Yet Estes has never implicated anyone. "I can't see that there would have been any honor in doing time with big-name people," he says now. "I know I was betrayed by some of them. I got my business and my politics all mixed together. As they say in Texas, I got my tit in a wringer. That won't happen again."
One of the conditions of his 1971 parole (after he had served more than six years) was, in fact, that he could not go into business for himself until 1980. For seven years after prison, Billie Sol, 54, made his living, he insists, as manager of his brother's ranches in Abilene and $100-a-week truck dispatcher for a friend's oil company. All the while, he acknowledges, "I was getting my bow and arrows ready, chiseling on the arrows, sharpening them. Now when the time comes, when I get the opportunity, I'll shoot and hit that mark—and hit her straight. I'm not wasting my time." (Translation: He's wheeling and dealing in his mind.)
There's the rub. The FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's office in Dallas and the U.S. Parole Commission are convinced that Billie Sol has already commenced shooting, or perhaps never stopped. The IRS is still haunting him for some $77 million from the fertilizer-tank caper, and the Justice Department contends he has embarked on another ambitious mortgage shell game, this time involving phantom steam-cleaning machines for oil rigs. In February Estes was indicted on 17 counts of alleged fraud and related chicanery.
The government believes he has concealed a half-million-dollar profit from the latest scheme, as well as incalculable funds from the fertilizer tanks. He denies this, of course, but is not above mischievously leading authorities on in their belief. Convinced that his phone was tapped, he engaged a friend in a mysterious conversation about "burying the stuff," I making sure to give clear directions as to where. Two days later he checked the site and, sure enough, someone had dug up the bag of cow manure he'd left there with a note reading "Billie Sol's assets."
His liabilities, in contrast, are precise and unfunny. Conviction on all of the counts in the 32-page federal indictment could send him back to prison for the rest of his life. The trial is expected to begin sometime in June.
If Billie Sol did go into business, his lawyer, G. Brockett Irwin, seems preemptively to argue, it should be no surprise: "His reason for existence is to play the games of human and mental chess. You can't just take a mind like he has and expect him to be a ranch hand. The driving force in Billie isn't money—it's to play the game." That he was born to deal was clear from his Depression-era childhood in west Texas. Receiving a baby sheep for Christmas when he was 10, he parlayed it into a herd of 100 by age 15. After two years in the postwar merchant marine, he returned to the Abilene area to begin his empire building—trading in cotton, portable steel buildings and war surplus. By age 30 Billie, heavily into land development (30,000 acres in the rich Pecos River Valley), was handling $700,000 a month in debts and was a bona fide millionaire. He lived in the biggest mansion in Pecos—with 10 bathrooms, a then rare swimming pool and tennis courts—and his children were driven to school in limousines. By the time of his arrest in 1962, according to attorney Irwin, Estes was netting $21 million a year—and had paper assets of more than $150 million.
Billie Sol says all that went to the creditors, and there is nothing observable in his present life-style to contradict him. He lives in a small four-bedroom house in Abilene bought for him by his dentist brother John (whom he helped put through dental school). Wife Patsy, who worked until recently in a Mexican-food cafe, now clerks part-time in a real estate office. Their five children help out with expenses, and he stocks the table with market throwaway vegetables. "Boy, if I ever find out he does have some hidden assets," jokes daughter Dawn, 26, "I'll kill him myself."
His lawyer portrays Estes as "a political prisoner since the 1960s because of his business associations with Lyndon Johnson." Billie Sol complains, "I feel like a bird in a cage. I just want to get this all settled." He asks so little, he insists. "The IRS has to be reasonable," he argues. "If they say pay a million, I could do it in a year if they'd let me work—five years at most." As for the new charges, he says, "They get to investigating and spend so much money. They feel like they can't go back without some fish in their sack. We'll fight them."
Meanwhile, as he tells it, he whiles away his days drinking coffee with neighbors, cooking stew, driving his 72 Buick into rolling cactus lands "just looking at the cattle and the mesquite and nature" and spending time at churches in the black neighborhood. "Dad only goes to the colored churches now because he feels like they understand people in trouble," says Dawn. "Lots of people are uncomfortable around Mom and Dad. They never get invited anywhere."
Billie Sol's favorite reading now is the Wall Street Journal—and the Bible. "If they hem me up in a corner," he warns, "if they won't let me go back to making a living the way I know how—maybe I'll start preaching the Gospel. Maybe it'll be God's way to tell me I should use myself in the ministry."
Billie Sol Estes is the best of a dubious and peculiarly American breed—a glad-handing, grandstanding wheeler-dealer. He thinks of himself as "a trader. I like to find smart people who want certain things and then find those things for them." When Billie Sol went to prison in 1964 for mortgaging 33,000 imaginary fertilizer tanks (among other scams), some of those "smart people"—among them his friend and widely rumored silent partner in the White House—were said to suffer nervous palpitations.