- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 14, 2013

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Billie SolEstes, a flamboyant Texas huckster who became one of the most notorious men in America in 1962 when he was accused of looting a federal crop subsidy program, has died. He was 88.

Mr. Estes — whose name became synonymous with Texas-sized schemes, greed and corruption — died in his sleep at his home in DeCordova Bend, a city about 60 miles southwest of Dallas, his daughter said Tuesday. A local funeral home confirmed it would be handling the services.

Mr. Estes reigned in the state as the king of con men for nearly 50 years. At the height of his infamy, he was immortalized in 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 even put him on its cover, calling him “a welfare-state Ponzi … 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 fund raiser or financial adviser.”

Mr. Estes 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 he wound up spending several years in prison.

“I thought he would meet a very violent end. We worried about him being killed for years,” his daughter, Pamela Estes Padget, said Tuesday, adding that her father died peacefully in his recliner, with chocolate chip cookie crumbs on his lips.

Mr. Estes‘ name was often linked with that of fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, but the late president’s 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, though the scheme had its roots in the waning years of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, when Mr. Estes had edged into national politics from his West Texas power base in Pecos.

Mr. Estes was convicted in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. An earlier conviction was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court over the use of cameras in the courtroom. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Mr. Estes was freed in 1971 after serving six years.

But new charges were brought against him 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 more years but was freed a second time in 1983.

Former Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran, who covered Mr. Estes‘ trials and schemes throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, recalled writing about how Mr. Estes made millions of dollars in phony fertilizer tanks — and noted, “How many city slickers from New York or Chicago can make a fortune selling phantom cow manure?”

Billie Sol was a character’s character,” Mr. Cochran said. “I spent literally years chasing him in and out of prison and around the state as he pulled off all kinds of memorable shenanigans.”

A go-getter since he was a boy, Mr. Estes was one of the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s 10 most outstanding men of 1953 and became a millionaire before he was 30. Many of his deals involved agriculture products and services, including irrigation and the fertilizer products that later led to his downfall.

Before his release from federal prison for a second time in 1983, Mr. Estes claimed he had 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.”

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