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Billie Sol Estes, ‘notorious’ Texas financier and church member, dies at 88


“Notorious,” “flamboyant” and “swindler” are among the terms appearing in headlines across the nation, reporting the May 14 death of Billie Sol Estes.

Billie Sol Estes, circa 1983 (Photo provided)

The 88-year-old West Texas businessman and financier — a longtime member of Churches of Christ — made headlines throughout his adult life. Most of them were negative, due to fraud charges that sent him to jail three times.
The first sentence was for a scheme involving phantom anhydrous ammonia fertilizer tanks that he used as collateral to obtain millions of dollars in loans. In all, he spent 11 years of his life behind bars in Leavenworth, Kan., the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.
Visitation is from 5 to 7 p.m. May 17 at the Acton United Methodist Church in Granbury, Texas. The funeral is at 2 p.m. May 18 at the church.
The Star-Telegram referred to Estes as “king of Texas wheeler-dealers” in its headline. The newspaper interviewed Mike Cochran, a longtime reporter for The Associated Press who wrote about Estes for more than three decades. The two eventually became friends.
The newspaper reports:

Mr. Estes was born Jan. 10, 1925, in Abilene and grew up on the family farm near Clyde. As a young man, he made a fortune selling surplus military barracks and surplus wheat. He claimed he was a millionaire by age 21. But he later embarked on the fertilizer tank caper in the early 1960s, which landed him in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan.
Cochran said Mr. Estes also drew a lot of interest because while he was “very much a scoundrel,” people believed he was genuinely committed to the Church of Christ.

Read the full story. (The newspaper also has an extensive online gallery of photos, some from the 1960s.)

Time magazine, May 25, 1962 (via www.time.com)

Time magazine featured Estes on its May 25, 1962, cover. The Associated Press quoted from the magazine in its report:

“He considered dancing immoral, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay preacher,” the magazine wrote. “But he ruthlessly ruined business competitors, practiced fraud and deceit on a massive scale, and even victimized Church of Christ schools that he was supposed to be helping as a fund-raiser or financial advisor.”

Read the Associated Press story in the Los Angeles Times, and see the text of the 1962 Time feature (subscription only).

  • Feedback
    This is a sad way to be taken for a trip down memory lane. I never knew Billy Sol, but his dad, “Papa John”, was very kind to me as I struggled through school while trying to support my family. It is such a shame that the name “Estes” is nearly always associated with the failings of Billy Sol. There were some really fine people in that family, but Billy Sol did long-term damage to the name. Kind of like what a lot us do to the name of Christ…
    Thayer Salisbury
    May, 16 2013

    DEAR ERIC,
    WHILE I SUPPORT THE CHRONICLE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE AND ENJOY THE PAPER FOR THE MOST PART, ALL THE TIME, I THINK THAT THERE ARE STILL ESTES FAMILY MEMBERS WHO REALLY NO LONGER NEED TO BE REMINDED, NOR DO THE CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN. I KNOW SOME OF THE FAMILY MEMBERS AND I TAUGHT SOME OF THE CHILDREN AT CAMP BLUE HAVEN WHEN BILLY SOL WAS IN PRISON.
    THE SENSATIONALISM AND NEGATIVES OF BILLY SOL ESTES SEEM TO OUTSHINE MANY OF THE GOOD DEEDS HE MIGHT HAVE DONE. I KNOW THE AMOUNT OF COVERAGE GIVEN HIM IS MUCH MORE THAN OUTSTANDING PREACHERS, TEACHERS, PROFESSORS SUCH AS PROFESSOR MALHERBE AT YALE AND OTHER OLD SOLDIERS SUCH AS WINSTON BURTON.
    REGARDS,
    ROSANN ALEXANDER
    ROSANN
    May, 16 2013

    Before anyone judges him, remember “though your sins may be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Not one of us are innocent being sinful creatures that we are, and it is by God’s grace that we have salvation through Christ. All any of us can do is confess our sins and try to live our lives as a Christian should, God’s grace is sufficient enough. Only God knew his heart, and will judge him accordingly. God knows our hearts and will judge us accordingly as well.
    We all have weaknesses, whether well-known or hidden. It is how we handle our weaknesses and approach God for strength, wisdom and forgiveness that matters in the end.
    To me, the Parable of the Prodigal Son tells me all I need to know about God… in that when He sees us coming down the road back to Him, He runs to meet us with open arms. Read the parable again. That prodigal son is you. And me. And Billie. And every Christian that has ever lived on the face of this earth. We cannot do anything that God will NOT forgive when we ask for forgiveness.
    We all can stumble and fall at various times in our lives, but it is God who lifts us up, dusts us off, and lets us go tottering down life’s path. It is up to us to decide whether to hold on to His hand as we go down life’s road, or to let go at times and run ahead again only to fall down all over again. We are indeed children of God, and it is up to us to reach out for His hand each time we stumble or fall.
    There is an old saying that there will be three things that will amaze us when we get to Heaven: Seeing who is there, who is not there, and that we’ve made it by His grace.
    Stephen Maple
    May, 16 2013

    Thayer, I posted this the same time you posted your comments. So, please don’t think I was responding to you.
    Stephen Maple
    May, 16 2013

    Rosann: Here’s a <a href=”https://christianchronicle.org/blog/2012/10/bible-scholar-yale-professor-abraham-malherbe-dies-at-82/” rel=”nofollow”>link to the post I wrote about Abe Malherbe</a> in October 2012.
    Is <a href=”http://www.emersonfuneralhome.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=1594219&fh_id=10418″ rel=”nofollow”>this</a> the Winston Burton you’re referring to?
    Erik Tryggestad
    May, 16 2013

    I don’t think this is about grace or repentance as much as it is about bringing reproach on the Church. We can all learn a lesson from this obituary.
    I became a Christian in the mid-1970’s. My first conversation with my father went like this: “I obeyed the gospel and was baptized at the ______ Church of Christ.” My dad’s first comment: “Isn’t that the group Billy Sol Estes is part of?”
    I think we can all learn a lesson from Brother Estes. Our good works and faithfulness will not be remembered as much as the times we publicly fall short in our behaviors, comments or attitudes.
    My sympathy to the Estes family.
    Sharon Shipley Troute
    May, 16 2013

    Why put this out about our Church of Christ… we should be using this space in a positive way to attract souls to Christ.
    ^j^
    Sister Jule
    May, 16 2013

    My folks were baptized in the 1960s as part of the Exodus Movement in NY. Shortly after I heard my dad voice surprise that he was now part of the same church as Billy Sol Estes.
    This is a sad story. But, the CC is also a newspaper, and part of the job is to report news. That’s how I took this article. We must be honest about ourselves. If we can be, I think other people will actually find that attractive.
    Warren Baldwin
    May, 17 2013

    I know a lot of people who will not agree with me, but I have never understood why some people think they can purge the negative things out of our memories and feel it is wrong to ever talk about them.
    I remember well when B.S.E. was in the news, and I remember well that I learned the real meaning of a hypocrite. I hope that eventually he got his act together and became a person with Christian ethics and integrity, but if he or his family are not able to be reminded of that time in his life I would love to know they erased it from their memories. I think what drives those who do not want it to be recalled are those who simply do not want others to say negative things about them or their family. I identify this with the “pride” that we are taught is wrong. Evading the truth is the first cousin to lying, especially when those who are so private with their own family, never hesitate to talk about the shortcomings of others. Once something becomes a fact, if one other person is involved, it is impossible to keep it a secret. An apology to the person or persons who harmed is in order and if you only harmed yourself, you can talk to your Creator about that and ask his forgiveness. But, don’t think that you are containing your negative humanity and think that something is true only if other people find out about it. If Billy Sol Estes’ obituary is in any other publication, I am sure they mentioned his “fall from grace”.
    Hope Rice
    May, 18 2013

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