Tag Archive for politics

Death and (Low) Taxes

On an overcast Tennessee morning about a month before the 1998 election, State Senator Tommy Burks was more concerned about the work to be done on his Putnam County farm than about the upcoming vote. There was no reason for him to feel otherwise.
 
A conservative Southern Democrat, Burks was highly regarded by his constituents and was almost assured of reelection. His Republican opponent in the race, Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron “Low Tax” Looper, had been so quiet during the election season that most folks in Burks’ district thought he was running unopposed.
 
Looper had a history of bizarre behavior. His reputation was such that Burks presciently expressed concerns to a friend about what Looper might do during the campaign.
 
Although he adopted the moniker “Low Tax” as an election gimmick, he eventually legally changed his name to include it. Looper believed because he was the only Republican in office in Putnam County, he was the victim of an ongoing political plot to ruin him. Worse than his paranoia was his ambition. He was frequently levying outrageous charges against perceived opponents or praising himself in lengthy press releases that he faxed across the country at county expense. Burks’s state Senate seat was supposed to be the next step in a journey that would end in Washington, D.C.
 
An alternative newspaper, The Putnam Pit, supported Looper and advanced his conspiracy theories. The paper remains convinced that Looper was set up by a Cumberland County political cabal.
 
His election to county office was more luck than anything Looper himself did. The Democrats had such a stranglehold on the seat that the GOP establishment did not even put up a candidate. Looper added his name to the ballot as a Republican without any knowledge of the party. However, the long-serving assessor was accused of malfeasance in office and was under a cloud of suspicion. Voters — but not as many as one might expect — simply chose the only other name on the ballot.
 
Low Tax was both corrupt and inept, although the ineptitude was far more troubling than over-staffing the office with political cronies and his own lackadaisical approach to showing up for work (He was enrolled in law school across the border in Georgia and would be absent from work for days at a time). Assessments were not recorded if they were made at all, tax records were not updated and Putnam County missed the state deadline to distribute tax bills, prompting the state to step in. Once an audit was completed the state took control over the office. Looper was left to manage his press releases and dream up new conspiracies.
 
Undeterred, Looper put his own name on the ballot to challenge Tommy Burks. The party considered the race such a lost cause that it provided no support. Looper did not want or need their help. He had a plan.

Murder

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 politician’s schedule, it was his daughter’s birthday and Burks was looking forward seeing his grandchildren for a celebration later that day.
 
A light rain was falling when Burks drove away from his two-story brick house and turned down Hog House Road to speak to farmhand Wesley Rex. Wes was on his way to a pumpkin field where a wagon had broken down. It was important for him to get the wagon fixed because on this day a group of elementary school children were coming on their annual pumpkin patch field trip.
Tenn. State Sen. Tommy Burks
 
They sat in their respective trucks and chatted about the chores for the day but stopped talking briefly as an older dark-colored car started down the road. After speaking for a minute, the two men went their separate ways. The strange car probably belonged to a constituent, they must have thought.
 
Wesley Rex was approaching the pumpkin field when he heard a “pop” sound, much like the backfiring of an engine. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the dark car approaching at high speed. 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. As he headed back to pick up a forgotten tool, he passed Burks’s truck and noticed Burks had his head down. The truck was idling and Burks still had his foot on the brake. Wes had no reason to think anything was wrong at that point. Retrieving his wrenches, Wes started back toward the wagon and saw Burks was still sitting with his foot on the brake. This time, Wes thought something looked odd and stopped his truck. Burks’s head had dropped lower and his forehead was resting on the steering wheel.
 
Charlotte Burks was on her way to Cookeville when she saw Wes Rex driving toward her. She swerved to the side of the road as Rex slammed on the brakes and his truck slid on the gravel road.
 
“Miss Charlotte, something’s wrong with Mr. Burks,” Wes was saying, breathlessly. “He’s hurt awful bad. He’s bleeding from his ears.”
 
“Go get help!” Charlotte shouted at the teenager. “Call 911.”
 
Tommy Burks sat in his Ford pickup, his head resting on the steering wheel. There was blood everywhere in the cab and a glance by Charlotte revealed that Burks wasn’t just bleeding from his ears. Blood was flowing 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.

Looking for Looper


When Putnam County investigators arrived on the scene, they realized that they would not have jurisdiction in this case. Burks’s spread straddled two counties, and Burks had died just over the county line. They called in Sheriff Butch Burgess, District Attorney General Billy Gibson and the Cumberland County authorities.
 
Burks’s body was taken to the morgue where the medical examiner reported the senator had died from the single gunshot wound to his head. Death was almost instantaneous, the coroner told police.
 
The murder of a political candidate and long-time elected official prompted media inquiries from around the nation, and put Gibson and Butch Burgess in the center of a media storm. The word around town was that Looper had a hand in the crime, so reporters grilled them on the Putnam County Assessor’s status. The authorities would not commit.
 
“We have reached a point in the investigation where it is necessary to talk to Mr. Looper,” said one Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent cautiously.
 
What authorities weren’t saying was that Wesley Rex had positively identified Looper as the sole occupant of the dark-colored car he had seen on Hog House Road on the morning Burks was slain.
 
Wesley Rex’s ID only served to strengthen investigators’ suspicions. Looper was the only person authorities could find who had any plausible motive for shooting Burks. Rex’s positive identification put Looper at the top of a very short list of suspects and police made interviewing Looper their top priority.
 
But Looper was gone. His home on 4th Street in Cookeville was vacant and his car was missing. The media, both local and national, reported that a manhunt was on for the opponent of the deceased state senator from Tennessee.
 
Perhaps the most wanted man in America, Looper took a long road trip. Heading first to Little Rock, he bragged to an unbelieving former school-mate that he had killed his opponent and obliquely asked him to provide an alibi. The man, Joe Bond, testified that the word of “Loopifer,” as he was known in school, could not be trusted, so he discounted Looper’s claim. After borrowing a suitcase, Looper was on the road again before Bond saw the news and contacted police.
 
The fugitive headed across the Smokey Mountains to South Carolina, where he briefly talked to a former colleague in the Georgia House of Representatives where Looper served as a page (not as a legislative aide as he claimed on his resume). When she told him he was a wanted man, he seemed unperturbed, she said. Then he left, refusing to tell her his plans.
 
Putnam County authorities had Looper’s home under surveillance, never thinking that the assessor would simply return home and walk into their grasp. But that’s what Looper did. Acting like a man who had no reason to believe he was wanted for questioning in connection with a murder, Looper returned to his house at about 1 a.m. Friday morning, almost five days after Tommy Burks’s death.
 
Officer Michael Matt of the Cookeville police was sitting in a prowl car near Looper’s home when he saw Looper drive up in a dark Chevrolet. He radioed the news in as Looper went inside and disappeared from view for a few moments. He returned to the living room, where Matt observed him sitting in a chair reading his mail. In a few moments, TBI agents and investigators from Bill Gibson’s office showed up and summoned Looper outside. They placed him under arrest and took him to the Cumberland County jail.

Election

While Looper sat in jail, his political opponents and friends of Tommy Burks moved fast to have him removed from the ballot and his office as tax assessor. They quickly filed an ouster suit naming several Putnam County landowners as plaintiffs, charging that Looper’s mere arrest constituted moral ineptitude, one of several factors required for removal.
 
Charlotte Burks also took action to prevent Looper from winning her husband’s place in the General Assembly. She mounted an aggressive write-in campaign for the Senate seat, and picked up nearly every supporter who had previously endorsed her husband. Normally apathetic citizens took part in the campaign, working door-to-door to educate voters about Charlotte’s campaign. Stickers were printed to be affixed to ballots, handbills announcing the change were passed out and political ads were run in the local media.
 
Even the state GOP took the extraordinary step of endorsing Charlotte Burks.
 
Looper spent the day of the election in the Cumberland County jail and was handily defeated by Charlotte. Ironically, one the votes his alleged act cost him was his own: Looper had not voted early, and had not made arrangements for any absentee voting. In keeping with standard jail policy, inmates were not taken to the polls. Charlotte outpolled Looper 25 to 1.

Courtroom Antics

A week after his arrest, Looper appeared in court for the first time, entering a not guilty plea during his arraignment. Looper’s attorneys for the arraignment were Lionel Barrett, a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney described as “an institution around the criminal courts” and Jerry Burgess, a local lawyer who had once faced off against Gibson in the district attorney election.
 
Barrett was an ardent death penalty foe: “No circumstances, period, would ever make me favor the death penalty,” he said once. Barrett served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers twice and was the first recipient of the association’s award for “extraordinary effort” in defending capital murder cases. The award now bears his name.
 
It is probably appropriate to point out that Barrett’s management of a Tennessee death row inmate’s was heavily criticized by the American Bar Association in a 2011 Journal article. The piece alleged Barrett’s lack of attention to the case as the major reason the convict could be executed. In the article Barrett agreed to the allegations made by the Journal and blamed his crumbling finances as being a distraction.
 
A packed courtroom in Crossville was the scene of Looper’s preliminary hearing. Security was tight in the courthouse, and observers had to pass through several metal detectors and searches before they could enter the courtroom.
 
Looper was brought to the courthouse in handcuffs and leg chains, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. He changed into a suit before the hearing and was not handcuffed or shackled in court. He looked a little haggard, and it was clear he hadn’t been able to keep up his deportment. His face was drawn and pale, and there were noticeable dark patches under his eyes.
 
First up was the Coroner, Dr. Sullivan Smith, who described how Tommy Burks had been shot in the head with a 9mm weapon. Smith testified that Burks had been shot from close range by a gunman who fired from an upward angle. The bullet was recovered from Burks’s body and was in good shape for analysis.
 
Following Smith, Putnam County Election Chairman Perry Bartlett gave testimony that pointed toward the motive. Since Burks’ death on October 19 fell within 30 days of the November 3 election, state law required that his name be removed from the ballot.
 
“It’s such an obscure law that we didn’t know it existed before this occurrence,” he testified.
 
Gibson chose not to put farm hand Wesley Rex on the stand because his background as a special education student could have provided Barrett with grounds to challenge his competency. But Bill Gibson didn’t need Wes to take the stand because he had what was considered “a powerful and explosive witness”: Joe Bond, the friend of Looper’s whom he visited immediately after the shooting and to whom Looper allegedly confessed.
 
Looper’s sole emotional demonstration occurred when Gibson called Bond to the stand. He appeared visibly surprised when Bond appeared in the courtroom and consulted quickly with his attorneys. Bond was the prosecution’s final witness in the nearly three-hour hearing, but his testimony was by far the most damaging.
 
“He said ‘I did it, man. I did it,'” Bond testified under questioning by Gibson. “He said: ‘I killed that dude.'”
 
Bond confirmed the suspected motive when he testified that Looper had told him about the statute during his confession.
 
The judge didn’t have to deliberate long to determine that probable cause existed to charge Looper with first degree murder. After Looper was returned to the jail, Barrett tried to downplay the effect Joe Bond had on his case. Burgess, however, was a little more reticent.
 
“The state has produced a very powerful and explosive witness,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
 
While prosecutors took advantage of the holiday break to prepare their cases, Looper, in a move that he was to repeat several times during the next several years, fired his legal staff. Looper’s new defense attorney, Doug Trant was present when Looper appeared in court on February 5, 1999 to enter a plea.
 
The Honorable J. Steve Daniel of Murfreesburo, a 15-year veteran of the Tennessee bench, was named to oversee the case. Daniel had an impressive resume: He was former president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and the Tennessee Trial Judges Association. He spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, serving as the Reserve Military Judge for Kentucky and Tennessee and holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Daniel had been awarded the Outstanding Service Award by the Tennessee Judicial Conference in 1995.

Evidence and Allegations

Prosecutors got a break in the Looper case in early March when a road crew found a 9mm handgun along Interstate 40. Ballistic tests showed that the weapon was the gun that killed Tommy Burks. The pistol was in poor shape, but its serial number was readable and was quickly traced back to a close Looper friend – former Monterey Mayor and Assessor’s office employee John Bowden. Bowden acknowledged that he had once owned the gun, but said he had sold it in 1997 or 1998 to a flea market gun dealer. Bowden and Looper had been political cronies, and when Bowden was defeated in a December 1997 election, Looper hired him as a “tax investigator”.
 
A central part of Looper’s defense was his insistence that he was framed as part of a wide-reaching political plot, and as proof of that plot he offered the testimony of John Wayne Dedmon, 33, who had rented a room from Looper and worked off criminal charges of his own by serving as a police informant.
 
In 1997, Dedmon, facing charges of passing bad checks, began working for Gibson. He infilted a local gambling ring that was using pinball machines for gaming. However, Dedmon became angry when Gibson confiscated his earnings from the undercover work to cover his fines and restitution. He claimed that he secretly recorded the prosecutor asking the informant to “set him up,” meaning Looper. Gibson denied that any such conversation ever took place and some people who heard the tape said the voice was clearly not his.
 
Trant said that he intended to introduce the tape into evidence in Looper’s murder trial and a hearing was set by Daniel. But Dedmon vanished and the $42,000 Corvette he had purchased — with a worthless check –turned up abandoned.
 
“I am afraid that something bad has happened to my friend John,” Looper told a Nashville newspaper. “It could be that he has met with foul play.”
 
Something bad did happen to Dedmon, but it was of his own making. Dedmon, an admitted drug abuser, showed up at his mother’s home about a week later and in a fit of rage destroyed the windows of a parked car. A few hours later he was involuntarily committed to a Chattanooga psychiatric hospital.
 
Dedmon later appeared before Daniels and said he could not recall anything before the last few weeks. “I’ve been on drugs real bad,” he said as his role in the case ended.
 
Gibson allowed the deadline for seeking the death penalty to pass without posting a notice of intent. The Burks family had a strong say in Gibson’s decision, and said they felt life in prison in general population would be worse punishment than a solitary cell on death row.

Lawyers Go, Lawyers Come

At the next court hearing in July, 1999, approximately one month before the case was set to go to trial, Trant, a 20-year trial lawyer and former head of the Knox County Democratic Committee, told the court he could no longer represent Looper. He previously filed a motion citing irreconcilable differences with his client and made vague references to ethical concerns.
 
“I regret that I have to make this motion, but it has come to the point where I can no longer ethically represent Mr. Looper,” Trant told Daniel. Trant said defending the case in the manner Looper wanted would result in a violation of Tennessee Code of Professional Conduct which deals with representing a client within the bounds of the law.
 
Daniel granted Trant’s request, ordering him to file under court seal the exact nature of his ethical dilemma. Daniel agreed to a court-appointed attorney for Looper. Crossville attorney Larry Warner was appointed to act as defense counsel in the case. Through no fault of his own, Warner’s fate would be the same as all Looper’s previous lawyers.
 
The prosecution announced in court filings that TBI agents had found the Audi that Looper allegedly drove when he assassinated Burks. After the shooting Looper left the car at a repair shop, and then advised the shop to sell it and keep the proceeds. It was confiscated from the subsequent owner and turned over to the TBI.
 
Here and there, little bits of evidence turned up. A cashier at the drive-up window at Hardee’s in Crossville said a man matching Looper’s description caused a small scene shortly before the slaying; his order was incorrect and he sat at the drive-thru waiting for it to be corrected, the woman testified. When the order was complete, Looper “threw the money at the window,” she said.
 
Looper summoned the editor of the Crossville Chronicle and complained that he was not being represented fairly. Looper said he distrusted his court-appointed lawyers and that the case was not progressing as he wanted. Looper was reluctant to talk about specifics of his case, except to say that his family had found two other attorneys that he would like to see take it on.
 
McCraken “Ken” Poston, a skilled defense attorney who served in the Georgia legislature and had known Looper from his days as an aide, wanted in on the case. Looper said his mother had taken out a second mortgage on her home to pay his fee. The second lawyer, Ron Cordova, was a former Orange County, California prosecutor who had been following the case out of personal interest and said if Poston was going to serve as counsel, he would donate his services for free.
 
With extreme reluctance, Daniel allowed the men to take over the case, noting that their trial experience meant he was going to adhere to the set timeline and would grant no more continuances.

Trial

Five hundred people were summoned for jury duty and two hundred showed up at the Sullivan County Courthouse to be selected for jury duty in mid-August, twenty-two months after Tommy Burks was gunned down on his hog farm. About 100 miles or so from Crossville, Sullivan County was chosen for the jury pool because it was hoped that the distance from the scene of the crime would mitigate any sensational news coverage.
 
When jury selection was completed on Saturday afternoon, Daniel dismissed the jury, admonishing them not to talk with anyone about the specifics of the case, and ordering them to report for transportation to Crossville the next afternoon.
 
“Pack enough clothes for two weeks,” he told them.
 
Before a crowded courtroom which held members of the Burks and Looper families, as well as District Attorney Bill Gibson’s mother, the prosecutor stood before the 16-member panel and opened the state’s case against Byron Looper. The state would show, Gibson said, that Looper wanted power and that he would do anything – including murder — to achieve it.
 
“Looper is a man obsessed with a burning desire for power,” Gibson began. “He knew he didn’t have a chance in the fair election to defeat Tommy Burks, and that caused him to formulate a plan to resolve this election with a bullet instead of a ballot.”
 
He told them they would hear from a Hardee’s restaurant employee who could testify that Looper was the angry customer in her restaurant a half-hour before the shooting. Wesley Rex would testify how he saw Looper at the scene of the crime when Burks was shot, and Joe Bond would tell them how Looper had confessed.
 
Other witnesses would testify to Looper’s predilection for violence as an electoral strategy. Those witnesses included a political consultant from Louisiana who answered an ad in Campaigns & Elections magazine placed by Looper. The consultant turned down the job after Looper said the cost of winning his race was only 35 cents — the price of a bullet, Looper clarified.
 
Ken Poston opened for the defense and was severely limited in his options to refute the state’s circumstantial case. Poston had no plausible defense to present, so he painted Looper as the victim of conspiratorial political enemies. Looper was a zealot, Poston admitted. He did like to attack the system and he held a take-no-prisoners approach. But Looper was no murderer, he said.
 
“He was the first Republican elected in Putnam County, at least in recent memory, and he made quite a name for himself, but not a good name,” said Poston. “He had a bombastic campaign style, a way of offending anyone that was status quo, and he did it repeatedly.”
 
Why Tommy Burks would be sacrificed by the cabal when any victim would suffice was never brought up.
 
Opening statements took most of the morning, and after a short break, Gibson began laying out the state’s case in more detail.
 
Wheeling in a television set and VCR, Gibson warned the court that what he was about to show might be disturbing to some, but he was not showing the tape for shock value. In a silent courtroom, he pushed the play button on the VCR and took the jury back to October 19, 1998. In sometimes erratic, amateurish quality, the tape showed Burks slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck, the interior of which was covered with blood. The tape had no sound, which added to its eerie quality. Burks’s corpse could plainly be seen, his foot still on the brake, his face mottled with blood and gunshot residue.
 
The state presented 34 witnesses during its phase of the trial, everyone from the Hardee’s manager to employees of Looper’s office, in an effort to link Looper to the crime.
 
No witness was more damaging to Looper’s fate than Joe Bond. He spent two-and-a-half hours on the stand, but no matter how hard Poston and Cordova tried, they could not crack a hole in the Marine’s story.
 
Gibson and his team took four days to lay out their case, painting a strong circumstantial version of what happened. They were never able to put the gun in Looper’s hands, and never explained how gunshot residue could be found in a car that they said was not driven to the murder scene.
 
First up for the defense was Looper’s ally, John Bowden. The 73-year-old ex-mayor took the stand and Poston used his testimony to try and wedge in that concept of reasonable doubt. On cross-examination Bowden admitted he had lied to the TBI about where he bought the gun. It was a police issue weapon available only to peace officers. One of Bowden’s cop buddies completed the straw purchase. Bowden acknowledged his timeline of events in his sale of the weapon was hazy. Most importantly for the defense, Bowden claimed Looper had never touched the handgun.
 
With the last of the 19 defense witnesses done testifying, Daniel began closing arguments a little more than a week after the trial began. Assistant District Attorneys Tony Craighead and David Patterson laid out the prosecution’s case point by point.
 
“He had a method to win the election,” Craighead told the jurors. By killing Burks, Looper would be the only name on the ballot. He was the only person who stood to gain by Tommy Burks’ murder. Witnesses could place Looper in Monterey on the morning of the slaying, both before and after the event.
 
As if eyewitness identification wasn’t enough, Joe Bond testified that Looper confessed the crime to him, prosecutors argued. Other witnesses told the jury about how Looper had thought about killing an opponent to win a race, as well.
 
McCracken Poston made the defense’s closing statement. They never linked Looper to the murder weapon, he said. The prosecution laid out a fine circumstantial case, but when it came right down to it, they weren’t able to finish it. Poston said the evidence shows that Looper was a victim of a conspiracy, because the loose ends just didn’t come together.
 
There were still a few hours of daylight left when the jury announced it had reached a verdict. They had weighed the evidence and deliberated for a little more than 21/2 hours when Judge Daniel recalled the parties to his courtroom. When the verdict of “Guilty” was announced, Looper stood ramrod straight and showed no emotion. His only demonstration was to look back toward his mother and brother and offer a small, reassuring smile.
 
The jury’s work was not done, because in Tennessee, the panel had to recommend a sentence to Daniel. He had some latitude to deviate, but that was unusual. It took another half-hour, but the jury returned to the courtroom and recommended that Byron Looper spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance for parole. Had they chosen the parole option, Looper would have been eligible for parole when he was 87 years old.
 
Again, Looper showed no emotion as the decision was announced.
 
In 2013, Byron Looper was found dead in his prison cell from an apparent heart attack. Although he had been placed in restraints earlier for assaulting a pregnant civilian prison employee, he was not restrained at the time of his death. The subsequent investigation concluded his death was from natural causes. He was 48 years old.

The Mayor Pays His Debt

Samuel McCue

The citizens of Charlottesville harbored a love-hate relationship with their former mayor and municipal court judge J. Samuel McCue. While Sam did have friends and admirers, for the most part local feelings tended toward an intense and passionate dislike.
 
In 1904, Samuel McCue, 45, was a ruthlessly successful attorney in Virginia specializing in debt collection and domestic relations cases. He had been a powerful mayor for three terms and sat on the bench of the municipal court where he was known for his unyielding tough-on-crime stance.
 
Gossips around the courthouse were convinced that Sam had the largest loan portfolio of any member of the county bar association, but some clients suspected he was financing his sideline business with their money in the form of collected, but undeclared, debt payments. One published account reflected the commonly held belief that Sam’s professional duties provided him with a hold over some of the community’s leading citizens who might have over-extended themselves financially, legally or romantically.
 
Lesser known generally, but also a dangerous activity on his part, Sam was a philanderer.
 
Any of these actions makes accumulation of enemies almost a certainty.
 
After his execution, the Bluefield (Maryland) Daily Telegraph — perhaps the only newspaper in the area that did not support the verdict — speculated that Sam’s reputation had more than a little to do with his conviction.
 
“There was another thing that worked to his undoing. He was a man of overbearing disposition, and hated the poor and the humble with lofty disdain and frequently with insulting demeanor,” an editorial in the newspaper read. “When the first breath of suspicion came, these people fanned it into a flame.”
 
The Daily Telegraph did not comment on the fact that the jurors were brought in from various locations around the state — Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Warrenton and Richmond) and were unaffected by the local mood immediately after the crime.
 
In the end, Sam reaped the same kind of justice that he sowed after he killed his 42-year-old wife, Fanny, in a violent frenzy. For his crime he died on the gallows in February 1905.
 
At the turn of the 20th century, the McCue clan — Sam, along with his brothers Judge Edward O. McCue and Dr. Frank McCue and various kin created by decades of marriages among the elite — was among Albermarle County’s leading families.
 
“The McCues have always been prominent in Albermarle, exhibiting on all occasions positive and masterful dispositions in the conduct of their affairs,” according to The McCue Murder: Complete story of the crime and the famous trial published by reporters James H. Lindsay and John S. Patton shortly after the case reached its conclusion.
 
According to the book — a pamphlet, really — the McCue family fortune came from its large farming and cattle operation. Sam McCue was educated on the farm by a private tutor, later entering a prep school which led to a study of the law at nearby University of Virginia.
 
Sam maintained at best a gentleman’s C average until he left school to learn the law directly from those who practiced it, Lindsay and Patton wrote.

It is not likely that he took to books from a love of letters, but with the well-defined purpose to make use of his attainments as an asset in getting along in the world. The sparkling of the cadmean waters did not tempt him to deep and frequent draughts, and when he hung out his shingle as a young lawyer in 1884, his academic achievements and legal attainments were probably unattested by parchments.

Diplomas or not, Sam quickly established himself as an aggressive and skilled legal collections enforcer for local businesses. One client said “I turned over to him accounts I failed to collect, no matter how urgently I sought payment. Invariably, Sam McCue got the money.”
 
Those who were pursued by McCue cursed his name and sang a ditty that summarized their feelings: “Maunfra, maunfra, what’ll I do/To keep out o’ the hands of Sam McCue.
 
The attorney entered politics and was elected alderman in 1888, serving in that position until 1894. His first run for the mayoralty resulted in a third-place finish but Sam’s second try was successful. After he defeated the incumbent who had trounced him previously rumors of Sam’s stranglehold over some of the town fathers began to surface.
 
He served two terms as mayor and Sam’s draconian presence on the municipal bench drove the citizens to change the city charter. They established a city police court with an elected judge and stripped the mayor of all judicial duties.
 
Despite being the sole cause of its creation, Sam chose to seek the newly created judgeship rather than a third term as mayor. In that race Sam faced off against his brother who, to the surprise of no one but the now ex-mayor, beat him handily.
 
Based on the character sketch of Judge Edward McCue in The McCue Murder, it is easy to see why voters chose Edward over Sam:
 
“Samuel McCue had been a hard man,” wrote one contemporary reporter summarizing Sam’s murder case. “He had sent scores to jail, and had seldom tempered justice with clemency. Many who were the recipients of his justice insisted that the quality of his mercy was badly strained.”
 
Regarding Edward, the authors had high praise.
 
“It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a better administrator of justice in any petty court than Justice McCue,” said the authors. “Even the people whom he convicts love him for his moderation and just findings.”
 
In 1902 Sam was reelected to the mayor’s office. When Fannie was killed, he had just retired from that position to concentrate on his private practice and his position as deacon of the local Presbyterian church.

The Crime

Fannie McCueThe crime that put the noose around Sam’s neck began after he and Fannie returned home from a Sunday night service at the Presbyterian Church where Sam was a deacon.
 
“The McCues were a church-going people,” a retrospective on the crime published the day after the ex-mayor’s execution the Harrisburg (Virginia) Daily News reported. “Deacon McCue invariably sat well to the front in the sacred auditorium, and Mrs. McCue, always looking trim, sat primly at his side.”
 
Later, witness after witness would recount how the McCues appeared to be quarreling and did not, as was their custom, walk to their pew together. Sam explained this away as a red herring caused by an ill-timed bathroom break on his part.
 
Following the service the husband and his wife of nearly 20 years walked home together in silence.
 
“Mrs. McCue’s manner, as afterward testified to in court, appeared depressed and preoccupied, failing to observe or respond to the greetings of friends who they passed on the way,” the The Daily News told its readers.
 
It was only a few minutes after the couple entered their home and closed the door that Dr. Frank McCue came running to the house clutching his medical bag and a pistol. Charlottesville beat cop Daniel C. Grady was close behind him. Something was very wrong behind the doors of the mansion on Park Street.
 
There were plenty of people strolling down the exclusive thoroughfare where the McCues lived, and many, alerted by the hubbub, turned from walkers to gawkers.
 
“In a few minutes a piece of news — startling, horrifying news — spread with the rapidity with which bad news alone seems to travel,” according to one contemporary report. “Crowds hurried to the McCue home to learn the worst, and how it had happened.”
 
The worst was the brutal murder of Fannie McCue; how it had happened was proven in court to have been at the hands of ex-Mayor Sam McCue. The “why” — motive — was disagreement over Sam’s infidelities.
 
Exactly what transpired in the upstairs of the McCue home on September 4, 1904, that led to Fannie’s death is unclear; Sam gave a number of statements that were variations on a theme, but with enough differences regarding important details that make deconstructing the events connected to the crime difficult.
 
Other witnesses gave strong statements that incriminated the ex-mayor but later recanted them on the stand.
 
Sam’s testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest was the only version of events he gave under oath. It is not too lengthy, the relevant parts are included here, and — as Sam admitted later in the shadow of the noose — is a complete fabrication.
 
It begins with the couple in their bedroom, preparing for bed.

I picked up a paper, reading the last Council proceedings, and I think Mrs. McCue was undressing in the meantime and talking about the affair. She laid her clothes on a chair. I had gone over to my chiffonier and took my coat off and my collar and negligee shirt.
I was standing at my buffet and I noticed some figure moving toward me. I think I rushed over towards the gun which stands in the corner — we keep it there — and that is all I remember. I think I must have been unconscious after that. He and I had a scuffle. I am pretty positive he was a white man, a kind of dirty white man. I think his beard was out a little.
…I could not say which door he came through, for my back must have been to the door. It seems to me I heard a sound, when he came in, some sound of a click like. I do not know how long after this sound before he came in.
I do not know if he had anything in his hand, but possibly he did.

mccue home mapDr. McCue testified at the inquest and his brother’s trial about what he found when he reached his brother’s home. He said he received a call from his brother about 9:15 p.m.
 
“Come down here,” the doctor remembers his brother saying. “Someone has knocked me senseless and I think has murdered Fannie.”
 
When Dr. McCue got to the scene, he found that Sam was “dazed and could not give a good account of himself.”
 
“Arriving, I found the front door ajar and went directly upstairs,” he testified at trial. “I saw my brother’s wound when I got to the hall, blood was dripping to his undershirt. One hand was pressed to his head.”
 
Dr. McCue said his brother was incapable of providing any assistance due to his head wound.
 
Entering the second floor, Dr. McCue said he smelled the odor of burnt gunpowder and heard the sound of running water from the bathroom.
 
The bathroom was dark; he turned up a gas burner and in the flickering light he saw Fannie McCue dressed in a nightgown, bent backward over the tub. Her head was submerged. The running water had washed away most of the blood from Fannie’s body and diluted some of the blood stains on her gown, but there was a great deal of blood ringing the tub. A bloody baseball bat lay on the floor of the bathroom.

Wounds, Fatal and Otherwise

Dr. McCue was quickly joined by two other physicians, Charles S. Venable and Emmett Early, who removed Fannie’s body from the tub and carried it to her bedroom. Venable and Early examined the dead woman’s wounds. It was clear that the struggle had been violent.
 
The lace at the collar of her nightgown was torn away. Her right ear had been struck with a blunt instrument — presumably the bat — hard enough that it split her outer ear in half. She suffered a small laceration on her nose, which Venable said had bled profusely. One of her fingernails was bent nearly at a 90-degree angle, evidence Fannie fought with her killer.
 
The doctors agreed that at least one wound was inflicted post-mortem.
 
“The third wound was a small transverse wound on the back of the head, but it gave out little blood,” Venable said in testimony confirmed by Early. “I concluded that that wound happened afterwards. I believe it would be produced by falling with her head back and hitting the bath tub.”
 
But neither the head wound nor submersion in the tub was the cause of death. That came from a shotgun fired at close range.
 
“There were powder marks right in the wound; it was black,” Venable testified at trial. “Leather wadding was taken from the spinal column.”
 
The examination revealed the shot had gone downward and front to back, the pellets destroying several ribs, which in turn stopped them from passing completely through her body.
 
“There was a great deal of disorganized blood in the cavity,” Venable said. “We turned the corpse over, which caused blood to pour out.”
 
The consensus among physicians was that Fannie could not have been shot and been able to get to the tub afterwards.
 
“Death from a gunshot wound like Mrs. McCue would result almost instantaneously,” Early testified. “The person would drop in his tracks after receiving such an injury.”
 
Dr. McCue was the only one of four physicians who testified about a wound on Sam’s cheek who said he saw it bleeding. His story, however, changed from the inquest to the trial with Dr. McCue increasing the severity of the wounds. At the inquest Dr. McCue referred to the wound on his brother’s cheek as bleeding. At trial, however, he testified that he “saw his nose was bleeding. Blood was oozing from his nose; I saw it. After any injury to the head we often look for bleeding from the nose. It is one of the symptoms we carefully observe.”
 
Another doctor who examined Sam the day after the murder said the wound was not serious.
 
“I have most frequently seen it on football players who have been scraped on the ground,” said Venable. “I don’t think the wound on McCue’s face was such a one as would indicate an injury sufficient to cause unconsciousness.”
 
The fourth doctor who saw Sam at the crime scene gave a much different account of the wound.
 
“I saw what seemed to be a scratch on Mr. McCue’s right cheek bone,” said Dr. Hugh T. Nelson. “The wound seemed to be very slight. It was like a child had scraped his knee on the ground.”
 
He soundly rejected Dr. McCue’s belief that it was an assailant carrying a sand-filled cosh who killed Fannie and rendered Sam unconscious. Unlike Dr. McCue, Nelson had seen injuries caused by blackjacks.
 
“A blow on the cheek to have produced unconsciousness would have produced discoloration and a ‘puffing up,'” he said. “Unless done with the fist, it would almost certainly have fractured the jaw bone. It probably would have caused some vomiting and would have a tendency to make the pulse slow.”
 
Sam failed to exhibit any symptoms of a closed-head injury in the time following the murder.

A Possible Fall Guy?

While the doctors were examining Fanny’s corpse, Officer Grady was searching the house for evidence. What he saw did not provide much support for Sam McCue’s version of events.
 
Grady found no signs of a struggle in any room, and no evidence of a crime anywhere except in the bathroom. A blood-stained baseball bat was on the floor near the corpse, and McCue’s shotgun, a Winchester pump, was found outside the bathroom door, an empty shell with No. 6 birdshot still chambered.
 
Briefly burglary was considered the motive, but that was quickly discarded. Nothing was taken from the home, it was early in the evening on a Sunday and was still light out. Only the most foolhardy thief would have committed a break-in under those circumstances.
 
One scenario that did interest investigators was the chance that one of the ex-mayor’s many enemies came to collect a debt of his own. In short order two witnesses came forward with information that around the time of the murder a white man ran up to the home occupied by Judge Edward McCue and knocked violently on the front door. The man waited about 30 seconds then ran across the street to Sam’s house.
 
“The few minutes which elapsed between this incident and the announcement of the crime at Sam McCue’s may have been sufficient for the accomplishment of the tragedy,” reported the Daily News.
 
Although never conclusively shown, the state’s theory is that the witnesses saw another concerned citizen alerting Judge McCue to the events across the street. No one ever identified the man or came forward to acknowledge the act.
 
Owing to his position on the bench and his brother’s time as judge, Edward McCue theorized that someone who previously appeared in dock came to settle accounts.Edward theorized that the man — Leslie Marshall — planned to eliminate the two McCue brothers “in one grand performance.”
 
“(The judge) had in mind a man whom he and his brother had caused to be punished more than once for misdemeanors, and it was understood that this man was very resentful toward them,” read the article in the Daily News. “His brother’s description of the man who assaulted him fitted this one as well as any other.”
 
Marshall recently appeared before Judge McCue and was punished for public drunkenness. The crime not only resulted in a fine, but because Marshall violated an order “to be on good behavior” handed down by Sam McCue when he was municipal court judge, Marshall forfeited a bond.
 
Beyond his ill feelings toward the McCue brothers, Marshall had a strong reason to hate the ex-mayor with a vengeance: Sam McCue was not only the divorce lawyer for Marshall’s wife 22-year-old Hattie, Sam and his client were lovers. But it would have been nigh impossible for Leslie Marshall to have a better alibi for the time of Fannie’s murder: He was in church with his mother.
 
“Well for him that he had an alibi so easily and perfectly established,” an anonymous wire service reporter wrote. “If he had been arrested and brought to Charlottesville charged with the murder of Mrs. McCue he would have been in grave danger, even if he had not been lynched.”
 
Marshall struck back against his accusers by sharing his own theory of the crime — or at least his potential involvement in it.
 
“He did not hesitate to charge that there was a conspiracy in which (his) wife was involved to connect him with the crime — and that the conspiracy antedated the murder by at least two days,” read a wire story in the Burlington (Iowa) Evening Gazette
 
Hattie MarshallHattie Marshall filed for divorce in August and moved from the family home in Earleysville, a town about 10 miles from Charlottesville, where she took up residence.
 
Speaking to reporters who smelled a story, Leslie Marshall said two days before the crime Hattie sent him a “long gossipy and affectionate letter” urging him to come to her on Monday morning — the morning after the murder.
 
“I wish you could arrange it so you could come to town Monday,” she wrote. “I will give you money to pay your way to Proffitt’s (the railway station closest to Earleysville). If you could come early Monday morning and go back Monday eve, that would be the very thing.”
 
Despite his hopes that Hattie wanted to reconcile, Marshall was unable to make it to Charlottesville on Monday, appearing there on Tuesday. He was disappointed by the reception.
 
A wire story that received play across the country, reported that “his wife received him coldly, he said, and refused to make up.” According to the article, when Marshall questioned his soon-to-be ex-wife why she summoned him, her response was chilling.
 
“Her reply was that for a few hours after the murder he was under suspicion and she wanted him to come clear himself. ‘How was it, then, that you wrote to me before the crime?’ was his next question, the answer to which was not reported.”
 
It should be noted that the Marshalls were involved in a most-contentious child custody issue, with Leslie attempting to get custody of two of the couple’s three children. To the youngest he denied paternity and wanted nothing to do with it. Once the investigation zeroed-in on Sam McCue, the theory that there was any kind of murder plot involving Marshall as the fall-guy was not pursued.
 
Hattie strongly repudiated any improper relationship with her divorce lawyer, although evidence introduced at his trial indicated they had a rendezvous in Washington, D.C., over Thursday, Friday and Saturday before the murder. It was apparently the second time Fannie confronted her husband over this particular infidelity. The first was shortly before her murder when she said she “found him locked in with another woman, and when he came to the door he looked ‘sheepish,'” was how her brother recalled the incident.
 
Letters Hattie sent to Sam while he was awaiting trial show that their relationship was intimate, but there was never any indication she was a participant in the crime.
 
When the evidence failed to support the revenge theory, Sam McCue became the primary suspect.
 
He was arrested for the crime the day after his wife’s funeral. Sam’s brother recused himself from the bench when the police applied for the arrest warrant, so he would not have to sign it.

A Perfect Hell

For those in the McCue inner circle — particularly those from Fannie’s family — the crime almost came as no surprise given the terrible state of the marriage.
 
Sam McCue, much of the testimony at the murder trial revealed, was as tough on his wife as he was on debtors. One witness called for the defense admitted on cross-examination that Sam McCue recently told him his domestic life was not a happy one.
 
“‘My life here on Earth for the past four or five years has been a perfect hell,'” quoted lawyer John S. White, who had worked with Sam McCue on legal issues. White recalled Sam said Fannie was “the most jealous woman I had ever known.”
 
Her brother, Ernest Crawford, also an attorney, boarded at the McCue home between 1899 and 1901 and testified that “It was the most unhappy couple I ever saw.”
 
“The quarrels were always about other women,” he testified. “I never saw him kick or strike her, but have heard him curse her in the most violent manner repeatedly.”
 
Willie McCue, 17, one of the four McCue children, reportedly said his parents fought viciously. To police investigators and before the Coroner’s jury, Willie not only confirmed what his parents fought, but said near-homicidal violence had occurred in his presence.
 
“For the past three or four years it has been a perfect hell on earth,” Willie said. “My father and mother lived like cats and dogs.”
 
Willie told Detective Alfred Baldwin that he recently had to protect his mother from an enraged Sam who was chasing her with a pistol. He said that his father threatened his life when he became involved.
 
N.R. Martin, a jailer, testified to to a conversation he overheard between Willie and his father about the event.
 
“You know what Crawford said about my drawing a pistol on your mother is not true,” Sam said.
 
“Yes it is,” Martin recalls Willie as responding. “You know she ran and got in my bed and asked me to defend her.”
 
Willie made his claims in sworn testimony, as well as in repeated interviews with police, conversations with relatives on both sides of the family and in multiple letters to his maternal aunt, and was considered so reliable that he was included on the prosecution’s list of witnesses.
 
In a letter to his maternal aunt Willie described his position.

Aunt Sallie, I am fighting one of the greatest battles now. I am among all my father’s people, and they, of course, wonder why I took such a step in this case, but I am going to do what I think is right…I will never be in worse trouble than this. I cannot sleep, and when I go to bed and wake up with the same trouble, I feel as though I cannot stand it.

On the stand during his father’s trial, however, Willie recanted what he could and denied what he couldn’t. When confronted with claims of other witnesses that he talked of the bad state of affairs between his parents, Willie simply said over and over: “No. I deny it emphatically.”
 
“Verily, it was a case of the quick or the dead! And the quick was the winner,” according to a report the day after Willie’s trial testimony. The writer waxed eloquently about his motivation for changing his story.

Mayhap the memory of the unhappy woman, upon whose grave the flowers hardly yet have withered, still touch the heart of the son, who was wildly hysterical on the night she perished by an assassin’s hand. And mayhap he will never forget the wretched but tender little woman who one ran to him, then a mere stripling, for protection from her husband. But the living are even stronger than the dead; the present from the absent. Not ten feet from the witness chair where young William sat gleamed the metallic blue eyes of his father, boring into the very heart of the son like an augur of steel. Those cold blue eyes have subdued others. Yesterday they subdued young William McCue.

Because Willie was considered a hostile witness, the prosecution was allowed to impeach his testimony.
 
“On 14 important matters he was been contradicted by independent witnesses. I do not count the detectives,” said Col. Micah Woods, one of the prosecution team in his summation. Woods accused the McCue clan of exerting undue influence on the boy.
 
“He perhaps was told that his father was standing on the scaffold near the trap door, and that if he were to repeat what he told…he would spring the trap and would send his father to his death,” Woods orated. “I think that what he may have done in this case should provoke sorrow and pity rather than abuse and vituperation.”

Witnesses Tell What They Know

But the prosecution had other witnesses who could and would share what they saw and heard on the night of the murder.
 
The first witness was coachman Charles A. Skinner, who was employed by a neighbor of the McCues and whose room was close enough to their house to hear crying and screaming around the time of Fannie’s murder.
 
Skinner said the screaming went on for several minutes until he heard a single gunshot. Watching from his window that overlooked the McCues’, Skinner saw Dr. McCue and Officer Grady arrive on the scene.
 
More important to the prosecution’s case was the testimony of 17-year-old John Perry, a houseboy in the McCue home. On the night of the murder Perry, whose room was adjacent to the bathroom, testified that he heard Fannie being beaten, and fleeing to the bathroom, begging for her life until the fatal shot was fired. On the stand, like Willie McCue, Perry was loathe to convict his boss. He changed his testimony between the inquest and the trial, backing away from his earlier statements that Fanny had been begging Sam not to kill her.
 
At the trial, Perry denied telling detectives that he heard Fannie from the bathroom say, “Oh, Sam, Sam, don’t kill me. I am going to die anyhow.”
 
Instead, Perry claimed he told the police she said: “Sam, Sam, he is killing me!”
 
Although Perry could hear the assault, he was powerless to help — the servants’ quarters door to the second floor of the house was always locked. The servants were expected to use the back stairs which led to the kitchen.
 
The prosecution explained away the servant’s recantation by positing that Perry, was a black man concerned for his position with the McCues, and so denied he ever implicated his employer.
 
The prosecutors introduced a written statement from Willie McCue drafted the morning after the murder — before Willie had a change of heart — where Perry provided a more detailed version of events.

I said “John, I want you to tell me just what you heard.” The first thing he said was “You know last night I was afraid to tell those gentlemen on Mr. McCue. I heard him slap her first because I got up and put my head out the window. Then it sounded like he was hitting her and thumping. Then I head him choke her and heard her like she was strangled. She said, “Sam, you out not to treat me like this. I promise not to do it again.”

The only physical evidence indicating that Sam had been involved in any crime was his wet shirt that bore signs of diluted blood on the cuffs. The blood was perhaps the most important clue because Sam claimed from the beginning that he had not seen Fanny after he regained consciousness. Sam never touched Fannie’s corpse or the bathtub, in fact, he never went into that room during the post-crime investigation. Thus, blood could only have gotten there because Sam was the killer, the prosecution argued.
 
The shirt was taken by Dr. McCue and placed in the laundry. It was rescued before it was washed, and Dr. McCue denied that he was trying to hide it.
 
A baseball bat covered in blood was assumed to be the weapon that Sam used to beat his wife to the point where her ear was nearly severed. There was some testimony that the day following the murder Fannie’s throat showed signs of strangulation, but there was no proof that the marks on her neck were put there by the killer — the discoloration may have been caused by her submersion in water or were simply signs of decomposition. On the other hand, strangulation marks on her neck could account for the wet, bloody cuffs on Sam’s shirt.
 
Some of the most interesting rhetoric was reserved for the summation of lead defense attorney John L. Lee, who compared Fannie McCue’s murder to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Gentlemen, what was the most important event in all the history of the world? Was it not the scene enacted upon Calvary, when Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, gave up his life for humanity…I trust that you will receive what I saw with reverence for this Holy Book upon which you have already taken your oath. The life and liberty of a man is at stake, and only in this crisis do I venture to use the inspired words to save him.
Now, gentlemen of the jury, are you prepared to say that the main fact of the crucifixion did not occur because four different accounts of it, written by the saints themselves, differ — and differ radically?

His eloquence in trying to make McCue into a martyr was unsuccessful. After enough time to make it look like they were seriously deliberating, jurors convicted Sam McCue for the murder of his wife. He was sentenced to hang.
 
After the sentencing was over and the jury had been dismissed, one juror approached Sam and extended his hand.
 
“You have done me a great injustice,” Sam said.
 
“That rested with you,” said John A. Traylor of Richmond. “I did my duty as I saw it.”

A Debt is Settled

After two unsuccessful appeals and fruitless request for clemency from an old political comrade, McCue resolved himself to his fate. He became quite religious and eventually confessed to his crime. Publicly, Sam’s confession sought to put the blame on some unnamed “evil power” for the crime and and he denied that anyone else was involved.
 
Three of his ministers released a statement that McCue “did not wish to leave this world with suspicion resting on any human being but himself. That he alone was responsible for the deed, impelled by an evil power beyond his control; and that he recognized that his sentence was just.”
 
Privately, Sam confessed that he and Fannie started arguing after his return from Washington and that she had picked up again while they were changing for bed.
 
Enraged, he struck Fanny in the face and she responded in kind, giving him a slight raspberry on the cheek. They began fighting violently. She picked up the baseball bat which she brought into the house for protection. He wrestled it from her and began beating her with it. She fled to the bathroom where she had been running water for her bath. Sam followed her, exchanging the bat for his shotgun.
 
As Fanny knelt on the bathroom floor and pleaded for mercy, Sam pointed the shotgun at his wife and pulled the trigger. The force of the shot pushed her back into the tub. He did not address the issue, but the theory is that Sam’s shirt got wet and covered with blood as he attempted to strangle or drown her before using the shotgun. He then attempted to cover up the crime with a burglary claim, later changed to a killing motivated by revenge.
 
At dawn on February 10, 1905, a calm and composed ex-Mayor Sam McCue ascended the gallows and paid his debt to society in full.