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Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Did Butch and Sundance die in Bolivia?

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, San Vicente, Bolivia

A welcome sign in San Vicente
San Vicente: No doubts there about the men's fate

At the entrance to a settlement in a remote part of Bolivia, a sign reads: "Welcome to San Vicente. Here lie Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid."

The two Wild West outlaws were immortalised by Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the 1969 classic film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".

It is widely believed that the two died 100 years ago - on 7 November 1908 - in this old miners' settlement high in the southern Bolivian Andes.

"We're happy, we're proud to have such a legacy in this place," said local miner Vicente Reizo, covered in dust and wearing a tin hat.

"My grandfather used to live right next to where they got shot, it is part of our history. They put this village on the map."

Forced out

The real story in itself is a fascinating one.

Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker on 13 April 1866.

His criminal career started by stealing a horse. Legend goes that because he had briefly worked as a butcher, and admired the young cowboy Mike Cassidy, he chose "Butch Cassidy" as his nickname.

Local miner Vicente Reizo
Mr Reizo says Butch and Sundance have been good for the town

His friend Harry Alonzo Longabaugh had also stolen a horse, for which he spent a stint in a prison in Sundance, Wyoming. After that he called himself "The Sundance Kid".

Butch and Sundance became professional outlaws, robbing banks and holding up trains. Their gang, with other cowboys, became known as "The Wild Bunch".

By the end of the 19th Century, robbing the payrolls of the Rocky Mountain West mining company had made them America's most wanted criminals, tracked down by marshals and detectives alike.

But why these two charismatic robbers ended up in Bolivia and what eventually happened to them still remains the subject of debate.

Some say they were "honourable" criminals who never stole from the poor and that they never hurt anyone other than in self-defence.

Whether or not that is true, bounty hunters forced them out of the US in early 1901.

Safe haven

Along with Sundance's partner, Etta (or Ethel) Place, they took a freighter from New York to Buenos Aires and settled at a ranch in Patagonia.

Yet they were chased from this sanctuary in early 1905. Their exact whereabouts for the next year or so are not entirely known.

The graveyard in San Vicente
Could the outlaws be buried in this Bolivian graveyard?

They were in and out of Argentina, Chile, perhaps Peru and finally Bolivia.

There they mingled with the many North Americans and Europeans that lived in the Bolivian Andes, most of whom had made lots of money in the mining industry.

It is not clear why they chose Bolivia as their safe haven. There were similarities to the Wild West - mining towns and arid land - but the authorities did not take kindly to lawbreakers.

The Bolivians had captured or killed most of the foreign bandits (generally disgruntled miners or railroad workers) operating in the country in the early 1900s.

Many historians believe they added Butch and Sundance to their tally.

Gunfight

The two men, they believe, fled to San Vicente after robbing a mule train carrying the payroll of the Aramayo Mining Co.

When a patrol discovered them a lengthy gunfight ensued. It went on until darkness fell. Later that night, townspeople reported hearing screams and two shots.

In the morning of 7 November 1908, the story goes, the Bolivian army cavalry unit entered the house where the "gringos" had been hiding.

They saw two men lying in a pool of blood, riddled with bullets. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were dead.

Local expert Felix Chalar, next to a poster showing the two men
Expert Felix Chalar says he believes the story is true

The police report allegedly stated that, judging from the position of the bodies, Butch had probably shot his fatally wounded partner-in-crime to ease his misery, before killing himself with his final bullet.

Yet all of this was never proved.

The bodies were supposedly buried at the small San Vicente cemetery, where they remain today.

But it was never really proved that the two "gringos" were in fact Butch and Sundance. Some say the outlaw pair ultimately made their way back to the United States, where they lived anonymously until their deaths.

For local expert Felix Chalar, "there is enough evidence to support the case that Butch and Sundance died in Bolivia".

And in the Bolivian mining town, the presence of the rebellious spirits of Butch and Sundance is deeply felt.

"They are there, they are there," a local child said, pointing at the small graveyard. "When I grow up, I want to be like them."



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