SANTA FE, N.M. – The showdown between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has fascinated the American public for nearly 130 years with its classic, Old West storyline of the frontier lawman hunting down the notorious gunslinger.
As it turns out, the feud isn’t completely over.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is considering granting a posthumous pardon to Billy the Kid, angering descendants of Garrett who call it an insult to recognize such a violent outlaw.
Three of the late lawman’s grandchildren sent a letter to Richardson this week that asked him not to pardon the outlaw, saying such an act would represent an “inexcusable defamation” of Garrett.
“If Billy the Kid was living amongst us now, would you issue a pardon for someone who made his living as a thief and, more egregiously, who killed four law enforcement officers and numerous others?” the Garrett family wrote.
The issue has resurfaced because Richardson asked a New Mexico columnist earlier this year to check with historians to measure their support for issuing a pardon. The governor plans to meet with Garrett family members next week to discuss the issue.
Garrett shot Billy the Kid down on July 14, 1881. Garrett tracked him after the outlaw escaped from the Lincoln County jail in a famous gunbattle that left two deputies dead.
The Kid’s status as an Old West folk hero grew as countless books, films and songs were written about the gunslinger and his exploits. According to legend, he killed 21 people, one for each year of his life, but the New Mexico Tourism Department puts the total closer to nine.
The pardon dispute is the latest in a long-running fight over whether Garrett shot the real Kid or someone else and then lied about it. Some history buffs claim Billy the Kid didn’t die in the shootout with Garrett and landed in Texas, where he went by “Brushy Bill” Roberts and died of a heart attack at age 90 in 1950.
Richardson joined the tussle in 2003 by supporting a plan by then-Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan to reinvestigate the century-old case.
The governor said he was willing to consider a pardon for the Kid — something the outlaw hoped for but never received from New Mexico territorial Gov. Lew Wallace.
“Governor Richardson has always said that he would consider making good on Governor Wallace’s promise to Billy the Kid for a pardon,” Richardson spokeswoman Alarie Ray-Garcia said Thursday. “He is aware of the Garrett family’s concerns and will be meeting with them next week.”
Susan Floyd Garrett of Santa Fe is one of the grandchildren who signed the letter to Richardson. She said the family decided to speak out because a pardon represents a “defamation of character” to their grandfather. She described the Kid as a “gangster.”
“Everybody wants to mythologize Billy the Kid,” she said.
Garrett and her brother, Jarvis Patrick Garrett, met Thursday with descendants of another key figure in the Kid’s story — John Henry Tunstall, a rancher whose murder in 1878 triggered a bloody feud known as the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid, also known as William Bonney, worked as a ranch hand for Tunstall.
Hilary Tunstall-Behrens of London, a great-nephew of Tunstall, said he’s not backing a modern-day pardon for the Kid.
“I wouldn’t join the cause,” said Tunstall-Behrens, 83. “There is so much strong feelings.”
Gale Cooper, an amateur historian who lives near Albuquerque, said a pardon by Richardson would be the “culmination of the hoax that contended Pat Garrett was a nefarious killer and Billy was not buried in his grave.”
Cooper has written a book, “MegaHoax,” to debunk claims that Garrett killed someone other than the Kid.
After serving as Lincoln County sheriff, Garrett’s career soured. He ran unsuccessfully for higher political office, served as a customs collector, but ran into financial problems as a rancher.
He was shot and killed in 1908 in a dispute over his land.