Byron Looper Remembered As Political Assassin
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Despite his efforts to convince the world differently, Byron Looper will be remembered as Tennessee's most notorious political assassin.
Looper was found dead Wednesday morning inside an East Tennessee prison cell -- and now the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been called in to investigate.
It happened inside the Morgan County Correctional Complex near Wartburg.
Looper was a quirky figure in Putnam County politics. To get elected to office, he legally changed his middle name to Byron "Low Tax" Looper. In the end, a jury concluded he stooped to the 1998 murder of state Sen. Tommy Burks -- part of an evil effort to win an election.
It was, pure and simple, a case of political assassination.
Popular Democratic Senator Tommy Burks was found shot to death inside his pickup truck, near his Cumberland County farm, less than a month before the election.
A jury convicted Looper of the murder, yet he continued to insist that he was innocent.
"Did you kill Senator Burks?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Looper during a 2001 prison interview.
"No, and I pled not guilty because I am not guilty," he calmly replied.
While investigators were never able to link the murder weapon to Looper, a farm hand identified him as the killer.
And a longtime friend told of an incredibly damaging confession.
"He said, I popped a cap in that dude," the friend testified.
Even in his last interview, Looper refused to express any emotion over the senator's death.
"Phil, my attorney has advised me not to get into those kinds of issues," he said.
"So you can't say how you felt about his death?"
Looper just stared, refusing to say anything.
For years, Looper's home had been the notorious Brushy Mountain State Prison in Morgan County.
When it closed, he was moved to the nearby Morgan County Correctional Complex.
There, Looper may have been subjected to a forcible cell extraction like this, according to what the local DA told a Knoxville newspaper.
Prison officials say Looper was found unresponsive inside his cell about 10 a.m. -- bringing his life sentence to an end he probably did not anticipate.
"Do you think you will every walk out of prison?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates had asked.
"Yes, I believe that I will, Phil," he said, adding: "But the system is like a spider web. Once you get into the system, you can't get out."
Prison officials are not confirming that Looper had been subjected to one of those violent cell extractions.
But we are told that the TBI's Violent Crimes Response Team has been sent to the prison to gather evidence.
While that is certainly not the norm for a prison death, there's nothing normal about this case.
Burks' widow, Charlotte Burks, was elected to the seat by write-in vote and has since been re-elected.