Special report: How Mesilla determined the destiny of Billy the Kid

Arizona/New Mexico

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Billy The Kid, one of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West, was tried and sentenced in Mesilla, New Mexico, in 1881 and the events that followed were a turning point in his destiny.

David G. Thomas, a local historian and an author, has been following Billy’s story for years, having found many interesting details about his trial and sentence.

He said Billy was brought to Mesilla from Santa Fe to be tried for crimes that he was charged with in Lincoln County, about 250 miles northeast of Mesilla.

The courthouse in the town of Mesilla is a brick-and-mortar reminder of the Wild West history and now it stands as a gift shop dedicated to Billy The Kid.

Charles Rogers, owner of Billy The Kid Gift Shop, took over the store from his parents, who have been in business for 50 years.

“The reaction of people coming in, they love the history — they love Billy the Kid,” said Rogers, explaining how intrigued people are with his story. He said he sometimes shares stories about Billy that he had learned as a child growing up in the area.

“My family had a ranch at White Sands. I always heard of the stories of Billy the Kid riding the horses around, jumping off,  jumping over to another ranch, riding along,” remembered Rogers.

He said that he plans on keeping the store to preserve the history that lives with it. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said. “The minute it demolishes, falls down, goes away, goes into disrepair, the history of that building — the courthouse, the capitol building, Billy the Kid, old bars, Pancho Villa — all the history disappears.”

Billy, known by his pseudonym of William H. Bonney, was said to have killed 21 people, one for each year of his life. But, in truth, he killed five people, including Sheriff Brady from Lincoln County.

Thomas said Brady had a warrant out for his arrest for killing a man. Billy caught him and killed him, thinking he was doing authorities a favor. But what he didn’t know is that the governor had arbitrarily annulled the warrant for Brady’s arrest with no one knowing, so Billy got charged for murder.

The Lincoln County judge then sent Billy to Mesilla for trial, even though one is supposed to be tried in the county where the crime was committed. According to Thomas, the judge knew no one there would know the circumstances of Brady’s murder, which would ensure Billy’s death sentence.

“The trial was really a farce, he was completely railroaded,” explained Thomas.

Billy was not able to appeal his sentence because the Supreme Court in the area wouldn’t meet for another three months, long after he was set for hanging.

After being sentenced to death, Billy was transported to Lincoln County to await his hanging. But not long after he got there, he had managed to escape, killing two guards on the way.

“[His story] resonates today partly because of this existential question: how far are you willing to go to save your life if you have been unjustly pursued by the government?” Thomas said.

Billy was murdered 15 days after escaping jail by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garret, who had been chasing him around for years.

Mesilla was a turning point in Billy’s destiny, telling two different stories: the one of an outlaw and the one of a man unjustly treated by the government, Thomas said.

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