I-Team: Final chapter could be rewritten for famous Western outlaws

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

LAS VEGAS - Almost 50 years ago, an Academy Award-winning movie popularized the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film ends with the two bandits being killed in a South American shootout.

But many outlaw historians think the movie got it wrong, that Butch and Sundance returned to the U.S. and there is evidence that the trail may have ended in southern Nevada.

On a road about 15 miles northeast of Pahrump, most motorists would just blaze right past a faded sign that reads "Johnnie." It's the name of a once-bustling mining camp. A few people still live there and some still search for gold in the hills.

Just down the highway is a dirt road that leads into the mountains. Its name? Butch Cassidy Pass. The name is not an accident.

"To me, it's pretty strong that Butch and Sundance died in South America," said Bob Boze Bell.

True West magazine's Bob Boze Bell believes that the Old West's most famous duo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, most likely died in a shootout in South America, which is the story told in the Famous movie.

Bell was the keynote speaker at a recent gathering in Kingman, Arizona where descendants of many outlaws who rode with Cassidy's Wild Bunch shared stories. But one branch of the family tree did not spill its secrets at the reunion. The Parkers, as in Robert Leroy Parker, Cassidy's name at birth.

"There are dozens of theories about what happened to Butch and Sundance but primarily, no one can intelligently say they died in South America anymore," said Kerry Ross Boren.

Western writer Kerry Ross Boren has spent more than 40 years investigating the story. Boren became a close friend to Lula Parker Betenson, Butch Cassidy's sister. In the mid 70's, she broke the family silence and wrote that her brother had returned to visit the family in Circleville, Utah in 1925. Historians scoffed at the claim, but not Boren.

"There are probably several hundred different accounts of seeing Butch and even Sundance many years after they supposedly died in South America," Boren said.

His latest book about the bandits, Butch Cassidy, The Untold Story, weaves together hundreds of different accounts. The I-Team visited the ranch in 1984 where Butch lived as a boy. Lula Betenson died in 1980, but other members of the family told us at the time that the story of Butch's return is true.

"Mother said, he was around for three weeks when he returned," said Mark Betenson, Butch Cassidy's nephew.

It's confusing, on purpose. Some members of the Parker family weren't told about Butch's visit so they don't believe it. Others, who were present, deny it happened. In Western lore, stories about outlaws cheating death are pretty common, but Boren's tale is well documented.

Among the witnesses who claim to have seen the bandits in the 20's and 30's are rancher and former Cassidy girlfriend Josie Bassett Elzy Lay, a Wild Bunch outlaw in his younger years, Joyce Warner, the daughter of Wild Bunch outlaw Matt Warner. She said, Cassidy visited her and wrote her three letters, under an alias, mailed from Nevada mining towns.

Also, persuasive gaping holes in the original story. It was first reported in Elks magazine in 1930, 21 years after the supposed shootout in Bolivia. That article inspired the movie version and was repeated in other books and articles. Two bandits were killed in Bolivia, but no witnesses who knew Butch and Sundance identified the bodies. 

In the 1990s, a television program funded an expedition to Bolivia to find the truth. The gravesite long identified as the resting place of the dead bandits was dug up. DNA tests were conducted, then compared to the known relatives of Robert Parker and Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid. Experts predicted the mystery would be solved. It wasn't. The DNA didn't match.

"That's' exactly right. They used DNA from Harry Longabaugh's brother and the evidence showed there was no similarity whatsoever to the two men buried in San Vicente, Bolivia," Boren said.

Many outlaw historians trace the Bolivian shootout story to a man named Percy Seibert, who befriended Butch and Sundance and may have told that story to give them some cover as they returned to the U.S.

There are many theories about where they went after Bolivia, but some of the best evidence suggests at least one of them came to Nevada. 

Additonal links:

Butch Cassidy: The Untold Story

The Mystery of Ann Bassett and Etta Place

The Mysterious Deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


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