Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee


On a crisp, foggy Monday morning in October, about a month before the 1998 election, Tennessee State Senator Tommy Burks was more concerned about the work to be done on his Putnam County farm than about the upcoming vote. Burks was highly regarded by his constituents and was almost assured of reelection. His only opponent in the race, Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron Low Tax Looper, had been so low-key during the election season that most folks in Burks' district thought he was running unopposed.

Tommy Burks
Tommy Burks

Burks was first elected to the State Assembly in 1971 and moved to the Senate in 1979. A conservative, law-and-order, no-nonsense Democrat, he was a staunch opponent of evolution science, and twice introduced legislation to restrict the teaching of evolution and to protect teachers who taught creationism in their classrooms.

Burks, the father of three and grandfather of seven, had made his reputation as a hard-working, down-to-earth lawmaker whose conservative views -- against abortion, legalized gambling and a state lottery -- were in keeping with the sentiments of the farm families he represented.

Tommy had a laid-back style and sincere devotion to duty. He had not missed a day's work in 28 years in the legislature and once used a tractor to pull his car out of a snow bank to make it to the capitol.

Even with a practically nonexistent opponent, Burks had planned a busy day of meet-and-greet in Putnam, Clay and Macon counties. Among the other things on the politicians schedule, was his daughter's birthday, and Burks was looking forward to her bringing his grandchildren to the farm for a celebration later that day.

Burks had recently confided to a friend that he was concerned about    how far Byron Low Tax Looper might   go to win this election. In previous campaigns, Looper had courted controversy, throwing around allegations of insidious political cabals. It seemed Looper saw conspiracy everywhere he looked.

Byron Looper
Byron Looper

"This Looper boy is absolutely crazy," Tommy once told his friend, attorney David Brady. "I believe he's capable of doing anything."

A light rain was falling when Tommy drove away from his two-story brick house and turned down Hog House Road to speak to farmhand Wesley Rex. Wesley wasn't the brightest hand on the Burks farm, but he was strong, loyal and hardworking. He considered Tommy a fatherfigure and would do anything for him. Wes was on his way down Hog House Road to a pumpkin field where a wagon had broken down.   It was important for 19-year-old Wesley to get the wagon fixed because on this Monday a group of elementary school children would be coming on their annual pumpkin patch field trip.

Tommy Burks and Wesley Rex sat in their respective trucks and chatted about the chores for the day. They stopped talking briefly as an older dark-colored car began to approach. It was unusual that anyone not associated with the Burks farm would be on the road because the only buildings on the road were Burks' property; his hog operation sat at one end of the road and the other end intersected with another gravel road that led to his daughter's home.

"Who is that?" Burks asked Rex about the man in dark glasses and black gloves.

"I dunno, Tommy." Rex said. "That's the second time I seen that car on the road today, though."

Burks gave a non-committal grunt and said goodbye to Wesley, who headed off to the pumpkin patch.

Wesley Rex was approaching the pumpkin field when he heard a "pop" sound, much like the backfiring of an engine. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw the dark car approaching at high speed. Dust flew up behind the car in billowing clouds and Rex could hear the sound of gravel bouncing around under the wheel wells. He averted his eyes as the car zoomed past, trying to keep the dust out of his face, but not before getting a look at the man behind the wheel. Wesley did not think he had ever seen the man before.

He briefly considered the car, but quickly put it out of his mind as he set about fixing the wagon. Wes searched through his toolbox for his socket set, but realized he had left it back at the machine shop down the road. As he headed to pick it up, he passed Tommy's truck but noticed Tommy had his head down. The truck was idling and Tommy still had his foot on the brake. Retrieving his wrenches, Wes started back toward the wagon and saw Tommy was still sitting with his head down. As he drove past, Wes thought something looked odd and stopped his truck.

Charlotte Burks was on her way to Cookeville when she saw Wes Rex driving like a bat out of hell toward her. She swerved to the side of the road as Rex slammed on the brakes and his truck slid on the gravel road. Before she had a chance to take the car out of Drive and open the door, Wesley was upon her.

"Miss Charlotte, something's wrong with Tommy," Wes was saying, breathlessly. "He's hurt awful bad."

Charlotte followed Wesley Rex to where Tommy sat in the truck.

"He's bleeding from his ears," Wesley was saying as they hurried forward.

"Go get help!" Charlotte shouted at the teenager. "Call 911."

Wesley headed off toward Kim Burks Blaylock's home and the nearest phone.

Charlotte approached the truck.

Tommy Burks sat in his Ford pickup, his head resting on the steering wheel. There was blood everywhere in the cab and a cursory examination by Charlotte revealed that Tommy wasn't just bleeding from his ears. He was bleeding from a large gunshot wound to his forehead, just above his left eye. The back of his head was swollen.  State Sen. Tommy Burks, popular politician and well-to-do hog farmer, was dead.

Monterey Police Chief Bruce Breedlove was the first on    the scene, arriving before the ambulance. When he approached the truck , he knew before he looked at Burks that Tommy was dead. Charlotte Burks was leaning into the cab, cradling her husband and crying. Other family members and farmhands stood nearby, also in tears.

When Putnam County investigators arrived on the scene, they realized that they would not have jurisdiction in this case. The Burks' spread straddled two counties, Putnam and Cumberland. Tommy had died just over the county line in Cumberland County. They called in Sheriff Butch Burgess and the Cumberland County authorities.

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