Justice preserved: 'Billy the Kid' denied a pardon

Governor Richardson's decision should be applauded — pardoning the killer of six New Mexico LEOs would have been an insult to their memory

On December 31, 2010 Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico denied a pardon for the person who alternately identified himself as William H. Bonney, Henry McCarty, and Henry Antrim. He is universally remembered as ‘Billy the Kid.’ Pro-Pardon forces were hanging their hat on the pardoning of the romantic image portrayed in Hollywood films, while ignoring the criminal nature of the historical figure. Richardson announced, "I have decided not to pardon ‘Billy the Kid’ because of a lack of conclusiveness, and also the historical ambiguity as to why Governor Wallace reneged on his pardon."

Proponents for Billy’s pardon claimed Billy was promised a pardon by Wallace if he would testify against members of ‘The Murphy Dolan Gang,’ his antagonists in a fierce local conflagration called the ‘Lincoln County War.’

The Ambush of Sheriff Brady and Deputy Hindman
There were casualties inflicted on both sides during this ‘war,’ but one of the most heinous crimes occurred on April 1, 1878. On that day Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, Deputy George Hindman, and three other deputies walked down the middle of Main Street in Lincoln. Brady had just finished breakfast and had several arrest warrants in his coat pocket that he planned on serving.

As the group stopped to plan their day, shots rang out, dropping Hindman and Brady instantly where they stood. Sheriff Brady was the primary target in this ambush and was hit by numerous shots. The rest of the deputies scattered and took cover. As Hindman writhed in his death throes, he called out desperately, “Water.”

Ike Stockton, a saloon keeper, bravely ran out to help Deputy Hindman. As Ike cradled the wounded deputy, another rifle shot rang out killing the lawman. Billy and his friend William French were seen scampering from cover in an attempt to take the weapons of the downed officers, but one of the scattered deputies fired from cover, wounding French in the leg.

The Death of Robert Beckwith
After the ambush, a large posse under the new Sheriff George “Dad” Peppin located and surrounded Billy and his cohorts in the mansion of Alexander McSween. A five-day gun battle ensued and on July 19, 1878 a voice from inside the house called out stating that they wished to negotiate their surrender. When Deputy Robert Beckwith approached the house to negotiate, Billy gunned him down. The hail of gun fire that followed killed McSween but served as a diversion enabling Billy to escape.

The Planned Pardon
Billy was soon offered a conditional pardon, and in accordance with this pardon he surrendered himself to arrest and gave testimony against key participants in the war. When Billy was not released immediately after his testimony, he grew impatient. Billy was born with large wrists and small hands, which allowed him to be able to slip shackles with a little effort. The opportunity to use this special talent presented itself, and Billy ‘hightailed’ it.

Governor Lew Wallace — a Civil War General and author of “Ben Hur” — may or may not have intended to pardon Billy before he was hanged, but in any case Billy’s escape and return to a life of relentless criminality would have been a deal breaker.

The Killing of Fred Grant
By all accounts, Billy was charming, funny, and courageous in a fight, but nonetheless he rustled, stole, and killed throughout his late teens and short adult life. In one case he was playing cards with a man named Fred Grant. Grant did not know who he was playing cards with, and when small talk led him to share that he was looking to find ‘Billy the Kid.’

Billy asked to see the gun with which Grant planned to kill ‘the Kid.’

Grant passed him his weapon and ‘the Kid’ acted as if he was admiring it, while he spun the cylinder so that when fired next the hammer would land on the empty cylinder. Before the night ended, Billy introduced himself to Grant and offered him the opportunity to try to make good on his intentions. Grant drew and fired, but the hammer landed on that empty cylinder. Billy killed Grant in what he considered a fair fight. Billy later explained, “It was a game for two and I got there first.”

The Killing of Deputy Carlyle
While on the run, ‘the Kid’ was surrounded by a posse in White Oaks, New Mexico and a Deputy named James Carlyle — unarmed but for a white flag — went into the house. He hoped to negotiate a peaceful surrender. Instead the gang took him hostage. Hours later a posse member outside accidentally fired his gun. After the posse’s unwanted discharge the situation apparently became desperate enough inside that Carlyle attempted an escape by leaping out a window as Billy and his companion Dave Rudabaugh sent bullets following after him. A body crashing through the window caused the startled posse to open fire and Carlyle was killed — hit by three bullets to the torso.

Once again, ‘the Kid’ escaped.

Billy was eventually captured by Pat Garrett in a place called Stinking Springs after he and his posse killed Charlie Bowdre, one of the Kid’s pals, as well as the Kid’s horse. Billy was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on May 13 in Lincoln. Sheriff Garrett took custody of ‘the Kid’ and prepared to conduct his first official hanging.

The Killing of Olinger and Bell
While Garret was out of town on business, Bob Olinger and James Bell were the deputies assigned to watch ‘the Kid’ in the Lincoln County Jail. The jail was not actually a jail, but instead a converted General Store. According to the excellent read by Mark Lee Gardner, “To Hell on a Fast Horse,” the rather over-confident Bob Olinger was given a warning:

“You have guarded many prisoners and faced danger many a time in apprehending them and you think that you are invincible and can get away with anything, but I tell you, as good a man as you are, that if that man is shown the slightest chance on earth, if he is allowed the use of one hand, or if he is not watched every moment from now until the moment he is executed, he will effect some plan by which he will murder the whole of you before you have time to even suspect that he has any such intention.”

On April 28, 1881 Olinger left Bell alone, while he escorted the rest of the prisoners to the hotel for supper. While Olinger was gone Billy talked Bell into taking him to the privy. At sometime during this process Billy either acquired a hidden firearm, or overpowered Bell and took his. Bell, who was a friendly, personable Deputy that treated the Kid in a kindly way, was shot down dead on the steps of the jail.

Billy then took the time to acquire the shotgun Bob Olinger had held on him many a time during his confinement. Billy waited until Olinger came running up to find out what had happened and as the lawman arrived, said with a smile, “Hello Bob” and shot him dead with both barrels of the 10 gauge.

Witnesses said, with Olinger and Bell both lying dead, Billy took an hour to get his shackles off. He armed himself, gathered supplies, and stole a horse. When he was trail-ready Billy rode out of town at a leisurely pace, singing a song.

Billy had escaped justice for the last time. By all contemporary accounts Billy was armed with a pistol when Pat Garrett tracked him down in Fort Sumner, killing him with the proverbial shot in the dark.

Billy the Kid never was rehabilitated in his lifetime. He may not have killed 21 men, but he most certainly killed six law enforcement officers. Those men were not fictional characters in a movie. They were living breathing men with hopes and dreams. They all were gunned down by a killer who was just as quick with a joke and a smile as he was with his gun.

These officers of the law all wore a badge and died doing a very dangerous job in a very dangerous time. Governor Richardson’s decision should be applauded. Pardoning the killer of four New Mexico LEOs would have been an insult to their memory. It would have sent a terrible message at the end of a year during which the profession has had to bury too many of its own.

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