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Suspect Ran Relentlessly for Office

October 24, 1998 GMT

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Clean-cut and bespectacled, the candidate looks as if he could have stepped from a campaign brochure. And for years, Byron Looper has pursued political office, a goal he first expressed way back in high school.

Acquaintances wonder if at some point political ambition turned to obsession.

Since dropping out of West Point in 1985, Looper has run for five elective posts in two states. He switched party affiliations. He legally changed his middle name to (Low Tax).

Now, in the home stretch of his run for a state senate seat against a seemingly unbeatable incumbent, comes the strangest twist of all.

Looper, 34, was charged Friday with murder. The victim, shot to death Monday on his hog farm, was his opponent, Sen. Tommy Burks.

Looper’s lawyer, Lionel Barrett, told WHBQ-TV in Memphis that the case is bizarre and ``almost has the elements of a made-for-movie-type situation.″ Barrett also told The Commercial Appeal of Memphis that Looper will plead innocent at his arraignment.

The murder charge comes at a time when Looper _ who spoke of his aspirations of working for President Clinton and running a federal agency in Puerto Rico _ was watching the lone political achievement of his life unravel before his eyes.

He had been elected Putnam County tax assessor in 1996. But earlier this year he found himself indicted on charges of misusing that office.

He was a Republican, but the party had disavowed him and was ready to support Burks.

County GOP chairman Scott Ebersole said Friday of Looper: ``It seemed to me he was playing politics all the time.″

Politics had been in Looper’s blood since he was a teen-ager.

``He pretty well knew where he was and where he was going,″ former Georgia state Rep. Jerry Jackson said Friday. ``He was very independent. He really shaped his own future.″

Looper was born in Cookeville but moved to Georgia after his father, Aaron, got a school superintendent’s job there. He approached Jackson, then his local representatives, for help getting a congressional sponsor to the U.S. Military Academy.

Looper did get into West Point in 1983. But he left two years later. An academy spokesman said the school never discloses the reasons for a cadet’s early departure. Looper’s resume says he was honorably discharged in 1985 with a knee injury after falling off a horse. He finished his college career at the University of Georgia, then went to work for the Georgia state legislature, the resume says.

An intern he dated then, Modesta Blansett, said he was known among the interns as a political junkie, garbed often in a blue coat he acquired when attending West Point. But when he drank, which was fairly regularly, he exhibited a dark, angry temper, she said. At others time he was a ``charmer,″ she recalled.

She added Friday from her home in Houston: ``He was trying to hobnob with all the movers and shakers in the Democratic Party. He was trying to be seen and make a name for himself.″

In 1988, he ran unsuccessfully for Georgia state representative. He wanted to be a lawyer but had trouble getting into law school. Seeking a master’s degree in business administration instead, he enrolled in Mercer University’s Stetson School of Business and Economics in Atlanta.

Campus politics drew him and he became student body president at Stetson, but Kay Anderson, Stetson’s coordinator of graduate services, said Looper wanted to be a real politician.

``He was very visible, let’s put it that way,″ she recalled. ``He was not a shy person.″

He was chief executive officer with the Young Democrats of Georgia and worked for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. After working for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, he was bitter about not being offered an administration job, said Noble Cody, a fund-raiser for the GOP in Putnam County.

That is where things get confusing.

Looper’s resume says he went to Puerto Rico to work for First Continental Brokerage, a Bear, Stearns & Co. affiliate. He also claimed to have been assistant to the president of a university there that cannot be found.

Looper resurfaced in Cookeville in the early 1990s and immediately got involved with politics. He filed to run against state Rep. Jere Hargrove. Oddly, that was not long after he had sought Hargrove’s help. According to a letter he wrote to Hargrove, Looper wanted to be named head of the Farmers Home Administration ``or head of another federal ag ency in Puerto Rico.″

Hargrove said Looper ran a dirty campaign.

``I never responded to the guy, because I thought it was crazy,″ Hargrove said. ``I thought it was undignified.″

Two years later, Looper filed as a Republican against Putnam County Tax Assessor Bill Rippetoe, a 14-year Democratic incumbent. Rippetoe didn’t know what hit him.

``It really was shocking,″ he said of Looper’s campaign style of running negative ads but not debating or appearing in public.

Cody, the GOP fund-raiser, quoted Looper’s strategy. ``He said you don’t get out and shake hands door-to-door to win elections. You win elections by getting the issues out and using the media.″

``He’s just sort of an odd person that happened to get elected in a political position in Putnam County,″ said County Executive Doug McBroom.

Right after he took office, Looper just took off to Puerto Rico for three weeks. Joel Reimer, his campaign manager and then office manager, said that when Looper returned, his first thoughts were about a congressional race _ not the dozens of angry complaints the office received about his absence.

Reimer said Looper hired a security chief to search his office for bugging devices.

In March, Looper was indicted on 14 counts of theft and misusing his office, including faxing hundreds of politically charged press releases around the state. He also faces a lawsuit by a former girlfriend who claims he got her pregnant, then defrauded her out of title to her house.

But all that didn’t kill his political aspirations.

This year he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House and filed to run against Burks.

Burks was a vocal anti-crime legislator in Nashville and a community leader at home. He worked with the local DARE program and was preparing a hayride for some local kids when he was killed.

The longtime legislator had sponsored a bill to allow judges to sentence first-time drunken drivers to public service _ picking up trash along highways while wearing an orange vest saying ``I am a drunk driver.″ It was vetoed by Gov. Don Sundquist.

Looper had two such convictions in Georgia, state records show, and he sought to erase those blemishes.

``He was in my office, I’d say two years ago, trying to get his records cleaned up so he could run for office,″ said Jerry Rylee, who handles traffic violations and misdemeanors as solicitor general in Hall County, Ga. Two dismissed misdemeanor charges were eliminated, Rylee said, but not a charge for DUI in the county where he grew up.

``That was something he could not clear off his record,″ Rylee said.

Rylee said Looper pleaded no contest to a DUI charge on March 24, 1986. State records show he also had a 1987 DUI conviction in Atlanta.

Rylee said Looper’s arrest shocked him. ``He comes from a fine family. He was clean cut, a nice-looking fellow. I was sort of impressed with his enthusiasm.″