Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

Looper on the Lam

The Cumberland County authorities immediately began a standard homicide investigation following Tommy Burks' slaying. Burks' body was taken to the Putnam County morgue where the medical examiner, after a formal autopsy, reported that the senator had died from the single gunshot wound to his head. Death was almost instantaneous, Dr. Sullivan Smith, the coroner told police.

The bullet entered the left side of Burks' skull, just above his eyebrow and traveled in a mostly horizontal path, coming to rest in the right parietal lobe. A bullet was recovered from Burks' body, which Smith said wasn't unusual, even though a 9mm weapon, in this case a pistol, is fairly high-powered. The shot was fired from close range, because the skin on Burks' face was stippled, or pockmarked, from powder burns and shell residue. The close range of the shot had the effect of tattooing the powder burns beneath Tommy's skin.

"The fact that the bullet was intact depends on a lot of things, the size of the load, the distance it traveled and whatever objects it encountered in its path," Smith testified at Looper's preliminary examination.

The physician who performed the autopsy said Tommy probably didn't know what happened and didn't suffer.

"Death for all practical purposes occurred instantly," said Dr. Charles Harlan. "His heart beat for a little bit longer. His lungs kept working for a couple of minutes. But he ceased being a viable person the instant he was shot."

The murder of a political candidate and long-time elected official prompted media inquiries from around the nation, and put District Attorney General Billy Gibson and Sheriff Butch Burgess of Cumberland County in the center of a media storm. Although they downplayed Looper, who had disappeared, as a suspect, the media tried to pin them down on the Putnam County Assessors status. Was he a suspect in the case, they asked.

"We have reached a point in the investigation where it is necessary to talk to Mr. Looper," said one Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent cautiously.

But Looper was gone. His home on 4th Street in Cookeville was vacant and his car was missing.

What authorities weren't saying was that Wesley Rex had positively identified Looper as the sole occupant of a dark-colored car he had seen on Hog House Road twice on the morning Tommy was slain, including just moments before he heard the popping sound that was apparently a 9mm handgun firing.

Wes had been watching television coverage of the case when a still photograph of Byron Looper was flashed on the screen, identifying Looper as Burks' opponent in the race. Wes called Charlotte Burks and reported his observations to her. She told Wesley to call the sheriff's investigators.

Charlotte Burks
Charlotte Burks

Wesley Rex's call only served to strengthen investigators' suspicions. Looper was the only person authorities could find    who had any plausible motive for shooting Burks. Rex's positive identification put Looper at the top of a very short list of suspects and police made finding Byron Looper their top   priority. They were reluctant to name Looper publicly as a suspect in the case, because as one investigator noted, "suspects tend to become fugitives. The media, both local and national, reported that a manhunt was essentially on for the opponent of the deceased senator from Tennessee.

While authorities in Tennessee searched for the elusive Looper, he had actually crossed into Arkansas and appeared at the home of a childhood friend who was now a Marine Corps recruiter in Little Rock.

Joe Bond
Joe Bond

Joe Bond, a Marine sergeant, had spent time with Looper over the summer, but was surprised when a rattled Byron showed up at his home in the late evening of October 19, 1998.

"I did it, man," Looper told Bond.

"Did what?" Bond asked.

"I killed that dude," Byron said excitedly. "I busted a cap in his head."

Bond, used to Byron's exaggerations, was doubtful.

"What guy?"

"The guy I was running against. You'll cover for me, won't you?" Byron asked. "If you walk into court in your dress blues and tell them I was with you, everyone will believe you."

Over the summer, since Byron had re-entered Joe Bond's life, Looper had been talking to his boyhood pal about his campaign for the state Senate and had once introduced himself to a woman in an Arkansas bar as a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. After the woman left, Looper confided to Bond that he "wasn't actually in the Senate yet." He added that he had a sure-fire plan for winning the election, however.

Looper's motive for reestablishing contact wasn't just to renew old friendships. He wanted a gun, and he wanted it for a very specific purpose. Somehow he thought Joe Bond could help him.

Bond had been trained by the Marines as an expert in small arms and explosives, something that fascinated Byron. He mentioned to Joe that he intended to buy a handgun soon, and questioned Bond about the different types of handguns available.

When Bond showed Looper a .22 caliber pistol, Looper looked doubtful.

"Is that big enough to shoot someone?" he asked.

"What do you want to do, kill somebody?" Bond asked, mentioning that he had killed a deer with the pistol.

Looper told Joe Bond that yes, he was planning a murder. Bond again disregarded his friend's statement. Such a comment from Looper wasn't out of character.

When Byron shared his plan for winning the election, Bond shrugged it off as more fanciful Looper braggadocio. Looper mentioned that Tennessee law required that any candidate who died less than 30 days prior to an election   be removed from the ballot, and since in the Burks-Looper race there were no other candidates, if Tommy Burks should meet with an unfortunate accident, well...

Even after Looper showed up at his apartment in a highly anxious state, Bond failed to believe that Byron would actually kill in order to win the election. If anything, Bond thought, Byron's opponent might have died from natural causes and "Loopifer" was merely taking credit for a tragic death.

But Looper continued to insist he had shot Burks and was adamant about Bond providing him with an alibi. He told Bond that he had planned the crime carefully, and although there was a possible witness, Byron was sure he could get away with the slaying.

Byron Low Tax Looper
Byron "Low Tax" Looper

"I didn't drive my regular car," Looper was saying. "But I need to find a tire store to change the tires on my other car. I know that I left tracks on the dirt road. But I want to change the tires and stash this car someplace. I just bought it and it's not even registered to me yet."

Looper, carrying a large duffel bag when he arrived, asked Bond if he could borrow a suitcase.

Bond, still refusing to believe his friend, mentioned a tire store nearby. He lent Byron a suitcase and let Looper spend the night on his couch, and when he awoke the next day, Looper was gone. Bond had no idea where Byron was headed. He shook his head at the antics of the strange young man from Tennessee, but quickly put the odd visit behind him.

At least he hoped he had, until his brother called him.

"Did you see what your buddy Looper did?" his brother asked." The cops in Tennessee want to talk to him about the murder of his opponent in his senate race."

Bond tracked down a criminal defense attorney who told him "he should have reported the conversation yesterday," and that his best option was to be honest and forthcoming with the authorities, regardless of the consequences. Bond called the Putnam County sheriff's department and related his strange tale.

While Bond was talking to investigators, Looper was visiting a female friend in Georgia.

"Byron," she said to him when he showed up at her house with Bond's suitcase. "The police are looking to talk to you about Tommy Burks' death. Where the devil have you been?"

Looper gave her a coy look and shrugged off the question.

"You don't need to know that right now," he said.

"Where have you been?" she persisted.

"Down south."

"'Down south' where?"

"Them's the facts," Looper said with a disarming smile. "And I don't want to talk about the facts now."

She would later say during the trial that she began to suspect something was wrong with Looper and called her ex-husband with her concerns.

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