Billy the Kid quest evolves into records fight
Author fought for access to investigation documents
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.
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.