LINCOLN, N.M. (KRQE) - A retired federal agent tackling one of New Mexico's coldest cases from the Lincoln County War suspects a famous lawman may have been complicit in the last escape of Billy the Kid.
At a minimum modern crime-scene technology shows the well-traveled tale of the Kid's escape from the Lincoln County jail doesn't line up with the written account by Sheriff Pat Garrett , Steven Sederwall, himself a former Lincoln County deputy, said.
For more than 100 years historians have repeated the story of how outlaw William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid , died at the hands of Garrett, the well-known lawman who tracked him down.
But modern technology is helping to rewrite some of that history. And as it has almost from the beginning, not everyone is buying into the standard tale of the Kid's bloody escape from Lincoln or his showdown with Garrett a few months later.
Tucked away in a winding valley in the Sacramento Mountains Lincoln's peaceful present gives no hint of a very different past.
In a single decade in the late 1800's, historians relate, more than 40 men died on and around Lincoln's only street during the Lincoln County war. Billy the Kid killed at least four of them:
On April 1, 1878, Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George Hindman were gunned down in front of John Tunstall's store. Some historians claim they were assassinated; others claim they were corrupt cops.
Regardless a court decided Billy the Kid shot and killed them.
Late in December 1880 Garrett caught up with the Kid, captured him and hauled him off to the jail on the second floor of the Lincoln County courthouse. Billy the Kid was convicted of the murders at a trial in Mesilla and returned to Lincoln to await his hanging.
It's at this point in history that Billy becomes the infamous outlaw that he still is today.
On April 28, 1881, Billy escaped from the Lincoln County courthouse killing the two deputies guarding him, James Bell and Robert "Bob" Olinger. Bell died in the courthouse; the Kid shooting from a second-floor window killed Olinger as he headed back to the jail after hearing gunshots.
One of the versions of this much-debated day in history comes directly from Garrett himself although he was not in town at the time. According to his book, Bell was escorting Billy back from a trip to the outhouse.
Garrett claimed Billy got far enough ahead of Bell to run upstairs, break down an armory door, grab a revolver, run back to the stairwell and shoot Bell dead as the deputy stood at the foot of the stairs.
New evidence puts the shooting at the top of the stairs, according to Sederwall.
The modern crime scene investigation
"Scientifically Garrett lied," he said. "Pat Garrett had no idea that 125 years in the future there would be guys that would be able to go back and say, 'Here's the blood. Here's where it happened. Here's how it happened.'"
Sederwall, a lawman for 30 years, said he is digging for the truth of the Old West's most famous jail break out of respect for his long-deceased brother officers. And that digging shows Bell wasn't shot as Garrett described.
"We look at history, and we forget these guys are real people," Sederwall told KRQE News 13. "Let's say a policeman gets shot today.
"What we do is we go back, and we want to know. It doesn't change anything. The officer is still dead, but we want to know what happened. We feel like we owe it to the policeman, and its kind of the same thing."
Using their own money Sederwall and a group of retired cops reopened the Billy the Kid case on April 28, 2003. That was 122 years to the day that Billy made his escape.
Applying modern technology the investigators used a compound called Luminol to check for blood. Sederwall did that by spraying Luminol at the top of the steps.
Like a ghost in the night blood reappeared under the floorboards showing where it seeped in all those years ago.
"That night when we sprayed it was just like you heard all this air comes out of the building," Sederwall said. "It was just that 'Wow" factor.
"It was kind of eerie because it looked like it was just running out of the floor boards."
The crime scene remains because the courthouse, like most of the village, has been preserved as part of Lincoln State Monument.
What really happened?
This is how Sederwall describes that afternoon in 1881 as he climbs the narrow stairwell of the courthouse:
"The Kid was at the top of the steps. Bell was probably right in here. This is probably his last movement in this direction forward. The Kid turned around and thumbed that gun back. Immediately, Bell's heart rate went up to 140 beats per minute. At this point he's pulling that gun back away from Bell, and he's trying to pull it to him. They are just face to face. They can feel each other breathing. I imagine these guys have blood all over them. I imagine they are covered in blood."
Sederwall said he thinks Billy the Kid got the gun from the outhouse. He also thinks the shooting was accidental although the escape itself was planned.
"Sheriff Pat Garrett conspired to break the kid out of jail," Sederwall said.
What Garrett didn't know was going to happen, according to Sederwall, is that it went terribly wrong.
"He knew they were going to come and tell him the Kid escaped," Sederwall said. "He was going to come back and climb on his deputies.
"Then the next words were, 'You got two dead deputies.' All of sudden, when he knows that, he is a co-conspirator."
History records 77 days after the infamous jailbreak Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner. By Garrett's account the lawman was waiting in a darkened room and only shot after the Kid walked in and realized someone else was there.
But not everyone believes the man Garrett shot that day really was the Kid. It's a subject of serious debate among some modern historians.
"So we, all of us in this field, have some kind exotic beliefs, and Lord help us if we all get into the same room because someone is going to die," Bob "Boze" Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine, said.
Bell wrote a book on Billy the Kid and thinks Garrett did kill the Kid.
"I am also one that believes Pat Garrett just shot down Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, shot him down as he came in the door," Bell said. "This is totally at odds with the official version Garrett told."
Sederwall is examining that part of the Billy the Kid legend too.
In the 1930's a New Mexico man named John Miller claimed to be Billy the Kid. Sederwall and a team of investigators exhumed Miller's body in Arizona for testing.
At this point in time DNA results are still pending. And it could be some time before the sun finally sets on this chapter of New Mexico history.
Sederwall and his colleagues are not the first to advance these theories. They are, however, the first to use modern technology to tray to crack the case.