Billie Sol Estes was a man of Texas-sized contradictions. On Sundays, the lay preacher in the Church of Christ railed against sin. The rest of the week, he was a fast-talking flimflam man who built up a $150 million agricultural business by looting federal farm programs, paying kickbacks to bankers and politicians, and taking out thousands of sham mortgages. When his empire came crashing down in the early 1960s amid allegations of fraud and murder, the shock waves went all the way up to then–Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
Born on a farm near Clyde, Texas, Estes “showed early promise as a financier,” said The New York Times. At age 13, he was given a lamb as a gift, sold its wool for $5, bought another lamb, and went into business. “By the time he entered the U.S. Merchant Marine during the Second World War,” said The Guardian (U.K.), “he had $38,000.” After the war he snapped up farmland around the town of Pecos and branched out into grain and fertilizer storage, well-digging, and even the funerary business. By age 35, he employed 4,000 people and was worth $40 million. “Everything I touched made money,” he said. Estes was also a major contributor to the Democrats, hosting lavish fundraisers and hinting at links to Johnson.
Then in 1962, a local newspaper detailed how Estes had used thousands of nonexistent fertilizer tanks as collateral on $22 million in mortgages. He was arrested for fraud, and four Washington officials either resigned or were fired for taking bribes. A key investigator on the case, Henry Marshall, was found dead in Texas, and six other men tied to the case also died, including Estes’s accountant.
Convicted of fraud in 1965, Estes was paroled in 1971 but returned to jail in 1979 for non-payment of taxes. After his release in 1983, the Texan “found new easy money,” said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He hatched a scheme to grow wine grapes in West Texas and sold T-shirts out of his station wagon with his daughter, Pamela Estes Padget. “If he told me he’s sold 200 T-shirts, I know it’s more like 20,” she said in 1989. “Once a con man, always a con man.”