“Low Tax” Looper found dead in prison
by: MARY JO DENTON, Herald-Citizen
One of Putnam County’s most infamous criminals, Byron Looper, died in his state prison cell in East Tennessee yesterday.
Looper, 48, a native of Putnam County, had been in jail since 1998 when he assassinated State Senator Tommy Burks, against whom he was running for a state senate seat.
He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole after a trial held in Crossville in 2000.
The death was publicly announced by prison officials around mid-day Wednesday after TBI agents had been sent to inform members of the Burks family here in Putnam County.
Exactly what caused Looper’s death is either not known by prison officials or is not being disclosed at this point. His body has been sent for an autopsy, and the TBI is investigating the death.
But numerous sources contacted will say only that he was found “unresponsive” in a prison cell around 11 a.m. at the Morgan County Correctional Facility in Wartburg, where he had been incarcerated since his conviction.
The death of Looper brought back many memories of a very sad time in Putnam County, a time when one of the most beloved leaders who ever served here was brutally murdered by one of the most bizarre politicians ever to hold a public office in this county.
Byron Looper, who called himself Byron “Low Tax” Looper, was elected Putnam tax assessor in 1996 and almost immediately began publicly attacking other county officials, accusing them of all sorts of wrongdoing. He called the other office holders “good ole boys” and accused them of plotting against him. He also constantly bragged on himself publicly, once referring to his “meteoric rise” in local politics.
In 1998, Looper became the Republican nominee set to run against longtime state legislator Tommy Burks, the Democratic nominee. No one expected him to win against the popular state senator, a farmer known for his honesty and dedication to serving the people of the Upper Cumberland.
The campaign moved along quietly until the early morning of October 19, 1998, when someone driving a black car pulled alongside Senator Burks’ pickup on a road at the Burks farm and shot and killed the senator.
The murder sent shock waves and grief throughout this community, and it wasn’t long before Byron Looper became a suspect.
A Burks farm hand had seen the man in the black car and later, after seeing Looper’s photo on television, went to a Putnam Sheriff’s detective and reported that Looper was the man in the black car.
But the army of investigators on the case could not locate Looper for questioning. He had dropped out of sight and did not return to Cookeville until four days later. With evidence they had gathered in that time, law officers arrested him. He was 34 years old.
What followed was two years of legal proceedings, the most dramatic being the preliminary hearing in which then-DA Bill Gibson presented a bombshell witness, Joe Bond, a childhood friend of Looper’s.
Bond testified that after the murder, Looper had come to his Arkansas home and told him he had shot and killed his opponent in the election.
The prosecution argued that Looper killed Burks in an attempt to win election to the State Senate. State law said that the name of a candidate who died within 30 days of the election must be removed from the ballot, and that left Looper’s the only name on the ballot.
But an outraged public, including Republicans, swamped Burks’ widow, Charlotte Burks, with requests for her to run a write-in campaign for the Senate seat. She agreed, but did not campaign.
However, large numbers of Upper Cumberland citizens campaigned for her, and she won in a landslide. She still holds the Senate seat today.
Two years later, Looper was tried for the murder and convicted and sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole.