The Shocking Crime Spree Of The Briley Brothers

History is full of tales of criminal families. The wild west days of the United States had the murderous bank and train robbers Frank and Jesse James, as well as a killer rural Kansas family known as the Bloody Benders. More recently, in Ohio, the news has been buzzing about the Wagner family, who executed eight people in what the media has dubbed the Pike County Massacre (per USA Today).

One murderous family that has not received as much media attention or mentions in the history books spent seven months terrorizing Richmond, Virginia, in 1979 (via the Richmond Times-Dispatch). Their spree would begin in March with a home invasion. William and Virginia Bucher were tied up while three brothers — Linwood, James, and Anthony Briley, along with an accomplice Duncan Meekins — robbed their home. The gang of four lit the house on fire, leaving the couple to perish in the flames. Fortunately, William was able to work his way loose and free his wife so that the two could escape. They are among the few survivors of the Briley gang.

The first murder connected to the Briley brothers happened years earlier, in 1971. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Linwood shot and killed his elderly neighbor, Orline Christian, as she was outside hanging her laundry to dry. Linwood, who was only 16 at the time, served just one year in a juvenile facility for the slaying (per The Graveyard Shift).

Christian's murder was a glimpse at the horror that Linwood Briley and his brothers would eventually unleash on their community. And after the Buchers' narrow escape, the brothers were careful not to leave any survivors.

A seven-month-long murder spree begins

The Briley brothers and Duncan Meekins wasted no time after robbing the Bucher home and nearly killing the couple. The four began a murderous rampage that lasted seven violent months before they were at last captured. Robbery was the primary motive for the murders, as they had decided to not leave any survivors behind. But Linwood and James seemed to take extra pleasure in the violence, brutalizing their victims with bats, concrete blocks, and other makeshift weapons. Several female victims were also reported to have been sexually assaulted by them, adding an even more sinister element to their crimes.

The Washington Post reports that Michael W. McDuffie was servicing a vending machine for his employer on March 21, 1979 when he was shot and killed by the Brileys. Next was the rape, robbery, and murder of 76-year-old Mary Gowen on April 9. On July 4, Linwood believed that 17-year-old Christopher M. Phillips was trying to steal his vehicle. He retaliated by dragging the teen into the backyard and crushing him with a rock.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Brileys got more violent. They entered a home shared by Blanche Page and Charles Garner, beating Page to death in bed. When police found Garner, they discovered that the elderly man's body had "knives, scissors, and a carving fork" stuck into it. Elsewhere, disc jockey John Gallaher was nabbed by the Briley's when he was outside a music venue. Gallaher was playing bass that night for a band and was getting some air. He was forced into his car and later robbed and shot.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Meekins cops a plea and seals the brothers' fate

The final day of the Briley brother's reign of terror took three lives. They broke into the home of Judy Barton and killed her, her 5-year-old son Harvey, and her live-in boyfriend Harvey Wilkerson (per The Washington Post). It was never determined if Anthony Briley had participated in any of the murders. He was spared the death penalty and given several life sentences (via UPI). Linwood and James would be blamed for the majority of the carnage, and both were sentenced to die in the electric chair. Much of the evidence that led them to death row came from their accomplice Duncan Meekins.

In exchange for his testimony against Linwood and James, Meekins was only charged with one murder and given a sentence of life in prison. He was incarcerated under a new identity in a prison far from where the Brileys would be held for his protection (per the Richmond Times-Dispatch). His term of life plus 100 years has been under some recent scrutiny, however. Meekins has been denied parole six times since he first became eligible in 1993, but a Richmond-area prosector had the ear of the parole board and emphasized that without Meekins' coming forward, the Briley brothers might have killed for longer. But this pitch in 2019 didn't work, as the parole board denied Meekins' release for the seventh time (per the Richmond Times-Dispatch).

The brothers are part of an elaborate death row escape plot

Linwood and James Briley weren't content sitting on death row and waiting for their turn to face the executioner. The two brothers used their time in prison to orchestrate and carry out the largest death row break-out in United States history (per Richmond Times-Dispatch).

The escape plan was a complex one and well-coordinated. A group of inmates overtook several guards at the prison and were able to get access to their riot gear. They put a knife to one of the guard's throats while he radioed in that the guards had discovered a bomb in the cell block. He asked that a prison van be pulled to a rear door so that the bomb could be loaded up and disposed of before it detonated. Dressed like guards in riot gear, Linwood and James Briley — along with Earl Clanton Jr., Derick Peterson, Lem Tuggle Jr., and Jones Willie Leroy Jones — burst outside toward the waiting van. Two of the "guards" were spraying a large lump underneath a blanket on the stretcher the other four were carrying out to make it look like they were cooling off the bomb. The "bomb" was a TV that they had pulled out of death row.

The order to open the prison gates was given and obeyed, and the six men rode off to freedom in the van. They had nearly $800 in cash that they had stolen from the guards and a good store of clothing to change into.

A tapped phone line leads to the Briley brothers being recaptured

The escapees all had a single destination in mind: They were to make their way north and sneak across the U.S./Canadian border, perhaps in hopes that the neighbor to the north wouldn't extradite them, based on Canada's policies against capital punishment (per Captial Punishment in Context). But none of the six made it quite that far. Tuggle Jr. and Jones were apprehended in Vermont on June 8 (per UPI). Earl Clanton Jr. and Derick Peterson had already been caught a week earlier in Warrenton, North Carolina. The entire east coast was probably on edge, knowing that the two Briley brothers were still out there, perhaps setting their sights on more victims while taking advantage of their newly found freedom.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Tuggle Jr. cooperated with authorities after his capture and revealed that he and Jones were in a stolen truck with the Brileys as far north as Philadelphia. It was near here that the brothers parted ways with the other escapees. Knowing that the Brileys had an uncle in the area, authorities tapped phone lines and organized surveillance. One traced phone call to a phone that was being monitored in New York led the police to a garage in Philly. The two brothers were there, barbequing chicken over a charcoal fire in an alley. They were arrested without incident. Charges were filed against Johnnie Lee Council, the Briley brothers' uncle, but were subsequently dropped.

James and Linwood Briley finally take a seat in the chair

Linwood was the first of the Briley brothers to be executed. UPI reports that in his final hours, he was visited by his mother and his 10-year-old son. He would go to the electric chair maintaining his innocence. After he was declared dead, his attorney, Deborah Wyatt, told the press, "He made it a little easier on everyone by being exceedingly brave and he maintained his innocence. Those were his last words."

James took his seat in the chair on April 18, 1985. Several weeks before his execution, he was married in a prison wedding ceremony on March 29. He and writer Evangeline Grant Redding had a short ceremony where they each exchanged vows. The Washington Post reports that the couple was allowed to hold hands during the event and exchange a kiss. Redding, the author of "Nothing: The Mentality of the Black Woman," believed James to be innocent of murder. James continued to protest his innocence up to the end but offered no final statement before the switch to the chair was thrown. Instead, he looked at the victims' families that were in attendance and said (via The Associated Press), "Are you happy?"

The other inmates on death row staged a violent disturbance on the morning of James' execution. Using weapons that they had fashioned themselves, they attacked guards and injured nine of the officers. Four of them had to be treated for stab wounds. But their aim of delaying James' execution was all for naught.