Jeff Aiello learned of the photo last year, quite by chance. His friend, George Takata (a Channel 24 newscaster) invited him to Clovis Sports Cards & Collectibles to discuss the possibility of a television show. When Aiello stepped into the shop’s back room, his gaze fell upon an old photo hanging on the wall. And that’s where the story, for Aiello, begins.
“It was a 4-by-5-inch tintype that Randy Guijarro, a tintype collector, had purchased in 2010 for $2 (along with two other photos) at a Tower District antique shop - the now closed Fulton’s Folly,” Aiello said. “When Randy got it home and enlarged the image, he saw what looked like Billy the Kid with his gang - the Regulators. He believed it clearly matched the only known photo of the Kid to exist, but when he tried to get it authenticated on his own, several experts around the country rejected it.”
Aiello immediately smelled a rat.
“Billy the Kid and two of the other figures in the photo matched very closely to known photos of each,” Aiello continued. “There was enough good evidence to at least take a closer look, and it seemed peculiar that these experts didn’t want to do so.”
Aiello and his wife, Jill, decided to do some investigating. They did some digging to learn the names of everyone in the photo, and once they discovered an old diary written by Sallie Chisum, niece of cattle baron John Chisum - a diary that placed and named everyone in the photo - they had their smoking gun.
It turns out this photo was taken during the range wars in Lincoln County in 1878, and there was only one point in time when everyone could have come together - at a friend’s wedding. It was taken when the gang was, quite literally, taking a break from fighting, to play a leisurely game of croquet in front of an old schoolhouse.
“Our biggest hurdle, then, was finding the actual spot on Earth where that photo was taken,” Aiello said. “And in July, in a remote part of New Mexico, with the help of former Federal Investigator Steve Sederwall, we found that spot on the old John Tunstall Ranch (now called the Flying H). Although remodeled and covered in stucco, the old schoolhouse still stands today.”
Prior to this discovery, there was only one authenticated photo of the Kid in existence, but this second photo has now been verified and authenticated by Don Kagin, president of Kagin’s Inc. in Tiburon. Kagin’s specializes in Western Americana and rare coins.
In a statement by the senior numismatist, David McCarthy, “When we first saw the photograph, we were understandably skeptical - an original Billy the Kid photo is the Holy Grail of Western Americana. We had to be certain that we could answer and verify where, when, how and why this photograph was taken. Simple resemblance is not enough in a case like this - a team of experts had to be assembled to address each and every detail in the photo to ensure that nothing was out of place. After more than a year of methodical study including my own inspection of the site, there is now overwhelming evidence of the image’s authenticity.”
It’s the only photo with the core Regulators, and the Aiellos decided an independent-funded documentary with a limited budget was warranted. Then Leftfield Pictures (producers of Pawn Stars on the History Channel) got wind of the project.
“They contacted us, and after reviewing what we had, said they wanted to co-produce the documentary on a much larger scale,” Aiello continued. “Then, they took the project to several networks, but when National Geographic saw it, they wanted it. And just like that, we got right to work with a much larger budget. What really got us excited, though, is that National Geographic took it to Kevin Costner, and he signed on as executive producer and narrator after seeing what we had.”
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter (July 29, 2015), Kevin Costner said, “Billy the Kid was once the most-hunted man in America and, if you think about it, was one of the media’s first notorious bad boys. The world was fascinated with him then, and the fact that this recently discovered image has created such excitement proves that the world continues to be fascinated with him today. Billy the Kid is the epitome of an American legend.”
The two-hour documentary for National Geographic Channel will air 9 p.m., Oct. 18. “Billy The Kid: New Evidence” will investigate what could be the second, authenticated photograph of The Kid and four of the Regulators he rode with in 1878. It will attempt to retrace his whereabouts when the image was taken, and will feature extensive interviews with experts in digital facial recognition, antique photography, geographic positioning, and vintage croquet sets.
The documentary will air in 200 countries and in 71 languages.
Billy the Kid is one of the Old West’s most notorious outlaws. He was born in New York as Henry McCarty on Nov. 23, 1859, and during his brief 21 years, he killed at least one man for every year of his life (according to legend).
The first authenticated photo sold in 2011 for $2.3 million. This new photo could break the record for most expensive photograph ever sold in history.
“The historical importance of a photograph of Billy the Kid, alongside known members of his gang and prominent Lincoln County citizens is incalculable - this is perhaps the single most compelling piece of Western Americana that we have ever seen,” Kagin added.
Kagin’s Inc., has set the value of the Billy the Kid and Regulators tintype at $5 million.
About Jeff Aiello
Aiello has a strong background in television production - shooting, writing, editing, motion graphics and producing. He produced two successful series for Disney’s, The Live Well Network, including the unique travel adventure show, “Motion.” In August 2014, he and his wife started their own company - 18THIRTY Entertainment - and within three months began working on the Billy the Kid documentary, which has already resulted in a spin-off television show - “Cold West” (in late-development with the Discovery Channel.
“I’m just a kid from Bass Lake,” Aiello, now a Clovis resident, said. “I went to Yosemite High, and Jill and I are proud as heck. We’re still pinching ourselves that we were blessed enough to be a part of a truly important discovery in American history - to be the ones who helped bring this to life.”