Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story. “Life wasn’t easy for Burchfield” was published Sunday.
Although Bill Burchfield was arrested for murder in 1973 for the death of his 22-year-old wife, not much is now known about the investigation, as records from the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office are nonexistent and the grand jury indictment offers little in the way of detail.
The court appointed Ralph Martin and Maurice Sponcler as lawyers for Burchfield, since he couldn’t afford counsel on his own. Sponcler billed the court for 18 hours of work on the case. Martin billed for 21 hours. Both were paid $10 an hour for each hour out of court and $15 for each hour before a judge.
Burchfield’s sister, Martha Jones, who lives in Kentucky near where Burchfield was arrested in June of this year after having escaped from a Georgia prison in 1979, said in an interview that the attorneys recommended he take a plea deal for a 15-year prison sentence for shooting his wife in the neck during an argument on July 5, 1973. She died three days later.
Jones said the deal was supposed to be for involuntary manslaughter and a shorter sentence. Court records have Burchfield’s signature under a plea of voluntary manslaughter and the longer sentence.
“I know what he did was wrong, and I know he deserved to be punished for it ... but it was an accident,” Jones insists. “A court-appointed attorney does not always take your best interest at heart. They have a job to do and the judge says this is your case and you aren’t getting paid for it, so how hard do you think they work for them? Not very.”
“It was a terrible time,” she said. “Bill didn’t have a lot of breaks in his life. He had nobody in his corner.”
Martin is deceased, but Sponcler is still a prominent attorney in Dalton. He says he has no recollection of the case.
“1973 was a long time ago, and I truly don’t remember the case,” he said. “That file is long gone.”
Burchfield was sent first to Reidsville and then to Jefferson to serve his time. In 1975, he and a few other inmates escaped a work detail at Jefferson and were caught in Detroit late in the year. When he was returned to Jackson County, another year was added on to his sentence.
The Jackson Herald has reported that in 1979 Burchfield left a work detail at a landfill to use the bathroom. Jones said a woman with a car was waiting to take him away and he made his escape again.
He made his way to California and only a handful of family members knew where he was. Jones said the authorities never questioned her about his whereabouts.
His other sister, Mary Ellis, who lives in Dalton, would eventually marry one of the men who escaped with Burchfield. She always told authorities she had no idea where they were.
“You become a very good liar,” Ellis said in an interview. “You can look someone in the eye and lie, and I have done it for a really long time. It is always there.”
Burchfield settled outside of Los Angeles. After his arrest in Laurel County, Ky., earlier this year, he told The Economist newspaper in London, England, in an interview that he got by anyway he could — living in a car, working menial odd jobs for money.
Eventually, he assumed the identity of Harold Arnold, a cousin who had died years before. He kept the first name of “Bill” and used the last name of Arnold and returned to driving trucks for a living and had two children in California, his sisters said.
Tiffany is now a firefighter in Oregon. Messages sent to a cellphone number for her provided by Ellis were not returned. Michael, like his father, is a truck driver in California.
Bill got work on an oil rig, and when that ended, he moved back east, settling in Kentucky, his sisters said. There, he started driving trucks again, taking long-distance hauling jobs back to the West Coast, allowing him to visit his children.
A new — and better — life
He met and married Jean Gibbert in Kentucky in the early 1980s, but they didn’t have any children and divorced after five years, his sisters said. Jones said the two had reconciled in recent years and were living together in Kentucky before he was found by authorities.
He met Carol Shell in the late 1980s, they married, and his life truly changed, according to his sisters.
“Together, they built a helluva life together,” Jones said. Carol Shell Arnold passed away in 2006.
Jones said they bought a truck for a hauling business, bought another one, and then started selling tobacco, eventually at four locations. Later, he bought a gas station and diner. The place was a frequent hangout for local law enforcement.
“The police hung out there,” Jones said. “He wasn’t living in hiding or keeping a low profile, and he never thought anything about it. He told me once ‘If they get me, they get me. I expect it sooner or later, but at least I have had a good life and made something of myself.’”
Carol Shell, the sisters say, changed him forever. He joined the church and was baptized. He would later become a deacon in the church.
“He’s not the man that he was,” said Pastor Charles Shelton in an interview. “I baptized the man 19 years ago, and he has been a model person. He had told me before he had a past, but I told him the Good Lord don’t care what you have done, but what you do now. He has been an excellent Christian and a friend to boot.”
Carol Shell Arnold died of cancer in 2006. Jones said Bill never left her side.
“He waited on her hand and foot,” she said. “He was right by her side every inch of the way. Losing her didn’t turn him back into a criminal. He was still determined to be Bill Arnold. He had reinvented himself.”
“He didn’t take welfare checks or food stamps,” Jones said. “He worked and built him a life that he thought would be good in the eyes of God and help him be a better person.”
But some people weren’t convinced, and even before he was approached by authorities in June of this year the pretend nature of the existence of “Bill Arnold” was starting to come to light.
On a Topix.com forum on “Arnold’s country store,” someone with a user ID of “hates liars” posted, “I have to wonder what drives people to uphold a guy that should be in prison. Are you blinded by the lite or are you ignorant to be able to see the lite?” That post was dated Oct. 4, 2014.
Finally, the past did indeed catch up with him when his sisters say a family member was arrested on drug charges in Gordon County and offered up Burchfield’s whereabouts to have the charges dropped against him. They declined to name the relative or his relationship to Burchfield.
Shortly thereafter, deputies from Laurel County, Ky., appeared at his doorstep.
“When they asked him if he was Billy Burchfield, he said, ‘I am not that guy,’” Jones said. “He’s not that guy.”
But for others, he still is that guy, and to them he has never served a true punishment for the death of his wife Vera Sue. For Janice Smith, Vera Sue’s daughter who lives in Chatsworth, no matter how many stories of redemption she hears about her former stepfather, she has no forgiveness in her heart for Bill Burchfield, no matter what the life of “Bill Arnold” had become.
“They say he changed, but not for me,” Smith said. “I don’t think that he ever changed. ... I would have had a better life if he hadn’t taken my momma from me. I’d tell him I would hope he would rot in hell. He made our lives a living hell.
“They talk about his businesses he has had up there, and if he has any money, I am owed some of that money for what he stole from me and my brother.”
Beulah Davis, the sister of Vera Sue Burchfield, agrees.
“You know what I think he needs is the death penalty,” she said in an interview. “Someone took my sister from me years ago, and Janice and her brother never got a chance to know her too. I just think that he should get everything he deserves. We knew he had escaped, but one of his family members told us that he was dead years ago. It hurts to know he has been walking around free all this time.”
Burchfield’s attorney in Kentucky, Jason Kincer, told The Economist that Burchfield has paid his debt to society.
“Shouldn’t (his) debt be mitigated by the life that he has lived?” Kincer asked.
Jones agrees, and hopes some leniency can be found in Georgia.
“The most important things to Bill today, he joined the church, gave his life to the Lord and became a good person,” she said. “Even when him and Jean got divorced, he didn’t go back to his old ways. He was completely rehabilitated to return to society to be a functional, working person within the church and the community and he went out of his way to help other people. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that knew him in Kentucky to have one bad thing to say about him. The general feeling here in Kentucky is they should just let him go.
“A good productive life ... ,” she said, her voice trailing off. “And that is what the prison system is all about, isn’t it? How often does that work in today’s society?”