Randy Guijarro bought three old photographs from a Fresno County, California, memorabilia shop because he liked the way they looked. But when he examined them more closely, he realized that one could be a rare photo of Billy the Kid, along with four of his gang members and his girlfriend.
Guijarro and his wife, Linda, spent the next five years researching and collecting evidence to prove it. Now it seems like their work is about to pay off. This month, an auction house authenticated it as one of only two known photos of the infamous American outlaw and insured it for $5 million.
Some experts claim that the photo isn’t really a picture of the infamous outlaw. To date, only one authenticated picture of Billy the Kid has ever been sold. That was in 2011, when billionaire businessman William Koch bought it for $2.3 million at a Denver auction.
The story of how Randy and Linda gathered the evidence to authenticate the photo will be told in Billy the Kid: New Evidence, which airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel. We spoke to Randy about the photo and the mystique that surrounds Billy, who was shot by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett when he was only 21.
I hear that you bought the photo and a couple of others for $2 and a song.
That’s pretty much true. Two dollars and a song, I got three old photographs.
And what song did you sing?
Did you think that it was a photo of Billy the Kid when you bought it?
No. I really just liked the looks of [it]. It’s 4 x 5 inches, it’s a tintype, and it’s a country scene. It’s not till [I] put it under a magnifying glass [that I thought], “Oh my, what have we got going on here?”
Tell me about that moment.
When I got to the guy wearing the hat, I went, “Wow, he’s really familiar, what’s up?” I’m familiar with Billy the Kid, so I knew who he was and what he looked like. I really looked hard and said, “Man, this is Billy the Kid, I can’t believe it!” To me it was striking—the way he was standing, the hat, everything.
And I told my wife, and she said, “Well, there’s a lot of people [in the photo]. Who were his buddies?” And then we were off to the races.
Four of those people were members of the Regulators. Tell us about that gang.
The Regulators were the hired hands of John Tunstall. It was a very large gang of cowmen. [Members of rival gangs] murdered Tunstall, their boss, and that set off the Lincoln County War. Billy was made a lawman to go find the murderers of his boss, and that group of people who were deputized were known as the Regulators.
It was a very lawless [time]. It’s nothing like we could imagine today. If you wanted to go and escape the horrors of the Civil War, everybody was migrating West. You could make it, you could get lost. The law was corrupt. Everything was.
When did you start to investigate whether it could be a photo of Billy the Kid?
We got this five years ago. It took us a year [of] initial research, reading up and getting up to speed. Linda and I became authenticators and historians by default. We spent the next four years solid going at this, traveling throughout the Southwest, calling people, going to western shows, talking to experts. A lot of people dismissed it out of hand, because it’s too unbelievable.
Finally, we found a research team. Once you start putting the pieces together, everything really falls into place. It fills in a dark hole in history about what was going on at that time.
The only other authenticated photo of Billy the Kid sold for $2.3 million. What kind of effect did this have on you and your investigation?
You don’t see that coming. And to be honest, I’m thinking, “Oh, my, every Billy the Kid photograph in the world is going to be now coming out.” And I looked at my wife, and I said “Well, we’ve got work to do.”
There are experts who dispute the authenticity of the photo.
There are a few of these so-called experts, and I’ve actually talked to them. I said, you’ve asked me to do these things, [I] went out and did them, and they are now chronicled in a video coming up this Sunday on Nat Geo.
I lay out physical proof, I get nothing back. So, I don’t even like to give credence to their names anymore. They’re going to become people that will just have just faded off into history.
The senior numismatist at Kagin’s, the auction house that authenticated and insured the photo, has said that “an original Billy the Kid photo is the Holy Grail of Western Americana.”
I actually go beyond agreeing with that. It’s almost a Twilight Zone photograph. That’s why it’s caught so much attention, skepticism, and pushback. You have the most famous and iconic American around the world, posing on a croquet stick with the Regulators, along with his girlfriend.
This is a story. It’s not just a portrait of him. This tells a day in the life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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