Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

Looper Under Arrest

Back in Putnam County, authorities had Looper's 4th Street home under surveillance, never really thinking that the assessor would simply return home and walk into their grasp. But that's what Byron Looper did.

Acting like a man who had no reason to believe he was wanted for questioning in connection with a murder, Looper returned to his Cookeville house at about 1 a.m. Friday morning, almost five days after Tommy Burks' death.

Officer Michael Matt of the Cookeville police was sitting in a marked police cruiser near Looper's home when he saw Looper drive up in a dark Chevrolet Corsica. He radioed for backup and left his cruiser.

Matt flashed his badge at Looper, who reacted with nonchalance.

Matt explained that the district attorney's office was interested in speaking with him and that Matt's shift supervisor, Lt. Mark Webb, was also on his way to Looper's house.

While Matt stood on the front porch, Looper went inside and disappeared from view for a few moments. He returned to the living room, where Matt observed him sitting in a chair reading his mail.

When Webb showed up, Looper had returned to the front porch and was talking with Matt. The officer introduced his supervisor and Webb shook hands with Looper. The lieutenant explained that officers from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney's office were on their way.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation seal
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation seal

In a few moments, TBI agents and investigators from Bill Gibson's office showed up and summoned Byron outside. They formally placed him under arrest and Matt took him to the Cumberland County jail.

Looper was being held under suicide watch in the pink-walled special custody cells in the Cumberland jail. The unusual paint scheme was thought to have a calming effect on troubled prisoners.

Word spread fast that Looper was under arrest, even though his capture happened at 1 a.m. Later that morning, Friday, October 23, 1998, less than a week after Burks was shot down on his farm, District Attorney Bill Gibson and representatives of the myriad law enforcement agencies investigating the crime held a press conference announcing their capture of their main suspect.

District Attorney Bill Gibson
District Attorney Bill Gibson

Gibson declined to comment on whether or not Looper was suspected of actually pulling the trigger, or even if a murder weapon had been found.

"We can say, however," Gibson relented. "That he is charged with first-degree murder, and that suggests there was premeditation."

TBI Director Larry Wallace
TBI Director Larry Wallace

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Larry Wallace, who had been personally involved in the investigation since its inception, was a little more open with the media.

"I've been involved in some very major investigations and one like this doesn't happen too often," he said.

"This strikes at the very heart of our system," Wallace went on, referring to the assassination of an elected official. "It makes everyone who has devoted their life to public service have a very serious thought perspective."

Byron Looper
Byron Looper

A week after his arrest, Looper appeared in court for the first time, entering a not guilty plea during his arraignment. Looper's attorneys for the arraignment were Lionel Barrett, a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney described as "an institution around the criminal courts" and Jerry Burgess, a local lawyer who had once faced off against Gibson in the district attorney election.

Barrett, 57, was an ardent death penalty foe: "No circumstances, period, would ever make me favor the death penalty," he said once. Barrett served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers twice and was the first recipient of the association's award for "extraordinary effort" in defending capital murder cases. The award now bears Barrett's name.

After the arraignment, Barrett and Burgess met with reporters who were scrambling for story material.

"I think any person in political life is confident he will win," Barrett said in response to a question about Looper's hopes for election despite Republican pleas that voters not support him. "All politicians are optimistic - Vanderbilt football fans are optimistic - but right now the issue is not the election. The issue is that we have entered a not guilty plea."

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