Candidate charged in bizarre slaying of Tenn. legislator Jailed politician's name remains on the ballot; victim's wife a write-in


MONTEREY, Tenn. -- In rural, rugged middle Tennessee, the race for a state Senate seat has been altered by a single bullet, and the surviving candidate in District 15 will watch the outcome from jail.

Tommy Burks, the popular incumbent Democrat who was expected to win easily, is dead and buried. Burks, 58, was shot in the forehead Monday at his 1,000-acre hog farm outside the town of Monterey, not far from his pumpkin patch.

The crime left just one name on the ballot in the Nov. 3 election, that of the Republican challenger, Byron (Low Tax) Looper, who was arrested yesterday morning and charged with Burks' murder.

Because state law does not allow a dead person to appear on the ballot, but does allow to a person charged but not convicted of a felony to appear on it, only Looper's name will confront citizens when they enter the voting booths.

"It's hard to believe," said Putnam County Executive Doug McBroom, a Democrat who, like others in his party and an embarrassed Republican Party, said they would support the write-in candidacy of Charlotte Burks, the incumbent's widow.

"This is supposed to be a system of the people, for the people," McBroom said. "Something this bad, it strikes at the heart of that system."

Looper, 34, who had his middle name legally changed from Anthony to Low Tax to reflect his political philosophy, was in the Cumberland County Jail yesterday, awaiting an arraignment, as people wondered whether simple politics was enough to motivate a murder.

"We feel real comfortable we've got the right person," said Cumberland County Sheriff Butch Burgess, although he and other investigators would not say what evidence they had linking Looper to the crime, or what motive -- beyond political gain -- he might have had.

In fact, no one has an explanation, but people here said that Looper's political career, though still new, had seemed self-destructive from the start.

Looper, the controversial Putnam County tax assessor, is under indictment on charges of theft and misuse of office and is the defendant in a paternity suit. He was arrested about 1: 15 a.m. yesterday by a deputy sheriff who had been assigned to stake out his home in Cookeville.

Looper had last been seen Sunday night, the night before Burks' body was found in the cab of his pickup truck, a small bullet hole in his forehead. As late as Thursday night, investigators had refused to call Looper a suspect, saying they only wanted him for questioning.

But around this part of the upper Cumberland, where Burks made many friends and allies during three decades in politics, people soon became suspicious.

A dark blue car like the Chevrolet that Looper drives was seen at the farm that morning, as Burks prepared his farm for a field trip by a local elementary school. The children were coming to see the pumpkins.

It was Looper's absence, more than anything, that made people suspicious. Four days passed without a word from him. If he had nothing to do with the crime, then why was he in hiding, people here said they wondered.

"It doesn't look good," said Monterey Mayor Jack Phillips.

Phillips wondered why Looper never called the Burks family to offer sympathy. It was, people here said, bad manners at the very least. Looper's lawyer, Lionel Barrett of Nashville, was apparently the only person who spoke with him during his absence.

fTC Meanwhile, Democrats -- and some Republicans who said they disapproved of Looper's behavior in office -- drafted Mrs. Burks to run.

"Write-in campaigns are hard," said Phillips, "but I think she can win." Phillips has donated his mayoral salary, all $500 of it for this year, he said with a smile, to Mrs. Burks' campaign.

All over Putnam County, people wave placards at the roadside to support the write-in campaign.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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