Monday, February 4, 2019

Byron (Low Tax) Looper: Killing The Competition


Uncontested races for the state legislature were a common sight in Tennessee in the 1998 election. In nine of the 18 races for the state senate, candidates were running unopposed. Fifty-six people running for the state house had the luxury of being the only name up for consideration in their district, meaning more than half of the 99 seats in the chamber would go to people who had not been challenged in their election.

Tommy Burks, the longtime state senator for Tennessee's 15th District, was widely considered a lock for his seat even though he had an opponent. Burks had been in the legislature for nearly three decades. The Democratic candidate had built up a reputation as an honest, hardworking, "salt of the earth" kind of fellow.

His challenger, by contrast, had done little to endear himself to voters. Although Byron Looper had managed to get elected tax assessor for Putnam County two years earlier, his tenure in the office had been marked by chaos, litigation, paranoia, and incompetence. Looper had also been indicted on several counts of official misconduct, and was scheduled to go to trial a month after Election Day. Although he appeared on the Republican ticket simply by signing up for the race, the local GOP apparatus (which had opted not to field a candidate against Burks) had no desire to endorse him.

As such, Burks had spent little if any time campaigning to keep his seat. He didn't take out any political advertisements, and no debates with Looper were scheduled. Burks' friends weren't even sure if he had met his rival. Burks instead spent his time working on his 1,000-acre hog and tobacco farm near the town of Monterey.

On the morning of October 19, 1998, Burks began preparing the farm for a visit from local schoolchildren later in the day. It was an annual ritual, with youngsters getting a chance to enjoy a hayride and take home a pumpkin from Burks' pumpkin patch.

A farmhand working on a trailer would recall that the attack on Burks had happened quickly. A black car drove up to the side of Burks' pickup truck, at which point the farmhand heard a loud "pop" sound. The car then sped off, leaving the farm.

When the farmhand went over to the truck, he found Burks sitting in the driver's seat, dead. The 54-year-old state senator had been shot just above his left eye and killed instantly.

Police investigating the murder soon ruled out a number of possible motives. The farmhand and Burks' wife were quickly discounted as potential suspects. There was no indication that anything in Burks' private life, or any of his sometimes controversial political stances, had prompted someone to kill him out of revenge or anger.

A few days later, police asked for the public's help in locating Burks' opponent in the state senate race. The implication was clear: Looper had the most to gain from Burks' demise, and  may have taken matters into his own hands to ensure that his race would be an uncontested one.

Early life

Byron Anthony Looper was born in Cookeville, Tennessee, on September 15, 1964. He spent only a brief amount of time in the area. The family moved to Georgia when he was still a child after his father, a school superintendent, took a job there. Looper's parents divorced soon after.

Looper began attending West Point in 1983, but had to withdraw from the service academy after he fell from a horse and injured his knee. He was honorably discharged and finished his studies at the University of Georgia.

Soon after returning to Georgia, Looper became politically active. He joined the Young Democrats and was elected president of the group but, in an early sign of Looper's abrasive personality, he was later urged to resign. He made his first electoral attempt in 1988, running unsuccessfully for the state legislature at the age of 23. He then worked as a legislative aide for three years.

Looper's resume becomes somewhat muddled at this point. He reportedly enrolled in the Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University. He spent some time in Puerto Rico, and one former member of the Georgia house of representatives recalled that Looper called him up in the early morning hours one day, saying he intended to sue a law school on the island because it refused to teach one of his classes in English. He settled the matter for a small sum. Looper would also claim that he worked for a Bear Stearns affiliate on Puerto Rico and as an assistant to the president of a university, although the latter institution proved nonexistent.

While Looper's political activities were more limited during these years, he still managed to work on the 1988 presidential campaign of Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee. Four years later, he also worked on the successful campaign of Bill Clinton where Gore was the vice presidential pick. Looper's associates would later say that he was disappointed that he hadn't been rewarded for his work with a job in the administration.

Putnam County assessor

In the early 1990s, Looper reappeared in Cookeville, switched to the Republican Party, and immediately threw himself into local politics. In the 1994 election, he challenged incumbent state representative Jere Hargrove for his seat. Looper's campaigns would be characterized by blunt attacks and negativity; he frequently vowed to break up what he saw as a "good ole boy" clique of politicians, and publicly accused his opponents of crime and corruption.

At the same time, Looper made some efforts to try to ingratiate himself with these politicians. Hargrove claimed that despite Looper's "undignified" campaign, he later contacted the state representative asking for his help securing a job in the Farmers Home Administration or some federal agency in Puerto Rico.

Two years later, Looper set his sights on the assessor's office for Putnam County. At first, it seemed like another quixotic effort. The incumbent assessor, Bill Rippetoe, had been in office for 14 years. But Rippetoe was facing criticism for recent property reappraisals, and Looper's campaign efforts added raised further recriminations. Although the campaign did not include any public appearances or debates, Looper loudly accused Rippetoe of cutting deals for friends and vowed that he would lower taxes in the county. On Election Day, he earned about 800 more votes than his opponent to secure a narrow victory.

The voters soon discovered that not only was Looper unable to keep his campaign promises, he was also unable to effectively manage the office to which he had been elected. Despite his promise to lower taxes, he had little ability to affect voters' bills since he had no control over the tax rate. One former campaign worker recalled that Looper rarely showed up for work, and that he jetted off to Puerto Rico for a three-week jaunt shortly after taking office.

Others recalled that Looper was a biased, unlikable person in his official role. They said he talked down to Democrats, promised favors to Republicans, and treated the people of eastern Tennessee with a general condescension, acting like he had been sent there to save them from themselves. Employees in the assessor's office fared little better; Looper was prone to insulting them or terminating their employment if he suspected that they were disloyal to him. At one point, Looper became involved in a fistfight between a county taxpayer and one of the workers in the assessor's office.

Early in his term, Looper announced that he had uncovered $100 million in property that wasn't on the tax rolls. The county commission responded that this kind of backlog was not unusual and that the assessor should focus on doing his job instead of finding controversies.

Such grandiose announcements were not unusual for Looper. He had drawn up a list of hundreds of media outlets across Tennessee, and constantly fired off press releases to highlight the work of his office. These communications frequently railed against the alleged "good ole boy" network in the county and bragged that he was the "most educated" assessor in the state.

Looper also began to show signs of rampant paranoia. His employees recalled that he had a video camera installed to record visitors, and hired a security consultant to scour the premises for hidden microphones or listening devices. He also set up a barrier at the back of his office because he was worried that political enemies were recording his conversations. Forty employees were reportedly fired after Looper accused them of spying on him.

In his official capacity, Looper filed several lawsuits against other county agencies. He charged the Putnam County election commission with voting machine irregularities, a curious attack given his own electoral victory. He also sued to demand access to the phone records of the sheriff's office. Not surprisingly, Looper found himself targeted by litigation as well, including former employees suing for wrongful termination and an attorney who accused the assessor of libel.

Looper was also named in a paternity suit by a former girlfriend, who accused him of raping her and illegally transferring ownership of her home to his name by faking the deed. Looper responded with a statement deriding the woman, saying she "left me with heart palpitations, a small box of memorabilia, and a red G-string." When she threatened him with a $1.2 million lawsuit, however, Looper admitted that he was the father of her child.

In March 1998, an indictment charged Looper with 14 criminal charges including theft of services, official oppression for theft, official misconduct, misuse of county property, and misuse of county employees. Among other things, Looper was accused of arbitrarily reassessing the property of a person who refused to contribute to his campaign, soliciting campaign donations from developers in exchange for lower tax assessments, using county funds and workers for his incessant faxing of press releases, failing to assess some land parcels, and removing one taxpayer's property from the rolls in an attempt to make them ineligible for public office.

A trial was scheduled for December. Henry Fincher, a local attorney, immediately began an effort to remove Looper from office, charging him with neglecting his duties while pursuing a personal political agenda.

Murder of Tommy Burks

Tommy Burks had been in the Tennessee state senate for 28 years when he came up for re-election in 1998. He had long balanced his farming duties with his elected ones, waking up before sunrise to tend to his animals and crops before driving about 100 miles along Interstate 40 to the state capitol in Nashville. At the end of the day, he made the same trip home.

Fellow legislators remembered that Burks never missed a day in the senate, even when he had to navigate through treacherous snowstorms. The weather only prevented him from returning home on one occasion. After Burks' death, a stretch of I-40 would be renamed in his honor.

Although he was a Democrat, Burks had adopted a number of conservative positions which frequently put him at odds with his own party. He was opposed to gambling and the state lottery, and in 1991 sponsored a bill to criminalize abortion in cases where the mother's life was not in danger. He also sponsored a widely derided bill to dismiss Tennessee teachers who taught evolution as fact. Burks' less controversial stances included support for anti-drug programs, public television, and crime victims' rights.

Burks had also sponsored a bill which would publicly shame first-time offenders convicted of driving under the influence, requiring them to pick up roadside trash while wearing orange vests emblazoned with the message "I am a drunk driver." This may have rankled Looper, who had been convicted of DUI in Georgia in 1986 and 1987 and unsuccessfully tried to have the charges expunged from his record.

There was little reason to view Looper's challenge to the popular state senator as anything other than a farce. He had even taken the bizarre step of legally changing his middle name to (Low Tax), parentheses included, and proudly included this moniker on all of his advertising materials. Though he had filed to run against Burks, he had simultaneously joined the race to challenge Representative Bart Gordon, a Democrat, for his House of Representatives seat; Looper abandoned this race after finishing third in the Republican primary. He declared public service to be "the most noble of all pursuits" and voiced his opposition for "big government, high taxes, fast spending, and mollycoddling criminals."

Following Burks' murder, public attention quickly turned to Looper. As the case gained national attention, residents in eastern Tennessee questioned why he seemed to have gone into hiding. It was also considered highly suspicious that Looper hadn't bothered to call Burks' widow, Charlotte, to offer his condolences. The state senator's death had not only left Burks' three daughters without a father, it had also occurred on the birthday of his middle child.

State law spelled out a clear motive for the crime. If a candidate for office died within 40 days of the election, their name could not appear on the ballot. Since Burks had been killed within this window, his name would be removed and Looper's would be the only one legally eligible in the state senate race for the 15th District.

Soon after Burks' murder, local Democrats encouraged Charlotte to mount a write-in campaign to succeed her husband and ensure that Looper wouldn't win by default. Although Republicans needed to flip just two Democratic seats to take control of the state legislature, they backed Charlotte's candidacy and disavowed Looper. Brad Todd, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, declared, "We did not recruit Mr. Looper to run for state senate or any other office. We have not assisted his campaign in any material way, nor will we."

On October 24, after a four-day absence, Looper returned to his home. He was promptly arrested, charged with first-degree murder, and held on a $1.5 million bond.

Byron Looper's mugshot following his arrest (Source)

The arrest did not disqualify Looper from the race since he had only been charged with a felony, not convicted. To further complicate matters, he was still the Putnam County tax assessor. From his jail cell, he fired his deputy tax assessor, leaving the office with no one in charge. Two more ouster petitions were filed against him, and the state finally stepped in to remove him in January 1999 after he attempted to keep doing his job while incarcerated.

The strange circumstances of the election generated strong turnout on Election Day. When the ballots were counted, Charlotte had won in an overwhelming landslide: 30,252 votes, or about 93 percent of the ballots cast in the district. It was said to be the first successful write-in campaign in Tennessee.

Charlotte Burks speaking at a legislative breakfast in 2012. (Source)

Looper still managed to collect 1,531 votes, although some of these were no doubt early votes that had been filed before his arrest. However, some of Looper's supporters questioned the motives of investigators, noting that Looper had publicly attacked them in the past. The police were also releasing little information on how they had tied Looper to Burks' murder; this evidence would be presented two years later, when Looper went to trial.


In the lead-up to the trial, Looper changed attorneys eight times. Although the murder charge was eligible for the death penalty, the Burks family declined to pursue it; they felt a life sentence would offer more closure than the ongoing appeals a death penalty case would generate.

The trial got underway on August 14, 2000. In the opening statement, District Attorney Bill Gibson declared, "Byron Looper is obsessed with the burning desire for power and public office. He is also a man who knew he didn't have a chance of beating Tommy Burks." The state argued that the murder had been motivated by Looper's desire to gain Burks' position and power, and that Looper was the only one with a motive for the killing. Prosecutor Tony Craighead deemed it an attempt to "win this election with a Smith & Wesson."

One witness recalled that Looper had mentioned the possibility of eliminating his opponent in order to win his election. William Lindsay Adams Jr. said he contacted Looper after spotting an advertisement for the position of his campaign manager. Adams said that Looper asserted that the campaign could be run at minimal expense, especially if his opponent wasn't in the race or if something happened to Burks before Election Day. He opted not to take the job.

But one of the state's most crucial witnesses was Joe Bond, a Marine recruiter and high school friend of Looper's. Bond testified that several months before Burks was murdered, Looper called him to say he was running for office. He also said that he planned to kill his opponent so he could be the only person on the ballot.

Bond said that he passed the remark off as a joke, but became more concerned after Looper began asking him about firearms, including recommendations for guns with reliable accuracy that could be easily concealed. A few months before the murder, Looper visited Bond at his home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, saying it was imperative that he acquire a weapon since the election was fast approaching. Bond said he would do so, even though he had no intention of getting his friend a gun. Looper persisted, repeatedly calling Bond and even sending a $150 money order to cover the cost of the firearm.

On the evening of the murder, Bond testified, Looper had shown up at his home and confessed to killing his opponent. "I did it man, I did it," Bond recalled Looper saying. "I killed that dude." When Bond asked who he was referring to, Looper responded, "That guy I was running against. I busted a cap in that dude's head." Looper told Bond that he had purchased a gun in a private sale, and thrown it out the window of his car after driving for about 10 or 15 minutes.

In March 1999, a man working with a construction company along I-40 had discovered a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson handgun and turned it in to police. A firearms expert later gave his opinion that this was the weapon used in Burks' murder.

Byron Looper during his trial (Source)

Other testimony focused on the car that had been spotted on Burks' farm. Wesley Rex, the farmhand who had seen the car drive up alongside Burks' truck, recalled that it was a black car with circles on the back. He had also identified Looper as the driver after seeing one of his political advertisements on TV on the evening of the murder. A worker at a local fast food restaurant said Looper had shown up at the drive-thru in a dark car on the morning of the murder, nervous and in a rush, and had become extremely upset about a mistake with his order.

Investigators had managed to track down the vehicle Looper had briefly owned around the time of the murder. Two days before Burks was shot, he had purchased a used 1987 Audi sedan from a private seller in Lilburn, Georgia. The vehicle make matched Rex's description, since the Audi symbol featured interlocking circles. A mechanic in Tucker, Georgia, a community about five miles from Lilburn, said a customer who signed his name as "Anthony Looper" had brought the car in for repairs, estimating that it was sometime between October 11 and 20, 1998, and asked to leave it at the shop for a few weeks. Looper later called to say that he no longer wanted the vehicle, and it was resold.

The Audi's tires raised one point of contention. Once the car was discovered, an analysis of its tires found that they did not match the tracks left at the Burks farm. A test of the tires on the Chevrolet Beretta that Looper had been driving when he returned to Tennessee also failed to yield a match. But the man who sold the Audi to Looper still had the receipt for its tires; once these were mounted on the Audi, they left tracks that matched those at the crime scene. Prosecutors posited that Looper had simply changed the tires after killing Burks; Bond said Looper had told him he planned to do so.

A good portion of the defense strategy focused on an attempt to discredit the story put forward by Bond. Looper's attorneys, former Georgia state legislator McCracken Poston and former California legislator Ron Cordova, tried unsuccessfully to impeach Bond as a witness. They instead accused him of seeking revenge against Looper since the defendant had made advances against his girlfriend (later wife) when they were teenagers. One witness said Bond didn't have a reputation for truthfulness. The defense also called Bond's mother-in-law to the stand to suggest that Bond didn't have a good enough relationship with Looper to host him in the fall of 1998, since he had asked Looper to leave his residence during a visit in the summer after learning that his wife was uncomfortable with the defendant.

Several years later, Cordova would suggest that Looper may have helped set up Burks' murder, but didn't carry out the crime. He said he did not think that Looper was capable of killing Burks on his own, but may have recruited Bond to do so; however, he stressed that it was only a theory and he didn't have any evidence to back it up. The defense never presented an alternate suspect at the trial, and the prosecution pointed out that Rex had seen only one person in the car fleeing the scene.

Both Cordova and Poston believed that there was reasonable doubt that Looper had killed Burks. They had Looper's mother present an alibi, testifying that her son had been staying with her at the time of the murder; however, she had last seen him on the evening before the murder and had not seen Looper during the morning.

Poston later said that Looper had helped to sabotage his own case by withholding information from his attorneys. But Cordova and Poston felt that Looper did not have a legitimate motive for killing Burks, since they believed he would have known he would be caught and that Charlotte would likely be recruited to run in her husband's place. "The evidence is going to show that Byron Looper knows how to win an election," Poston said in his opening statement. "The evidence also is going to show that he knows how to lose one and move on. Mr. Looper's weapon has always been words, and that's never changed."

The defense positions failed to impress the jury. After deliberating for just over two hours, they returned a guilty verdict. On August 23, 2000, Looper was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


Looper was held in the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary until this prison closed in 2009. He was then transferred to the nearby Morgan County Correctional Complex. He never went to trial on the official misconduct charges, which the state opted not to pursue since Looper had already been condemned to a life behind bars.

Throughout his sentence, Looper maintained his innocence and occasionally tried to appeal his guilty verdict. His cell was strewn with legal papers, and he targeted a variety of entities with civil suits. He sued a TV station, saying they had misrepresented their intentions when interviewing him and aired a program that portrayed him in a negative light, as well as the Tennessee Department of Corrections, which he said had failed to adequately treat him and other prisoners for health problems.

On June 26, 2013, Looper reportedly struck a pregnant prison counselor on both sides of her head, knocking off her glasses. The incident occurred during a discussion between the counselor and a prison unit manager about a request Looper had made; he apparently became upset after learning that he would be transferred from solitary confinement into the general population, since he was worried that he was a high-profile prisoner and would be hurt by other inmates.

Prison authorities said that Looper was restrained with "the least amount of force necessary." Two hours later, he was found dead in his cell.

An autopsy determined that cardiac issues were the primary cause of Looper's death, as he had experienced high blood pressure and the hardening of his arteries. This health issue was compounded by toxic levels of antidepressants he had been taking.

Looper's family and attorneys were suspicious of this conclusion. Poston declared the circumstances of Looper's death to be "extremely suspicious," saying he had seen Looper's body and thought it looked like he had been severely beaten while hogtied. There were abrasions and contusions around his head, arms, and legs, some of which were consistent with injuries that would be caused by shackles and handcuffs. Another prisoner had written to his girlfriend on the day of Looper's death and mentioned that guards had beaten "some chubby white guy" to death while he was restrained.

Poston also alleged that authorities from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation contacted Charlotte to let her know about Looper's death, while Looper's mother did not find out until she saw a news report on her son's demise. He said Looper's mother was initially told that her son would be charged with assault after touching a counselor on her arm, but that prison authorities later changed their story to say Looper had slapped the counselor. Poston said a nurse had treated Looper for a head wound about an hour before he was found dead.

The Tennessee Department of Correction responded to the allegations by simply referring to the conclusions of the autopsy. Looper's family commissioned a second autopsy, which determined that Looper's heart was not abnormally large at the time of his death. Poston and Looper's family never issued a follow-up on any other findings.

Charlotte, meanwhile, had proved popular in her own right. She continued to serve in the state senate until opting not to run for re-election in 2014.


Tennessee Secretary of State, "In Tennessee, A Lawmaker Dies and His Rival Vanishes" in the Washington Post on Oct. 23 1998, "Tennessee Senator's Killing and Opponent's Arrest Upend Small Town" in the New York Times on Oct. 24 1998, "Tennessee Lawmaker Killed; Election Opponent Arrested" in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 24 1998, "Candidate Jailed in Foe's Slaying" in the Washington Post on Oct. 24 1998, "Suspect Relentlessly Ran For Office" in the Associated Press on Oct. 24 1998, "Suspect in Death of State Senator Obsessed by Foes" in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27 1998, "Ex-Tenn. Politician Begins Murder Trial" on CBS News on Aug. 15 2000, "Politician Goes On Trial For Opponent's Murder" in the Journal Times on Aug. 15 2000, "Guilty Verdict in Campaign Murder Trial" on ABC News on Aug. 23 2000, "Looper Found Guilty in Murder of Sen. Tommy Burks" in the Rome News-Tribune on Aug. 23 2000, "Convicted Murderer 'Low Tax' Looper Sues Prison Medical Manager Over Health Care" in the Nashville Post on Jan. 9 2002, "Prison Incident Report Shows Assault Before Byron Looper Found Dead" in the Times Free Press on Jun. 28 2013, "Byron Looper's Attorney Crying Foul in Death of Politician Turned Killer" in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Sep. 13 2013, "Byron Looper's Family Seeks Independent Autopsy After 'Heart Event' Death Report" in the Times Free Press on Jun. 29 2013, "The Death of Senator Tommy Burks and Byron (Low Tax) Looper" in the Nashville Scene on Aug. 16 2018, "Byron Looper" episode of Dying to Belong on Oxygen on Sep. 16 2018, "Way Back When: Looking Back in History" by Bob McMillan in the Herald Citizen compiled on, State of Tennessee v. Byron Looper, State Jones v. Looper