Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
They say politics is a contact sport. Mudslinging, exposes, accusations and character assassinations have all become far too common in today’s political landscape. Politician Byron Looper, however, took negative campaigning to another level during his bid to win the 15th District in the Tennessee State Senate. He murdered his opponent.
Oxygen's new series "Dying to Belong" looks back on Looper's deadly obsession with success and how it ultimately led to his downfall.
Byron Anthony Looper was born in September 1964 in Putnam County, Tennessee, but moved to Georgia as a child. He attended the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point from 1983 to 1985, but left two years later with an honorable discharge after sustaining a knee injury, according to the Los Angeles Times. At just 23 years old, he ran as a Democrat for the Georgia House of Representatives, but lost. He would remain active in the Democratic Party, working on Al Gore’s Presidential campaign, before returning to Tennessee and switching parties.
As a Republican, Looper unsuccessfully ran for the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1994.
“He came here to Cookeville and started immediately running for things,” reporter Mary Jo Denton told the Nashville Scene.
In 1996, Looper had his middle name Anthony legally changed to "(Low Tax)," parentheses included, and ran for the post of Putnam County tax assessor. After accusing his opponent of giving friends “sweetheart tax deals,” he won by a margin of 800 votes, according to the Chicago Tribune. Ironically, despite his attention grabbing name, (Low Tax) Looper actually had little influence over local taxation.
“The tax assessor does not set the tax rate,” said Denton.
Now in office, at long last, Looper began alienating people at a rapid clip.
“He started big public quarrels with almost every other office holder in the county for no reason that anybody could see,” said Denton. In frequent press releases, he railed against the state’s “good ol' boy” network, who he claimed held power, and called himself the "most educated" tax assessor in Tennessee, according to The Washington Post.
For all his bluster, Looper left much to be desired as an elected official.
"The thing of it was, once he won, he never would show up for work," former campaign worker Joel Reimer told the Chicago Tribune.
By March 1998, he was being sued by a former girlfriend who claimed he forced her to have sex, got her pregnant and defrauded her out of title to her house. He had also been indicted on charges of theft and misuse of county property and employees following an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Despite his legal troubles, (Low Tax) Looper’s electoral ambitions showed no sign of relenting. In August 1998, he sought the Republican nominations for both Tennessee's 6th congressional district and the Tennessee State Senate for the 15th District. He came in third in the former race, but he won the state senate nomination by default since no other Republican candidates had chosen to pursue it.
Since 1978, the Tennessee State Senate seat for the 15th District had been held by Fred Thomas "Tommy" Burks. An old school Southern Democrat, Burks was as conservative as they come — he opposed abortion, the lottery and the teaching of evolution in public schools. A farmer in nearby Cookeville, Burks was well-liked by his constituents and fellow lawmakers, and reportedly had never missed a day of work in 28 years of public service.
On the morning of October 19, 1998, Burks was working with farmhand Wesley Rex in preparation for a visit from local school children to pick pumpkins on his hog farm. Rex said he passed Byron Looper’s car on a dirt road and saw it pull up alongside Burks’ pickup truck. Then he heard a loud “pop sound,” and saw Looper speed off down the road. Police found Burks dead from a single gunshot to the forehead sitting behind the steering wheel of his truck.
Around midnight on the 19th, Byron Looper showed up on the doorstep of Marine recruiter Joe Bond, who he had known in high school. According to CBS News, Looper had rekindled their friendship the previous spring, and often sought Bond’s advice and expertise on firearms.
''I killed that dude,'' Looper told his friend, ''I busted a cap in his head.''
Bond would later testify, ''I said 'What dude?' and he said, 'That guy I was running against.''
Four days later, when Looper returned to Cookeville, police were waiting for him. He offered them sodas, and they arrested him and charged him with first-degree murder.
Meanwhile, the election for the Tennessee State Senate’s 15th District continued as scheduled. Tommy’s widow Charlotte Burks was urged to step forward as a write-in candidate. Though she ran as a Democrat, she was endorsed by the state GOP and Tennessee’s then-Republican Governor Don Sundquist. She went on to receive 97 percent of the vote. Charlotte Burks would go on to serve in the State Senate until 2015, when she retired.
It would be almost two years before Byron (Low Tax) Looper finally went on trial in the summer of 2000 for the murder of Tommy Burks. Citing local bias, the defense fought for a change of judge and venue, and Looper changed attorneys eight times, adding to the delay. Justice, however, was waiting patiently in the wings. On August 23, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The Burks family had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty.
On June 26, 2013, Byron Looper was pronounced dead at 11:10 AM, after being found unresponsive in his cell in the medium-security Morgan County Correctional Complex. It was later revealed that two hours before his death, he had assaulted a pregnant staff counselor after being told he was being placed back in the prison's general population. The incident report states Looper hit the counselor in the head, knocking off her glasses, and that guards then restrained Looper "with the least amount of force necessary." An autopsy later determined Looper died following a cardiac event, brought on by high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and toxic levels of the antidepressant nortriptyline. He was 48 years old at the time of his death.
To learn more about the case, watch "Dying to Belong" on Oxygen.