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Can Billy the Kid ever RIP? N.M. uses him to promote tourism

Billy the Kid is pictured in an undated handout photograph
Billy the Kid is pictured in an undated handout photograph

By Zelie Pollon

Santa Fe, New Mexico (Reuters) - Wild West gunslinger Billy the Kid was shot and killed in southern New Mexico 130 years ago, but state officials still can't seem to let him rest in peace.

Last year, then-Governor Bill Richardson made headlines by suggesting he might pardon the 19th-century outlaw, only to decide against it on his last day in office.

This year, Richardson's successor, Governor Susana Martinez, has launched a statewide "manhunt" for the Kid in a campaign to boost tourism to the Land of Enchantment.

The promotion offers a $10,000 grand prize reward to the search "posse" that first completes a prescribed series of challenges in a scavenger hunt-like contest to slap the Kid with a symbolic arrest warrant.

The prize is based on the $500 reward posted for his capture in 1881 by New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace, adjusted for inflation.

"Others may have considered pardoning Billy the Kid, but we're not letting him off the hook," Martinez said.

Born Henry McCarty but known in New Mexico as William Bonney, the outlaw was shot to death at point-blank range by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881. The Kid was believed to be 21 or 22 at the time of this death.

In weighing the pardon, Richardson said he was acting on a promise of amnesty Wallace was widely believed to have made in 1879 in return for the outlaw's grand jury testimony against three men accused of murder during the so-called Lincoln County War of 1878, a bloody conflict between cattle barons.

The Kid was serving time for having killed then-Sheriff William Brady at the height of that conflict and testified "at great risk to his personal safety" but never received a pardon, according to University of New Mexico historian Paul Hutton.

The Kid eventually escaped from jail and killed two deputies in the process, becoming a highly wanted fugitive.

Supporters of a pardon argued in a petition to Richardson that Wallace had reneged on his pardon offer. But public opinion polls found New Mexico residents divided on the issue. The descendants of Garrett and Wallace argued strenuously against it, insisting no pardon was ever proffered.

The discussion remains fodder for Wild West enthusiasts the world over, particularly in New Mexico. A group of historians and fans -- including Garrett's granddaughter -- packed a small gallery space last week in New Mexico to celebrate the Kid's death and discuss his legacy in the arts.

Newspapers already had turned the young gunslinger, reputed to have killed as many as 21 men, into a larger-than-life character by the time of his death in 1881. A book by Garrett transformed the Kid into a legendary figure of America's western frontier.

Some 65 movies have been made about Billy the Kid, more than any other historical figure in U.S. history, including President Abraham Lincoln, Hutton said.

"He was a very romantic character with a kind of Robin Hood theme," Hutton said, adding that he clashed with corrupt forces of authority in the territory and was said to be charming and great with women.

He also was "a great friend" to Hispanics as "they were the ones who protected him from the white political system that was out to get him," Hutton said.

The Kid was buried in the Old Fort Sumner military cemetery in southern New Mexico. His grave draws up to 20,000 visitors a year, said Don Sweet, who with his son runs the nearby Billy The Kid Museum in Fort Sumner.

The museum claims to have the Kid's rifle, chaps and spurs, an original wanted poster, and locks of his hair."

In a testament to the enduring interest in artifacts from his life, the only confirmed original photo of Billy the Kid was bought at auction in late June for $2.3 million, well above the expected sales price of $300,000 to $400,000.

Martinez said the "Catch the Kid" promotion gives residents and tourists "a chance to interact with one of our state's most infamous historical characters."

Given the governor's background as a prosecutor, it seems fitting that "her whole tack is we're going to bring him to justice," Hutton said.

Those interested in the mythology and history of the outlaw will never let him rest in peace, Hutton said.

"I think we're going to continue to exploit his bones as much as we possibly can," Hutton said.

(Edited by Karen Brooks and Steve Gorman)

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