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Butch Cassidy imposter exposed

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 16 2011 10:59 p.m. MDT

Photo of The Wild bunch outlaw gang. The most famous members were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

unknown, archive photo

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Larry Pointer has been chasing the trail of the outlaw Butch Cassidy for 40 years. He thought for sure he had him pinned down — that Cassidy had cheated death in a gun battle in South America, changed his name to William T. Phillips and lived out his life in Spokane, Wash. But Cassidy gave Pointer the slip.

It turns out Phillips in Spokane wasn't Cassidy after all.

It began in the 1970s when Pointer discovered a 96-page manuscript by Phillips titled, "The Bandit Invincible: the Story of Butch Cassidy." On its surface it was a fictionalized biography of Cassidy, but Pointer noticed Phillips wrote about obscure and unusual details that it seemed only Cassidy himself would know.

Phillips died in 1937. His widow told historian Charles Kelly that her late husband wasn't Cassidy but "knew Cassidy very, very well." That was in 1938. Phillips' adopted son, however, was certain he was Cassidy.

Pointer looked at circumstantial evidence and even had handwriting experts confirm that Phillips' handwriting was the same as the handwriting in known letters from Cassidy. On top of this, the older Phillips looked like the younger Cassidy. Pointer concluded Phillips' biography was really an autobiography.

"The weight of the evidence in 1977 was that this was Butch Cassidy," Pointer said.

And so he wrote his theory in the book "In Search of Butch Cassidy."

But that was then.

Historians believe that Cassidy was born to a Mormon family in Utah and was given the name Robert LeRoy Parker. Parker ran off and chose a life of crime and a slew of aliases — including Butch Cassidy. Cassidy allegedly died in a shootout in 1908 in Bolivia with Harry "the Sundance Kid" Longabaugh. Maybe.

Cassidy historian Dan Buck said in an email, "All in all, though, it's an intriguing subject, a collision of history and folklore … The fate of outlaws like Cassidy is closer to a mystery than a puzzle."

The mystery attracted Brent Ashworth, a history buff and the owner of B. Ashworth's Rare Books and Collectibles in Provo. Ashworth began collecting Butch Cassidy items about 30 years ago. When Ashworth discovered a different manuscript of Phillips' "Bandit Invincible," Pointer jumped at the opportunity to examine it. The manuscript was about twice as long as the version Pointer had used back in 1977. "There are so many more details in it," Pointer said.

One of the details the longer manuscript gave was more names of people who knew Cassidy. Pointer was checking some of these names against the "Atlas of Prisoners at the Wyoming Territorial Prison" by Elnora Frye. He found one name, Ed Selley, who was sent to the Wyoming penitentiary at the same time as someone named William T. Wilcox.

William T. as in William T. Phillips?

"This William T. and William T. got me looking," Pointer said. Pointer looked up William T. Wilcox's criminal career on the Wyoming Newspaper Project. "Some of it, all of a sudden, sounded like 'Bandit Invincible,'" Pointer said.

According to newspaper accounts, Wilcox bragged about a robbery to "Prairie dog Wilson" and was captured near Wilson's ranch by a deputy Morrow and went to jail.

Phillips' book had a similar story of Cassidy being captured by a deputy named Morgan. Cassidy then turns the tables on Morgan, steals his horse and leaves Morgan to walk to "Prairie dog Wilson's" ranch.

"It just sounded too phony. Too strange. Too much coincidence," Pointer said.

Pointer then researched Wilcox's genealogy and compared it to Phillips. Phillips appears out of nowhere with a marriage in Michigan on May 14, 1908. On that record, Phillips is listed as the son of Celia Mudge. Pointer discovered that Wilcox's mother was Celia's sister Flora. "Everything about Wilcox was fitting Phillips' story," Pointer said.

Both Wilcox and Cassidy were in prison at the same time.

Wilcox got out of prison in December 1895. Cassidy was released the next month. They both went to near Lander, Wyo.

Pointer learned about an old sheepherder named James Regan. Regan said Phillips was not Cassidy, because he saw the two of them when they were living in a cabin near his sheep camp. This fit other things in "Bandit Invincible."

By the end of 1896, Wilcox was back in custody and this time a photograph was taken.

"After I saw the photographs, I could absolutely no longer be in any denial," Pointer said. "It's tough for me because 40 years ago I put my heart and soul into this. But if you don't have any integrity, you don't have anything. And honestly, I can't deny that this is the same man. William T. Wilcox and William T. Phillips are the same man."

Pointer said that Lula Parker Betenson, Cassidy's sister, told Pointer years ago that Cassidy died in Spokane in 1937, but he was not Phillips. "I guess this lays to rest one set of controversies and opens a whole new window," Pointer said. "Who was that guy Cassidy? What happened to Parker?"

Ashworth isn't disappointed that the manuscript he discovered knocked down Pointer's original theories. He thinks that the book written by Cassidy's friend Phillips provides strong evidence that Cassidy survived the ambush in South America and may have moved near Phillips in Spokane. "I thought the manuscript was going to lead to Butch," Ashworth said, and then added, "But it may eventually lead to Butch."

Pointer is also optimistic the manuscript by Wilcox aka Phillips will lead to Parker aka Cassidy.

"This is exciting and this is going to lead us forward in new ways that never would have been possible if not for Brent Ashworth's discovery of the expanded 'Bandit Invincible,'" Pointer said. "Maybe out somewhere in Washington is an answer, and we sure are going to chase it."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

TWITTER: degroote

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