Billie Sol Estes, a colorful and unapologetic Texas wheeler-dealer who boasted of his political connections even as he went to prison two times for fraud, died Tuesday at his home in DeCordova, Texas. He was 88.
A daughter confirmed his death, but the cause was not immediately known.
For a short time in the early 1960s, Estes was one of the most famous people in America, written about in Time and Life magazines, commemorated in song and pursued by federal authorities who once dug up a dead cat from a backyard, believing that Estes had buried it with hidden treasure.
Estes was a multimillionaire in his early 30s, but his expanding business empire turned out to be built on a foundation of fraud that led to his sudden downfall.
When authorities began to close in on Estes, several people who knew about his business practices died under peculiar circumstances.
He often claimed to be closely allied with powerful Texas political leaders, most notably longtime speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Lyndon B. Johnson.
At the peak of his wealth and influence, Estes said, he was sending payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Johnson.
He said he once got an angry call in the middle of the night after he was late delivering money to Johnson.
"The first thing I said was, 'Lyndon, do you know what time it is?' " Estes told the Houston Chronicle in 1996.
"He says, 'I didn't call you to find out what time it is. I called about that money. You get somebody down to the airport and get it on a plane.' "
Many historians and people close to Johnson have said Estes exaggerated how closely he knew Johnson. But it is hard to overstate his audacity. His fortune - ill-gotten or not - was once estimated as high as $400 million, but by the time his empire collapsed, he was millions in debt.
"The sad part of it is," a Texas bank president once told Time magazine, "that he could have been an honest millionaire instead of a broke crook."
He was born Jan. 10, 1925, in Alanreed, Texas, not far from Amarillo, but grew up near Abilene. By the time he was 15, he had a herd of 100 sheep. Before he was 30, he was named one of the 10 most outstanding young men in America.
Always active in Democratic politics, Estes thought he could win the 1956 presidential election for Adlai Stevenson by buying flocks of trained parakeets to fly over U.S. cities saying, "I like Adlai." A banker turned the idea down.
Estes owned a fleet of tanks used to transport liquid fertilizer for farmers. He inflated the number - claiming he had more than 33,000 - and used nonexistent tanks as collateral to secure more than $20 million in loans.
He also took advantage of government price supports for cotton to swindle farmers out of federally subsidized payments.
When a USDA investigator looked into Estes' affairs in 1961, the agent turned up dead, shot five times with his own rifle. His death was ruled a suicide.
In April 1962, just days after Estes was arrested by the FBI, his accountant was found dead in a car. That death was also declared a suicide despite a large bruise on his forehead. Two other business associates of Estes also died under strange circumstances.
In 1965, Estes was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy. He was freed after six years in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan.