Inside the Capitol

Friday, December 31, 2004

Billy & Jackie

SANTA FE – News reports about the lawsuits over Jackie Spencer’s estate are exceeding the coverage of the Dow Jones heiress’ death in May 2003. They rekindle memories of her influence on Lincoln County politics and remind us of recent Lincoln County maneuverings.
Spencer and her husband Hugh Bancroft, Jr. moved to New Mexico in 1948, after he purchased a ranch near Capitan. Jackie had three children during the next five years. When her husband died in 1953, Jackie became the beneficiary of a very large estate, now valued at over $50 million.
The following year, she married Dr. A.N. Spencer, a Carrizozo physician. Jackie Spencer quickly became involved in charitable projects in the area. She built a community center and a golf course in Carrizozo and she sponsored ski programs for students from area school districts.
Her philanthropy was appreciated, but public officials say it came with strings. Although she had given her money to public bodies, she wanted a say in how it was spent.
That got her in many battles with town councils and school boards, which noted that when her money became a part of public funds, elected public officials would decide how it was spent. It also meant her money must be accounted for in local government budgets.
Fast forward a half-century to 2004, when three sheriffs from the area conducted a criminal investigation into whether Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid and how Billy got the gun with which he shot the first deputy sheriff in the Lincoln County Courthouse.
A fair amount of money appeared to be spent on the official investigation, but not out of public coffers. When public officials asked where the money was coming from, the sheriffs said it was private money so it didn’t have to be revealed.
This case differed from the Spencer situation because she gave her money to a public body, likely for tax purposes, and then wanted some control over how it was spent. The private money used by the sheriffs didn’t come from checks written to a public body, thus they contended, it didn’t have to be reported or tracked.
It seemed to me there was a need for more sunshine on the process. But the sheriffs stuck to their guns and the attorney general was of no help in clarifying the situation.
Possibly what the sheriffs did was technically legal. But it still bothers me that an official criminal investigation can be conducted totally with private money. That was the sort of thing that happened in Billy the Kid’s time, when the Santa Fe Ring, a cabal of lawyers, politicians, judges and law enforcement officers ran the state, including Lincoln County.
Or maybe this was just a fun thing the sheriffs had going on the side. Maybe they just wanted to help tourism in the area and get a little notoriety for themselves. They did succeed in getting a History Channel program produced on Billy, although its main theme seemed to be to question the circumstances of his death and burial.
Silver City is now promoting the Billy legend, which it never did before. The sheriffs say tourism has increased in Billy the Kid Country, but a state Tourism Department study disagrees. And Lincoln’s Wortley Hotel, as we reported recently, has closed.
The effort to dig up Billy and his mother for a DNA match was misguided. DNA science can’t handle remains that old. A failure would have put in doubt the Fort Sumner and Silver City grave sites and shot a hole in the Billy legend.
A public poll by True West magazine showed respondents favoring exhumation, but the towns of Fort Sumner and Silver City had to fight it. They own the cemeteries and history is on their side.
That’s not to say everyone in Fort Sumner and Silver City opposed exhumation. A few weeks after Fort Sumner officials presented Billy the Kid bolo ties to the leaders of the anti-exhumation movement, the three sheriffs were presented with Billy belt buckles, reportedly by someone in Fort Sumner.


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