Sitting in his skeleton-strewn Law School office, professor James Starrs is thousands of miles away from New Mexico, where he might perform an exhumation that could finally end speculation about the life and death of Billy the Kid.
In March, Starrs, an expert in forensic science, will go to Silver City, N.M., to begin work. He will try to determine if the body buried in the gravesite of William H. Bonney, the gun-slinging outlaw whose life is shrouded in Wild West myths, is really Billy the Kid.
According to legend, Bonney, a 21-year-old who boasted of killing 21 people, was killed in 1881 by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in a New Mexico saloon. But since then, several men have claimed to be the Kid, fueling speculation that the man buried in Silver City is not Bonney.
Starrs is at the center of a court petition seeking to exhume the body of the Kid’s mother, Katherine Antrim, to test her DNA to determine whether it matches the genetic data of any of several men claiming to be her son, including the one buried under his tombstone.
“I received a number of phone calls from people who wanted the exhumation done,” said Starrs, who will go to New Mexico in March to conduct a preliminary examination of the gravesite.
But the exhumation faces significant opposition from a Silver City tourism industry that has benefited from the widespread belief that Billy the Kid is buried there. However, several New Mexico officials, including Gov. Bill Richardson, support the exhumation.
A court decision on whether to allow the exhumation has been postponed until August and is dependent on Starrs’ preliminary findings.
“I’ll have to do a soil analysis to determine the pH of the soil and mineralogy of soil,” he said. “I have to look at what kind of burial place it is, what kind of coffin, how deep is it buried, has there been water intrusion.”
Starrs will also look at Silver City’s cemetery records and may use ground penetration radars, site probes and topography maps.
“There is a lot of preliminary work before deciding to invest time and money into an exhumation,” Starrs said.
Attorneys arguing both sides of the case are GW Law School graduates, and when Starrs travels to Silver City, he will be accompanied by University geology professor George Stephens.
“GW is really in the mix on this one,” Starrs said.
Referring to Stephens, Starrs said, “He is my right- and left-hand man in these projects.”
Stephens and Starrs have been collaborators for several years.
“We’ve worked together for a long time, at least a decade or more,” Stephens said. “He treats remains with the utmost respect and always understands what we’re looking at are remnants of a once-living, breathing person.”
Despite his qualms about “disturbing the dead,” Starrs said he would assist the investigation into the true identity of Billy the Kid in any way he can.
“(W)hen it comes down to disturbing the dead or assisting the living, I have to assist the living,” Starrs said.
“When relatives are suffering, the suffering can be alleviated by doing an exhumation, regardless of outcome,” he added. “Those people can say in their evening prayers to the deceased that all has been done that could be done.”
“I’m very impressed with his sensitivity,” Stephens said of Starrs. “He always gives a proper reburial and a ceremony if the family wants.”
Starrs has worked in forensics for more than 35 years, conducting exhumations on 25 people, including Jesse James, Boston strangler Merriwether Lewis and George Washington’s brother, Samuel Washington.
Noting that some of his GW students were involved in the Boston strangler case, Starrs said he wants to involve them with Billy the Kid as well.
“I’m hopeful to bring bones back to the lab here, but I can’t predict what the courts will allow if the exhumation occurs,” Starrs said.
Starrs said he does not expect the project will take him away from GW for too long.
“The court date is pushed back until August, and if it occurs the exhumation shouldn’t take more than a day or so,” he said. “As of now it’s only killing my spring break. My first allegiance is to my students and teaching classes.”
Starrs has solved murder mysteries and eased suffering, yet he remains modest.
“I don’t live or die on those kinds of things,” he said. “But it makes you feel good for a long time after … I’ve lived a long life, and things like that mean a great deal to me.”