Capitan Mayor Sederwall are already wishing they'd never got started on this benighted project.

After 129 years in Catherine Antrim's case and 122 in the Kid's, there would be little if anything left of them, even if we could be sure of where the graves are.

And as for digging up Brushy Bill, puh-lease! Surely, there cannot be anyone left on the face of the globe who still believes that pathetic old phony. Do we need, yet again, to go through the whole charade of "proving" to the wishful thinkers and the Young Guns nuts that the Roberts family bible shows his date of birth as 1879, and that he was exactly 2 years old at the time of the Kid's death?

It's indicative of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office to complete ignorance of history that they talk about finding "family" who would be in a position to grant permission for exhumation of either the Kid or Catherine's bodies.

The whole project is positively ludicrous; it doesn't seem to me they have anything even remotely resembling a raison d'etre -in fact, I think Capitan Mayor and Deputy Sheriff Sederwall is making it up as he goes along, reacting to events rather than taking predetermined action.

Another question that I'd be asking if I were an American taxpayer is, why exactly is the Sheriff's Office of Lincoln County wasting time and money chasing these chimeras across three states and who gave it the authority to do so instead of doing what it is paid to do -combat crime and uphold the law?

To me, all this stuff about "clearing Garrett's name" looks suspiciously like horse-feathers and I suspect the real reason for the "investigation" is so the boys in the LCSO can have what sailors call "jolly" i.e. a pleasure trip, in this instance providing not only merciful release from the boredom of the day job, but also an all expenses paid trips to Denver, Hico, Fort Sumner and Silver City, headlines in the papers, and 15 seconds of notoriety. Hey, it's all part of the job, right?

Or is it perhaps, just the opening of the tourist season over there in New Mexico.