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OSCAR GRIFFIN, the 29-yearold editor of the Pecos Independent, sat sipping a cup of coffee in a small West Texas ‘cafe. It was August of 1961. He was not actually eavesdropping, but he couldn’t help hearing snatches of conversation from the adjoining booth. “It’s like pennies from heaven,” said one farmer to another. The men were discussing deals they had made with Billie Sol Estes deals that not only helped Estes out of a jam, but in effect gave the farmers something for nothing. Or so they thought. Griffin first met Billie Sol while covering a rally for 2,000 Democrats at Estes’s palatial home, the Sunday before the November 1960 elections. The barbecue, to which all 12,000 Pecos citizens had been invited, was held in the backyard, on Billie Sol’s two tennis courts. Out front, Griffin couldn’t help but admire the dazzling dyed-green lawn and the three royal palms, imported from the Rio Grande Valley. When he wandered inside the sixbedroom pink stucco house he was struck by the 52-foot living room with an indoor waterfall at one end and a spider monkey in a cage at the other. In less than a decade living in Reeves County \(about halfway between Midland replaced Roy Bean as the best-known name west of the Pecos. He was being hailed as a multi-millionaire financial wizard, civic leader, friend of God and Lyndon Johnson, and champion of the downtrodden. Of course a good deal of the acclaim came from Billie Sol himself, who published a pamphlet detailing his “Christian Principles for Success” and recounting his fantastic rise in the business world. The man made headlines wherever he went to Washington in one of his private planes Bill Adler is a freelance writer living in Austin. This story, adapted from a longer work in progress, was funded in part by a grant from the Texas Investigative Reporters’ Fund. or to the grocery store in his chaufferdriven Caddy. And while most of the laudatory copy appeared in the Pecos Daily News, a paper Billie Sol started after the twice-weekly Independent opposed his unsuccessful candidacy for the school board, it wouldn’t always be that way. Even before he overheard the two farmers talking, Oscar Griffin had been tipped that Billie Sol had made an odd request of the Retail Merchants Association: to eliminate from their newsletter the listing of mortgages on the sale of fertilizer tanks big ticket farm equipment that was of particular interest to Billie Sol Estes. Griffin was convinced something fishy was going on and decided to poke around the deeds office at the Reeves County Courthouse. Afterwards, he began interviewing farmers whose names had shown up on the mortgage records. One afternoon late in September, he met with Alan Propp, the Independent’s general manager and co-owner. \(Another owner, Dr. John P. Dunn, was president of the local John Birch Society and strongly opposed to Billie Sol’s decided to publish a series of four articles on Griffin’s findings. The first appeared on February 12, 1962. It didn’t name names but listed case after case of farmers who had made certain business deals for phantom fertilizer tanks. The story noted that 15,000 tanks existed “on paper” in Reeves County but that the tanks “are not to be seen in Pecos -or Reeves County for that matter.” Billie Sol Estes, who was trying to corner the market as a fertilizer supplier, had found it useful to create the illusion of a great number of storage tanks in the area it made it easier to borrow money from finance companies. The story initially caused no great hubbub in town and went unnoticed in other Texas papers, including, of course, the Pecos Daily News. But a few days later a representative of a Los Angeles finance company carrying more than $4 million worth of tank mortgages came looking for infor mation. Soon the county was teeming with finance company investigators, chasing each other and the farmers around, trying to find out what, exactly, they had loaned their money for. In midMarch the FBI stopped in to see what all the commotion was about. Shortly before dinner on Thursday, March 29, a friend phoned Oscar Griffin to say that Billie Sol had been arrested by a couple of federal agents and would soon be arraigned. By 7:30 p.m., word had spread and a crowd gathered at the courthouse. A short time later, 37-yearold Billie Sol Estes the self-proclaimed boy wonder of West Texas agriculture was booked on charges of transporting the bogus tank mortgages across state lines. The arrest set off fireworks from Pecos to the Potomac, where “Billie Sol Who?” became a popular refrain among politicians who once had been happy to scratch his back. Within weeks, subcommittees in both the Senate and House voted to open full-scale investigations into Billie Sol’s other questionable business practices his involvement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and his schemes to increase his “cotton allotments” so that he could grow more cotton than government regulations would otherwise permit. And under way in Texas were federal and state grand jury proceedings, plus an inquiry by state Attorney General Will Wilson. On May 7, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman held his first press conference since Billie Sol’s indictment. Toward the end of the crowded, two-hour session in his office, the questioning turned to the thorny matter of Billie Sol’s cotton farming. The reason it’s so difficult to get to the bottom of Estes’s dealings in cotton allotments, Freeman said, is that the “key figure” in the case is “not alive.” His name was Henry H. Marshall. ENRY HARVEY MAR-SHALL, like most people of his day in Robertson County, Texas, began life on the farm. Born in 1909, he grew up helping his father with the cattle, hogs, corn, and cotton on the family’s 400 acres four miles north of Franklin, the present county seat. Marshall was named valedictorian of the Franklin High School class of 1927, and, with a $500 gift from his father, went to the University of Texas at Austin where he majored in chemistry and played baseball, his passion since childhood. But in October of 1929, with times growing ever worse at home, Marshall quit school and returned to Franklin to serve as principal and The Killing of Henry Marshall By Bill Adler I. Death By Gunshot, Self-Inflicted THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7