- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) - A New Mexico court has awarded an author $100,000 in a lawsuit she brought against the Lincoln County sheriff’s officials for wrongfully withholding records related to the death of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid.

But Gale Cooper of Sandia Park said Tuesday that she’s considering appealing part of the damages that were awarded last week by District Judge George Eichwald in Bernalillo.

Cooper’s legal battle with the southern New Mexico sheriff’s office started in 2007.

She and a weekly newspaper in Fort Sumner, where Billy the Kid is buried, sued after being denied documents from an investigation the sheriff’s office started in 2003.

The law enforcement officials planned to use DNA testing to determine the veracity of historical accounts that Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett killed the Kid in 1881.



The investigation was looking into whether Garrett shot someone else and the real Billy the Kid escaped to Texas and lived out his days as Brushy Bill Roberts.

After years of litigation, some documents were delivered to Cooper and the De Baca County News. However, there was no evidence to discredit the generally accepted story of the Kid’s death at Garrett’s hand.

Cooper said she pursued the lawsuit to debunk the investigation and expose a “self-serving hoax” about the Kid’s death that threatened to damage New Mexico’s history.

The judge awarded Cooper $1,000 in “nominal damages” because officials withheld records requested under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Cooper said she was considering an appeal of that portion of the ruling because the law provides for damages of up to $100 a day from when the sheriff’s office first failed to comply with the law - about 6 ½ years in her case.

The judge also awarded $100,000 in punitive damages because the conduct of former Sheriff Rick Virden and two ex-deputies was “willful, wanton and in bad faith.” There had been alterations to some documents that were released, the court pointed out.

“This didn’t have to cost taxpayers a dime other than postage,” Cooper said.

The lawsuit could have been avoided, she said, if the sheriff’s office had complied with the records law and had mailed the documents soon after they were requested.

Lawyers for the former sheriff’s officials didn’t immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.

The newspaper previously settled its claims, and $195,000 was paid for its attorneys’ fees. Lawyers for the sheriff’s officials also have received several hundred thousand dollars in fees, according to Cooper.

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