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Tennessee Lawmaker Killed; Election Opponent Arrested

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Days after a much-loved Tennessee state senator was found shot to death on his hog farm, his opponent in the upcoming election was arrested Friday and charged with first-degree murder.

Byron (Low Tax) Looper, a 34-year-old Republican known throughout the state for his run-ins with the law and his erratic behavior, hadn’t been seen since Oct. 18, one day before Sen. Tommy Burks, 58, was found dead in his pickup truck, shot once above the left eye.

Looper, who had legally changed his middle name to (Low Tax), parentheses included, was the property tax assessor for Putnam County. But he also was running for the state Senate against Burks, a Democrat and 20-year incumbent.

Because of Looper’s reputation and Burks’ popularity, “most people considered [Burks] a shoo-in for reelection,” said Jim Burnett, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “Mr. Looper had no support within the Republican Party and is a different sort of fellow.”

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Police had said almost from the start that the shooting seemed planned and that they were eager to question Looper. But in calling for him to come forward, they wouldn’t say what evidence they had gathered or say if they had located witnesses or a murder weapon.

Friday, after Looper’s arrest, officials still were saying nothing about their case. Butch Burgess, sheriff of Cumberland County, where Burks’ hog farm was located, would say only: “We feel real comfortable that we’ve got the right person.”

At the time of the shooting, Burks was driving out to his pumpkin patch, where some schoolchildren were scheduled to visit later that day. It was just the sort of activity that made the senator--a noted advocate for victims’ rights, public television and anti-drug programs--so beloved.

“My grandson was in the preschool class that was going up there that morning to see the pumpkin patch,” said Lowell Smith, owner of a local John Deere dealership and a close friend of Burks since high school. “He loved children. . . . I’ve never seen a more devoted family man.”

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When the shock wears off, “people around here are going to be real angry to lose a man of his stature,” said Tim Weaver, manager of a restaurant where Burks had occasionally eaten. “I’ve never heard a bad word about him.”

The same could not be said of Looper.

Last March, he was indicted on 14 counts of theft and misuse of office, including the charge that he had approached a local developer and offered to trade a favorable tax assessment for a campaign contribution. He faces a trial in December.

In June, he was slapped with a $1.2-million civil suit from a woman who claimed that Looper had forced himself on her, impregnated her, then illegally transferred ownership of her house to his name.

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The woman and her lawyer were unavailable for comment, as was Looper’s lawyer, who said in a press release that Looper was planning to make a public statement about his opponent’s death but now will say nothing.

“In view of the widespread local and national media attention that this case has generated,” said the statement from Lionel R. Barrett, “it is felt that further comments should be very limited, both by Mr. Looper and his attorneys.”

Looper earned himself enemies almost from the moment he was elected tax assessor by a semi-landslide in 1996. Upon taking office, he disappeared for several weeks, inexplicably turning up in Puerto Rico.

Next, he fired roughly 40 employees of the assessor’s office, claiming they were “spies,” according to one.

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“Basically, he seems to have had a paranoid nature,” said Joel Reimer, the former deputy assessor who was among those Looper fired.

When Looper returned to Tennessee from Puerto Rico, Reimer was among the first to question him about his whereabouts.

“He became uneasy,” Reimer recalled. “He thought his office was being bugged.”

At Looper’s insistence, Reimer said, the two men went into the hall to talk, but there Looper thought an old man in the midst of a coughing fit was spying on him.

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When the two men then went back inside the office, Looper thought he saw hidden cameras in the ceiling, Reimer said.

Later, Looper hired a security consultant to scour the building for hidden microphones and cameras.

Local newspapers reported that Looper was born in Tennessee but moved to Georgia when very young. He is said to be related, according to officials with the Georgia Democratic Party, to Max Looper, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and former Georgia state legislator who once sponsored a bill to castrate all convicted rapists.

Byron Looper attended West Point for two years, from 1983 to 1985, and received an honorable discharge after sustaining a knee injury.

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He ran for state office in Georgia when he was 23, and lost. But he kept his hand in state politics, working at aide-level jobs through the 1980s, according to the Georgia Democratic Party.

Around 1990, he returned to Tennessee, where he continued his quest for elective office--and continued his losing ways--until finally he broke through in the 1996 assessor’s race, scoring 6,401 votes, Reimer said.

Despite Looper’s well-documented behavior, which Reimer and others reported to the district attorney, some people resisted the notion that Looper was not in his right mind.

“One thing I’ve always said to people is, ‘Don’t call this guy crazy,’ ” said Reimer. “I personally don’t think he is crazy. I think he’s a great schemer. I think a great deal of his life is spent conniving.”

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Publicly, Looper was cavalier about his plummeting reputation and his mounting legal troubles. “He didn’t seem terribly concerned” about the indictment, Reimer said. And about the civil suit, which Looper claimed was the dirty work of a bitter ex-girlfriend, he seemed even more blase.

“She left me with heart palpitations, a small box of memorabilia and a red G-string,” he told the Nashville Tennesseean newspaper. “Now I know what comedian Jeff Foxworthy meant when he said sometimes relationships can be like buying a Boeing 747 for the peanuts.”

Looper apparently showed the same strange calm when police came to his house at 1:15 a.m. and put him under arrest. According to the police reports, while waiting for his lawyer to arrive, Looper sat quietly on his sofa, sorting through mail and newspapers.

He even offered the arresting officers sodas.

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Asked how Looper was elected by a wide margin, Reimer said he ran at a time when voters were irate about their property taxes and angry with the incumbent.

But Cookeville, where Looper lived, has the lowest tax rate in the state.

Then again, Reimer said, Looper is capable of being very charismatic.

“When he wants to turn on the charm, when he wants to sound and act normal, the guy’s very persuasive,” Reimer said. “Let me tell you, he fooled a lot of people. He fooled 6,401 people.”

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Now, what strikes fear in the hearts of Tennessee politicos is that Looper may fool people again. It’s too late to drop him from the ballot, but by state law, Burks’ name won’t appear.

“We sincerely hope,” said Burnett, the state’s Republican chairman, “that voters of that particular Senate district will reject his candidacy. Pulling off a write-in campaign is a very large task, and Mr. Looper will be the only candidate on the ballot. Those seeking to defeat him will have to make a very hard effort.”

Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.


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