Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story. See Monday’s edition for part two, “A plea deal and prison.”
The picture on the website of the Georgia Department of Corrections shows how much time has passed since the hot summer of 1973 when Vera Sue Burchfield was shot by her husband Bill in Whitfield County, eventually dying in a Chattanooga hospital.
From 1975, the time of the mug shot, until his arrest in June of this year in Laurel County, Ky., the hairstyle of Bill Burchfield never changed — the hair just got grayer and the wrinkles on his face a little deeper.
He is now some 100 pounds heavier than he was when he was first sent to the state penitentiary in Reidsville in South Georgia. Perhaps that is a testament to the good life he had enjoyed since his escape from the Jackson County Correctional Institute in 1979 when he asked a guard if he could go use the bathroom and never returned.
The differences in the photos of the young man who was arrested and charged with murder and the much older man who now is once again in prison in Jackson County are striking, because Burchfield had built a life in Kentucky that was completely different from the one he left behind in Whitfield County.
Gone is the boy who drank and took drugs and raised some hell, according to his sisters, and made what he has called in an interview a “mistake” and “the most tragic thing that happened in my life.”
His sisters — Mary Ellis, who still lives in Dalton, and Martha Jones, who lives in Kentucky near where her brother was found by authorities in June of this year — say that if one goal of prison is to rehabilitate and redeem a person from his past transgressions, then their brother doesn’t deserve any more punishment from the state.
He may have walked away while six years into a 15-year prison sentence for the shot that led to the death of his 22-year-old wife, but they say he has lived a productive and positive life since then.
“Usually, if you take someone who has escaped from prison, they go back to their old ways,” Jones said recently in a phone interview with The Daily Citizen. “He didn’t. He decided to try to build him a life that was better than what he had ... what he had a chance to do.”
In an interview with The Economist newspaper of London in England, Burchfield, who lived for nearly four decades away from prison under the name of Bill Arnold, said he has lived a life of redemption.
“Everybody can change,” Burchfield said. “Everybody has the ability to turn their life around and do something good with it.”
Summer of 1973
The year of the shooting, Watergate was developing into a full-blown scandal with a president surrounded by controversy. In Dalton, the shooting of Vera Sue Burchfield didn’t garner the top headlines. The same day she was shot another death was the talk of the town. While the shooting of Vera Sue was relegated to page 2 of The Citizen-News, the front page detailed another shooting.
Hugh P. Lee, 27 at the time, had a wife of 22 named Judy Ann. She was divorced from Dale Farris, 23, but the formerly married couple had reconciled and were meeting behind Lee’s back just three months into the new marriage, according to investigators. The two went to Harrison Bay in Tennessee north of Chattanooga where Lee had a boat. The lovers went out on the boat.
According to reports in the newspaper, Lee tracked them down and got another boater to give him a ride out to his boat to find his wife. He had a .38-caliber revolver and when he got on the boat he shot Farris. Lee went back to the dock and then to his car to reload the gun while Judy Ann came to the dock to get help for Farris.
Lee then shot and killed her. According to Tennessee Department of Corrections records, he was released from prison in 2006.
For Vera Sue and Bill Burchfield, the coverage was less sensational. The shooting happened in the dirt-poor southern end of the county off Nance Springs Road near the Gordon County line.
Jones, then Martha Brackett, said she was the only adult called before the grand jury. She said in the interview that Vera Sue’s shooting came at the end of a day of alcohol and pills and arguments between the two.
She said Bill had only a sixth-grade education, running away from home at age 14 with another friend and moving to Mississippi, and an abusive stepfather and a mother who allowed the abuse to happen drove him away.
“He couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “He came from a very abusive household and he lived with a stepfather that Bill and I both ... just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
When he came back to town in the late 1960s, he had a couple of kids and then met Vera Sue, who had two kids of her own — Janice and Tim Smith — Janice Smith, who lives in Chatsworth, said in an interview. Tim Smith passed away recently.
Bill was a truck driver at Venture Carpets in Resaca and was away a lot. Jones said there were rumors about what Vera Sue was doing while he was gone.
Already, Bill had a history with law enforcement. In 1971, he was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for stealing $20 worth of cigarettes out of a vending machine, according to Superior Court records. A year of his life had been forfeited over a few cartons worth of smokes, but that first time in jail didn’t seem to have changed him much, according to his sisters.
It was the day after Independence Day in 1973.
“He was pretty wild,” Jones said, saying she was telling the story for the first time since she was taken before the grand jury. “He drank, and they were taking pills and stuff. He came home from work, and they were in an argument over something or another. I lived two houses up the road from them and they were arguing.
“She called and asked me to come down there, said her and Bill was fighting and asked me to get the kids. I walked down there to get the kids, and they were fussing and arguing and fighting. There was a gun, and at one time it was in Bill’s hand and at one time it was in Sue’s hand, and they were wrestling over it.”
She said she tried to get between them and got a busted-up hand for her troubles.
“I got slung into one of those old dressers with a big round mirror, and it cut my hand up pretty bad,” she said. “They were still fussing and screaming and shouting, but what happened was an accident. They were fighting over the gun. I got the kids and was trying to get home to see if I could get some more help down there because there was no controlling him or her.”
“After I had left, they apparently got into the car and were still fighting and fussing when the gun went off and they ended up in the ditch,” Jones said. “Bill don’t even remember doing it. He doesn’t even remember being there or going home that day. He never has. He was completely out of it.”
Jones said she never thought what happened that day was intentional. Never thought that Bill meant to take the life of his wife.
“It was an accident,” she said. “It wasn’t premeditated and it wasn’t cold-blooded murder. He was just a young boy and he was scared. He didn’t mean to hurt me any more than he meant to hurt Sue.”
Janice Smith tells a much different version of the events of that day.
She said in an interview that she, her mother and her brother Tim had been abused by Burchfield and her mother had packed Burchfield’s bags and was sending him away for stealing money that was being held in trust for the children after the death of their father in a car crash. She said the shooting didn’t happen in the car but happened in the house and Bill took her mother in the car before crashing it.
“I was about 5, but I remember everything,” Janice Smith said. “She was getting ready to make him leave. What makes me mad is he has said he don’t remember doing it. I remember it all. I am so mad I wish he would rot in hell. He took away my mother from me and my brother and left us with nothing but misery.”
Janice and Tim Smith would go on to live with their fraternal grandparents, but Janice Smith said the damage done on that July day still hurts, still remains. In fact, the scars aren’t scars at all but deep wounds that still remain open after 43 years.
“He was just mean,” said Beulah “Pee Wee” Davis, Vera Sue’s sister who lives with Janice Smith in Chatsworth, in an interview. “He was mean to the kids and they lost a mama because of that. Janice grew up looking at all these kids with their mothers and she never got that. She never could trust a man after seeing what he did to her mother.”
Three days after she was shot, Vera Sue Smith Burchfield died at Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga. Bill Burchfield was charged with murder.
Tomorrow: A plea deal and prison.