If you believe Randy Guijarro, a California collector, Billy the Kid and some of his friends posed for an unidentified photographer while holding croquet mallets in September 1878, soon after the end of the Lincoln County War. That month, New Mexico Gov. Lew Wallace issued a proclamation of amnesty for all parties involved — except those, like the Kid, who were under indictment for murder.
Guijarro bought the 5-inch “Croquet Billy” tintype at a memorabilia shop in Fresno, Calif., in 2010 along with two other old photographs for about $2. The image, which had no identifying markings, depicts five men, six women and seven children shot from a distance in front of a wooden board-and-batten building along a graded road. After enlarging the image, Guijarro thought that one of the men holding a mallet was the legendary outlaw. He also thought he spotted the Kid’s girlfriend and some other members of the Regulators, the deputized posse formed to avenge the murder of cattleman John Tunstall.
A documentary film producer got interested in his story and says he and others have authenticated the photo. A two-hour special, Billy the Kid: New Evidence, is scheduled to air Oct. 18 on the National Geographic Channel and broadcast around the world in 171 countries and 44 languages.
The multimillion-dollar film was produced in partnership with Leftfield Pictures and 18THIRTY Entertainment. The executive producer is Kevin Costner. The film is currently in final editing.
If the story is true, this would be only the second authenticated photo — and the first “discovered” one — of the infamous outlaw and fugitive. In 2011, William Koch, the billionaire businessman and conservative activist, paid $2.3 million at a Denver auction for a tintype of the Kid.
In a telephone interview Monday, Guijarro said he’s convinced this is also the real deal. “We’ve proved it,” he declared. “It’s authenticated.”
Others are not sure.
Gary Cozzens, manager of the Lincoln State Monument, said that while welcoming the research that went into the documentary, monument officials and the Department of Cultural Affairs are “unable to confirm authentication of the photograph in question as being a picture of Billy the Kid or other members of the Lincoln County War era.”
And Daniel Kosharek, photo curator at the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, said, “To me, and most other folks in New Mexico, the photograph does not look at all like a scene in either Lincoln or New Mexico. Add to that, the people in the photograph are very small and difficult to see [and] it is just plain problematic on a lot of fronts. How this particular one has gained so much traction is beyond me.”
He added, “As you know, this is a rather constantly arising issue which I believe is driven primarily by the sales potential of such a likeness.”
Jeff Aiello, founder and executive producer of 18THIRTY Entertainment, acknowledged Monday that there have been hundreds of purported Billy the Kid photographs to surface since the Koch purchase made the news and whetted the appetites of collectors hoping to cash in on the mania.
But even if there is no written chain of custody, Aiello said, “That doesn’t mean this isn’t real.” Lacking provenance, “You have to supplement with overwhelming circumstantial evidence, and that’s what we did. We had to convince a lot of people that this photo is real.”
In fact, he added, “We had to report findings every week to Kevin directly.”
Guijarro had done some of his own research, but he didn’t get much support from collectors who told him his find was a fake or from the Lincoln Historic Site, where he sought help about two years ago.
But Aiello got involved after meeting Guijarro last year, and then things started to happen. Aiello asked Guijarro to allow him to have the photo so he could do some research on his own, with the idea that if he determined it was real, he would make a documentary about the project.
In January, Leftfield Pictures contacted him and later signed on as co-producer. Then National Geographic wanted in, with an infusion of money.
One of the first things Aiello did was find an expert to compare faces in the photo to known photographs of people the Kid rode with, such as Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard, who were the Kid’s friends and Regulators; Sallie Chisum, a friend; and Paulita Maxwell, the Kid’s girlfriend. He also consulted tintype experts like John McWilliams and Will Dunniway, the master “Yoda, Jedi of tintype photography” who worked on the restoration of the Koch tintype. They see thousands of Kid pictures a year, but this one passed their initial test, Aiello said. He also consulted Paul Hutton, a Kid expert at The University of New Mexico.
Chisum’s old diary, in a library at New Mexico State University, was missing some pages and she never reported “that day we got together and played croquet and had a picture made.” But the diary did confirm, Aiello said, that all the people the researchers think they identified in the photo were around the middle of August 1878 to the first week of September.
Then in July, Aiello became convinced that they had nailed down the site on the old Tunstall Ranch where the photo was taken. He said the schoolhouse in the photo is still there. There’s no evidence of the croquet set, however, which he suspects belonged to Tunstall, an Englishman.
The biggie, however, was the forensic testing, Aiello said. Kent Gibson, who specializes in enhancing audio and video evidence for courtroom situations — and is a die-hard croquet fan — offered his services to help him and the others find out if the photo is real. He confirmed their suspicions, Aiello said.
“This is a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around,” he said. “It’s is too good to be true. Yet we have proven it in multiple ways.”
The rest of their story will be in the documentary aired in October.
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or email@example.com.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. The documentary will be aired on Sunday, Oct. 18. An earlier version had the wrong date.