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Award ends suit over Billy the Kid records

The legendary outlaw Billy the Kid is still causing trouble for Lincoln County more than a century after his death.

A New Mexico court has awarded an author $100,000 in punitive damages in a lawsuit she brought against the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office over access to records regarding an investigation into Billy the Kid’s death. The award brings to an end a legal battle of more than seven years that has left Lincoln County taxpayers on the hook for nearly $300,000 in fees and damages.

In 2007, author and amateur historian Gale Cooper and a weekly newspaper sued for access to documents related to the investigation, launched by a Lincoln County sheriff and two deputies more than a decade ago with the aim of using genetic testing to determine whether the story of the Kid’s killing at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 was true or a fabrication.

After years of litigation, the documents were delivered, although they offered no conclusive evidence to prove or disprove the generally accepted story of the Kid’s death at Garrett’s hand. Then-Sheriff Rick Virden denied having the records, while the deputies, who had recently resigned their posts, admitted to having the records but called them “private hobby trade secrets,” according to a court order.

District Judge George Eichwald last week awarded to Cooper the punitive damages, plus $1,000 in nominal damages and yet-undetermined plaintiff costs. Cooper could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The weekly De Baca County News previously settled its claims against the former sheriff and deputies, which included the county paying $125,000 in attorneys’ fees on top of a combined payment of $70,000 to four other attorneys previously involved in the case.

Scot Stinnett, publisher of the De Baca County News, said the awarding of attorneys’ fees is critical to ensure that “a small paper like mine, or an individual like Gale, or anyone out there who doesn’t have the means to hire an attorney on a retainer” won’t be denied access to public records.

“If such a precedent is not in place,” he said, “governmental agencies will just deny an IPRA request and dare someone to sue, as has been done many times in this state.”

Lincoln County taxpayers have had to pay the tab: The new punitive and nominal damages bring the total cost to at least $296,000. Lincoln County Manager Nita Taylor said she did not yet know the total cost to the county, which is home to Billy the Kid landmarks and about 20,000 residents.

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