Billy the Kid quest evolves into records fight

Au­thor fought for ac­cess to in­ves­ti­ga­tion doc­u­ments

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - Obituaries - By AN­DREW OX­FORD

SANTA FE, N.M. — Dr. Gale Cooper doesn’t re­mem­ber the date in July 1998 when she was pe­rus­ing the shelves at a Barnes & No­ble book­store in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but her im­pulse pur­chase that day of a book about Billy the Kid changed her life.

A Har­vard-ed­u­cated psy­chi­a­trist with a prac­tice in Bev­erly Hills, Cooper was not par­tic­u­larly an en­thu­si­ast of Old West his­tory. Still, she de­voured “The Au­then­tic Life of Billy, the Kid” — a firsthand ac­count by Lin­coln County Sher­iff Pat Gar­rett — and by the month’s end, she was on a flight to New Mex­ico to see for her­self the sites where the out­law fought and died.

The next year, she closed her of­fice, moved to New Mex­ico to write a novel based on the life of William Bon­ney, the “Kid,” and ended up an un­likely cru­sader for the pub­lic’s right to know, re­ported The New Mex­i­can.

Her bat­tle to pre­serve the spirit of New Mex­ico’s pub­lic records law be­gan more than a decade ago, when Gov. Bill Richard­son an­nounced a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the leg­endary out­law’s death, to de­ter­mine whether Gar­rett had killed an in­no­cent man and the Kid had es­caped, un­scathed.

Cooper was dis­mayed by the ef­fort — she ar­gues Bon­ney’s story has al­ways been hi­jacked, twisted and ex­ploited. But when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion fiz­zled and no foren­sic re­ports from the ef­fort were re­leased, Cooper was ou­traged. She filed a law­suit against a ru­ral sher­iff’s of­fice, de­mand­ing it hand over pub­lic doc­u­ments in the case.

Af­ter a win and a loss in state courts, Cooper is ask­ing the New Mex­ico Supreme Court to take up her case and give some bite to a state law that many say has be­come tooth­less.

Bon­ney gained no­to­ri­ety in the 1870s and early 1880s amid the Lin­coln County War, a con­flict be­tween fac­tions of eastern New Mex­ico landown­ers. He was part of an am­bush that killed Lin­coln County Sher­iff William J. Brady. When Bon­ney was cap­tured, New Mex­ico Gov. Lew Wal­lace of­fered to par­don him if he tes­ti­fied be­fore a grand jury in­ves­ti­gat­ing an­other killing dur­ing the war. Bon­ney agreed, but Wal­lace did not hold up his end of the bar­gain. In­stead, Bon­ney stood trial for shoot­ing the sher­iff. A jury con­victed him, but he broke out of jail, killing two deputies.

Less than three months later, on July 14, 1881, the new sher­iff, Gar­rett, shot and killed Bon­ney in Fort Sumner.

While he is de­rided by some as sad­dle trash and a scofflaw, oth­ers have cel­e­brated Bon­ney. Cooper joined the ranks of en­thu­si­asts who view him as some­thing of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

“I could tell there was a woman, too,” she said in a re­cent in­ter­view. She learned as much as possible about the Kid’s re­la­tion­ship with Paulita Maxwell, the daugh­ter of a prom­i­nent land baron. She sees their ro­mance as an Amer­i­can Romeo and Juliet, and the tale served as the premise for her novel, “Joy of the Birds.”

She was apoplec­tic in 2003 when Richard­son an­nounced that state and lo­cal of­fi­cials planned to gather new DNA ev­i­dence, par­don Bon­ney and prove Gar­rett gunned down an in­no­cent man in­stead of the Kid. At least two men had claimed they were the real Kid, and the­o­ries whirled that his death was a hoax.

The Lin­coln County Sher­iff’s Of­fice in­ves­ti­ga­tion might have gen­er­ated plenty of at­ten­tion, but it did not go far.

Res­i­dents of Fort Sumner put the ki­bosh on a pro­posal to dig up Bon­ney’s remains, and res­i­dents of Sil­ver City fought plans to ex­hume the remains of his mother for a DNA sam­ple.

The Lin­coln County Sher­iff’s Of­fice dug up the remains of a sup­posed Bon­ney im­poster in Ari­zona in 2005. Of­fi­cials, how­ever, wouldn’t dis­close the re­sults of the foren­sic tests. Investigators also gath­ered DNA from a work­bench where Bon­ney — or his in­no­cent stand-in — is be­lieved to have bled to death af­ter Gar­rett shot him. Dr. Henry Lee, a foren­sic sci­en­tist in­volved in the cases of O.J. Simp­son and JonBenét Ram­sey, tested the samples. But the in­ves­ti­ga­tion led nowhere.

Cooper and other ob­servers ar­gued that re­open­ing the case was a pub­lic­ity stunt by Richard­son and lo­cal of­fi­cials. It worked, grab­bing head­lines on the front page of The New York Times and around the world.

In­tent on de­bunk­ing the the­ory of “the hoax­ers,” as Cooper calls them, she sent sev­eral re­quests un­der the New Mex­ico In­spec­tion of Pub­lic Records Act to the Lin­coln County Sher­iff’s Of­fice be­tween April and June 2007 for the DNA re­ports.

First, ac­cord­ing to court records, the Sher­iff’s Of­fice sent her a let­ter deny­ing it had the doc­u­ments she re­quested. Then in June 2007, Deputies Steve Sed­er­wall and Tom Sul­li­van, who were both in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ad­mit­ted they had the records Cooper re­quested, left their jobs at the Sher­iff’s Of­fice and might have taken the files with them.

Cooper and a lo­cal news­pa­per, the De Baca County News, sued the Sher­iff’s Of­fice in Oc­to­ber 2007, ask­ing a judge to or­der the re­lease of records.

The case dragged on for years. The Sher­iff’s Of­fice did turn over some records in the case, but not the ones Cooper and the \pa­per had re­quested.

Seven years af­ter she be­gan fir­ing off records re­quests in the Kid in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Cooper caught a break. State District Court Judge Ge­orge P. Eich­wald ruled in May 2014 that the Lin­coln County sher­iff and his deputies had will­fully and wan­tonly vi­o­lated the state In­spec­tion of Pub­lic Records Act.

Eich­wald or­dered the of­fice, and its for­mer deputies, to pay Cooper $100,000 in puni­tive dam­ages, $1,000 in what he termed nom­i­nal dam­ages and nearly $20,000 in le­gal fees un­der the state law.

Cit­ing a sec­tion of the law that al­lows courts to im­pose a steeper penalty on agen­cies that do not com­ply — up to $100 a day — she ap­pealed Eich­wald’s de­ci­sion, call­ing for the max­i­mum penalty of $966,000.

But a three-judge panel of the New Mex­ico Court of Ap­peals in­ter­preted the law dif­fer­ently, and it de­cided ear­lier this year to not only deny the steeper penalty but to also over­turn the $100,000 Cooper was awarded.

A state Supreme Court de­ci­sion in Faber v. King in 2014 strictly lim­ited the cir­cum­stances in which judges can award puni­tive dam­ages in pub­lic records cases.

In seek­ing a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion, Cooper ar­gues the 2014 rul­ing ren­dered the state law use­less.

LUIS SANCHEZ SATURNO/SANTA FE NEW MEX­I­CAN VIA AP

Gale Cooper, who closed her Bev­erly Hills psy­chi­a­try prac­tice in the late 1990s, moved to New Mex­ico to write a novel based on the life of Billy the Kid. She is now fight­ing a le­gal bat­tle over the state’s pub­lic records law.

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