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Oscar Griffin Jr., 78, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Dies

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Oscar Griffin Jr., 78, Pulitzer Prize Winner Who Brought Down Scheming Texas Tycoon, Dies


The New York Times

December 10, 2011


Judge Roy Bean, the 19th-century Texas justice of the peace and saloonkeeper, called himself “the law west of the Pecos.” Not until the 1960s was Judge Bean’s legend challenged — by Billy Sol Estes.

Mr. Estes was a glad-handing wheeler-dealer who used cash from his $100 million agricultural empire to practically purchase the town of Pecos, buying up businesses ranging from a tractor dealership to a funeral home.

Mr. Estes had two planes, a barbecue pit big enough for 10 sizzling steers and decidedly nonindigenous palm trees in his front yard. A monkey climbed the trees until he got mumps.

Mr. Estes was also well connected politically, boasting that the president of the United States took his calls. On his wall at the time were autographed pictures of President John F. Kennedy and a longtime friend, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In Pecos, population 12,728 then, Mr. Estes essentially ruled — until a 29-year-old journalist named Oscar Griffin Jr. toppled him.

Mr. Griffin, who died on Nov. 23 at 78, was the city editor of a semiweekly Pecos newspaper that competed fiercely with a daily paper owned by none other than Mr. Estes. On a five-person news staff, Mr. Griffin was by necessity a jack of all trades, as much reporter as editor. And it was as a reporter that he brought down Mr. Estes, unraveling an elaborate fraud scheme in four articles that earned Mr. Griffin and his little newspaper, The Pecos Independent and Enterprise, a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for distinguished local reporting.

The series, which was as understated and meticulous as Mr. Griffin and took months to prepare, at first caused no particular fuss or fanfare in Pecos. The articles carried no byline, ran under headlines smaller than those for the major articles and did not even mention Mr. Estes by name.

But their description of how that businessman masterminded a byzantine scheme to borrow money using nonexistent fertilizer storage tanks as collateral caught the attention of the F.B.I. Congressional hearings into this and other Estes flimflams led to the highest levels of the Kennedy administration, particularly Johnson, who had been a business associate of Mr. Estes’s in several ventures.

Some histories say the vice president tried to help Mr. Estes in questionable dealings with the Agriculture Department that emerged after Mr. Griffin exposed the tank fraud. Some say Kennedy may have considered dropping Johnson from his ticket in 1964, partly because of the Johnson-Estes connection.

In 1963, Mr. Estes was convicted of a battery of fraud charges by federal and state courts and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. (The United States Supreme Court overturned the state conviction on the ground that television and radio coverage of his pretrial hearing had violated his rights.)

After six years in prison, Mr. Estes was released on parole in 1971. Eight years later, he was convicted of other fraud charges and served four more years.

As the Estes story unfolded and the national news media picked up on it, Mr. Estes’s supporters outnumbered his detractors in Pecos, nestled at the juncture of the Pecos River and the old Comanche Trail.

“You have to remember that Billy Sol was like God in this town,” one man told The New York Times in 1962, adding, “Anyone opposed to him might just as well pack up their bags and leave town.”

The episode began in 1961, when Dr. John Dunn, a physician who bought The Independent the year before with three partners, grew suspicious of Mr. Estes’s maneuvers. Dr. Dunn’s mother, who ran a retail credit shop, had told him of the unusual number of mortgages being carried by farmers dealing with Mr. Estes.

Dr. Dunn soon discovered that Mr. Estes had borrowed $24 million — $180 million in today’s dollars — using as collateral fertilizer tanks that turned out not to exist. Mr. Estes had persuaded farmers in a cotton-growing area to pretend to buy tanks by taking out mortgages on them. He offered the farmers 10 percent of the purchase price — in effect, something for nothing.

Dr. Dunn told the F.B.I., but federal agents found no violation of banking laws. Before long Dr. Dunn sold his interest in the paper and turned over his material on the Estes case to The Independent.

Mr. Griffin said he first became suspicious of Mr. Estes’s easy-money scheme when he overheard farmers talking in a small cafe. “It’s like pennies from heaven,” he quoted one as saying, recounting the case in an interview with United Press International in 1962.

In pursuing the Estes story Mr. Griffin was taking on a competitor. Mr. Estes started his newspaper in August 1961 after The Independent refused to back him as a candidate for the local school board. Mr. Estes’s paper slashed advertising rates to force The Independent out of business and warned advertisers to avoid it.

The strategy appeared to be working. The Independent cut its editorial staff from five to two.

The Independent’s trump card was Mr. Griffin’s investigative series, which came out in February and March 1962. Mr. Estes was arrested on March 29. In addition to the fertilizer tank scam, he was convicted of defrauding the federal government’s grain storage program in a scheme that in one instance involved taking three federal agriculture officials on a shopping spree at the Neiman Marcus store in Dallas.

The day before Mr. Estes was arrested, Mr. Griffin said he went to see him and asked him “point blank” if the fertilizer tanks existed. “He told me that there weren’t as many tanks as the mortgages showed,” Mr. Griffin wrote. “That sure was the understatement of the year.”

Mr. Estes, now 86, still nurses hard feelings about Mr. Griffin, the reporter who helped put him in jail. “It’s a good riddance that he left this world,” Mr. Estes said Friday in a brief telephone interview.

Oscar O’Neal Griffin Jr. was born in Daisetta, Tex., on April 28, 1933. He served in the Army in the 1950s, graduated from the University of Texas in 1958 and worked at several other small Texas papers before joining The Independent.

After his series appeared, he joined The Houston Chronicle in 1962 and covered both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He was later a spokesman for the federal Transportation Department, worked at small Texas oil companies and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

His family said he died of cancer in New Waverly, Tex., where he lived.

Mr. Griffin is survived by his wife of 56 years, the former Patricia Lamb; a brother, Red; a sister, Peggy Marino; three daughters, Gwendolyn Pryor, Amanda Ward and Marguerite Griffin; a son, Gregory; and seven grandchildren.

The Independent not only got the goods on Mr. Estes; it also defeated his newspaper, The Pecos Daily News, which Mr. Estes had started in the hope of grinding The Independent out of existence. After the scandal broke, The Daily News went into receivership. (The Independent survives as The Pecos Enterprise.)

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