About 300 people gathered for Billie Sol Estes' funeral Saturday, four days after he died in his sleep at the age of 88. (credit: courtesy of Sol family)

About 300 people gathered for Billie Sol Estes’ funeral Saturday, four days after he died in his sleep at the age of 88. (credit: courtesy of Sol family)

GRANBURY (AP/CBSDFW.COM) — Billie Sol Estes may have been infamous as a swindler who spent time in prison for Texas-sized schemes, but his family and friends say he was a loving, generous man who once gave his Cadillac to a stranger who needed a ride.

About 300 people gathered for Estes’ funeral Saturday, four days after he died in his sleep at the age of 88. A dozen colorful flower bouquets lined the front of the church.

“Those of us who knew Billie Sol know that he was a walking paradox,” said Trudy Allison, a family friend. “We’ve been told he was Robin Hood, and we’ve been told … he was a bandit. We’ve heard both good and bad. We knew and loved him and understood his goodness.”

Estes became one of the most notorious men in America in 1962 when he was accused of looting a federal crop subsidy program. The scandal during President John F. Kennedy’s administration involving phony financial statements and non-existent fertilizer tanks led to the ouster of several lower-level agriculture officials.

After an earlier conviction had been thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court over the use of cameras in the courtroom, Estes was convicted in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Estes was freed in 1971 after serving six years.

But new charges were brought against him in 1979, and later that year he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service. He was sentenced to 10 more years but was freed a second time in 1983.

The Rev. Lana Bradley told mourners that Estes ministered to fellow prisoners and obtained permission to baptize them.

“I’m not going to stand here today and tell you that Billy Sol was a saint, but neither are any of us in this sanctuary today,” Bradley said during the service in Granbury, a town ravaged by a deadly tornado earlier this week. The church was not damaged.

Estes’ grandson, Clay Stevens, recalled visiting his grandfather in prison, but said he didn’t understand because he was a child. When Stevens was a teenager, Estes liked to joke and embarrass him but he also urged him to always be truthful, Stevens said.

Estes once asked one of his daughters to drive him to a nearby town for a hamburger, and after he ordered water, he told the cashier that he wanted to pay for the meals of all customers behind him — then stole a soft drink when the employee’s back was turned, Allison said as those in the church chuckled.

Estes, who became a millionaire before he was 30, often gave money to less-fortunate children in town and paid for them to go to camp, Allison said.

“He was loving, giving, perplexing,” she said.

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