We've been talking around this country about Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the six victims who lost their lives at a meet-and-greet at a Safeway in Tucson.
I was reminded by a friend of mine that we have seen this sort of thing here in Tennessee, although it was a different time, and the murderer had a different motive. It wasn't a shooting spree in a grocery store parking lot, but it was still a very odd and sad moment in Tennessee political history.
In 1998, Democratic state senator Tommy Burks was shot on his farm in Monterey, Tennessee, by opponent Byron "Low Tax" Looper, who was working as the Putnam County tax assessor at the time, in one of the most bizarre murders that this state has ever seen.
Looper had been indicted on a variety of charges for official misconduct in the months before the murder but was still seeking the Senate seat and went as far as to change his middle name officially to Low Tax. At the time, he was a mild blip on the radar for newsies like myself, who basically saw him as a self-promoting clown and ringmaster of the politically bizarre.
Little did we know that he wanted to win so badly that he thought the only way he would see the inside of the Senate chambers was to get rid of Burks, which was his plan: kill Burks, become a senator, and rule the land, I guess. The strategy that Looper basically had, or at least that was discussed in court, was that if Burks was dead, then Looper could win as he would be the only person on the ballot.
Burks was working on his farm, preparing for a group of students to visit the family's pumpkin patch that day. Business as usual, as the saying goes.
Although I don't know the actual juxtaposition of events, we do know that ultimately Looper shot Burks in the face. His body was found behind the wheel of his pick-up truck, his head resting against the steering wheel. Authorities say he died instantly.
Looper went to a friend of his named Joe Bonds, who was a Marine recruiter, in the hours after the execution. Bonds ultimately was the star witness during the murder trial and testified that Looper said, "I killed that guy. I busted a cap in his head," according to court records. No one saw Looper for four days after the shooting, and Bonds testified that he came to see him in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It is highly suspicious for a Southern politician not to at least offer sympathy to the family after a tragedy of this nature. It is even more suspicious when they disappear from the planet.
What was so odd about this case is that Looper, after being arrested, continued his campaign from jail. Burks' widow, Charlotte, worked on a write-in campaign with friends and family to fill her husband's seat.
The issue was that Looper could have won the race in the 15th on a technicality that, at the time, a dead man's name cannot appear on the ballot. Charlotte Burks won the race easily, replacing her husband, and was the first candidate ever to win a seat in the Senate in Tennessee on a write-in campaign. Keep in mind that she had to do this campaign quickly, in the wake of her husband's murder. The murder took place on October 19, 1998, and the election was November 3rd, just so you have an idea of the timeline of the events.
Looper's plan for getting elected did not work.
Looper's trial took forever, with a revolving door of defense attorneys representing Looper only to either be relieved of services or quitting their client. Once the case went to trial, it didn't take a jury long to convict Looper of first degree murder without the possibility of parole.
Just a bit of history, reminding us that crazy is everywhere.
Trace Sharp is assistant director of the Mary Parish Center, a transitional center for battered women, in Nashville.