REED WILLIAMS AND BILL MCKELWAY TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITERS
Linwood Earl Briley was the oldest brother, the calculating leader of the Briley brothers gang.
As far as police know, he began his murderous career at age 16 when he shot and killed a 57-year-old neighbor, Orline Christian, on Jan. 28, 1971. She was hanging laundry in her backyard.
She had just buried her husband, so relatives thought stress might have caused a heart attack. But when the funeral home returned the robe she had been wearing, the family noticed a small, bloody hole in the back.
James Dyral Briley, about two years younger than his brother, had the face of a man who was born to die in the electric chair, a veteran prosecutor once remarked.
"He wasn't bright like Linwood, and he was cold," Warren Von Schuch, now special prosecutor for Chesterfield County, said recently.
Youngest brother Anthony Ray Briley took part in the vicious robbery and murder rampage 30 years ago but was spared the electric chair because authorities had no evidence that he personally killed anyone.
Together, the Briley brothers and their teenage accomplice, Duncan Eric Meekins, killed at least 11 people in the Richmond area in 1979. Authorities believe they might have killed or severely injured as many as 20 people.
Fear gripped the area when James and Linwood Briley led the escape of six killers from Mecklenburg Correctional Center in the largest breakout from death row in U.S. history. The escape took place May 31, 1984 -- 25 years ago tomorrow.
For 19 days, the two brothers were on the lam.
Richmonders locked their doors and windows. There was a glow in the city as people kept their porch lights on, and also a quiet. Fewer people were out on the streets.
The two were captured in Philadelphia on June 19. Linwood was executed in the electric chair at the State Penitentiary in Richmond in October that year. James met the same fate the following April.
Meekins, the star witness who testified against the Briley brothers, is credited with helping prosecutors get the death penalty for Linwood and James Briley.
For that help, Von Schuch and Robert J. Rice, the other prosecutor, are now asking that Meekins get a face-to-face parole hearing with someone from the Virginia Parole Board. The prosecutors promised long ago that they would speak on Meekins' behalf after he became eligible for parole.
. . .
It was a reign of terror that slipped beneath the radar of law enforcement for months.
There was no sense of a common killer. The crimes struck blacks, whites, the poor and people of better means.
They occurred in disparate sections of the city and in Henrico County.
James and Linwood Briley killed to eliminate witnesses to the robberies they committed, but they also seemed to take some pleasure in their work. They murdered with such versatility that police initially did not see a pattern.
In one case, Linwood crushed teenager Christopher Phillips' skull with a piece of concrete after suspecting the teen had tried to break into his car.
In another, he bashed the head of 75-year-old Blanche Page as she lay in bed, splashing the ceiling with blood, in the home she shared with Charles W. Garner. Garner's body was discovered with knives, scissors and a carving fork sticking out of it. The Briley gang lit a fire on his back with the Yellow Pages.
Phyllis Rother, 83, of Salem, N.H., is married to Page's nephew, Fred Rother. Until he was 7 years old, he lived in the home where Page and Garner were murdered.
"You love your family," Phyllis Rother said Wednesday, "and you can't believe that somebody could do something like that. It takes all kinds."
"There are homicides, and there are homicides," said Hanover County Sheriff V. Stuart Cook, who oversaw the Briley investigation as a Richmond police major in 1979 and witnessed Linwood Briley's execution.
"What a brutal bunch of sons of bitches they were."
. . .
One of the murder victims was country-and-western disc jockey John Gallaher, known as "Johnny G."
He had been playing bass with a band at the Log Cabin dance hall on Jefferson Davis Highway and stepped outside between sets when the Briley brothers abducted him on Sept. 14, 1979. They robbed him and took him to Mayo Island in his own car.
Linwood Briley shot him, and fishermen found the body two days later, partially submerged in the James River. Linwood was sentenced to death for that killing.
The Briley gang took $6 from Gallaher's wallet and divided the money among themselves.
Gallaher's pearl gray Lincoln Continental was recovered the day after he disappeared. His hairpiece was found nearby.
"It was rough," recalled Sam Marks, who was part-owner of the Log Cabin. "I never felt the same about the place after that. Somehow, I felt responsible -- the fact that he was playing at my place."
Gallaher was a close friend of Richmond police detective Leroy Morgan, now 73 and retired. Morgan's wife regularly set a place at the dinner table for Gallaher, and Morgan still plays Johnny G's old bass guitar.
After the Brileys were arrested in October 1979, Morgan was called in to help with the interrogation. At that point, no one knew the Brileys were involved in Gallaher's death.
Upon arriving at the police station, the first thing Morgan noticed when he looked at Linwood Briley was a turquoise ring on the killer's finger.
Suddenly, the detective felt sick. He recognized the blue and white ring with a distinguishing sliver of black. It had belonged to Gallaher. Morgan was with him when he bought it.
"I'm not a violent person, but I sure could have . . . well, it wouldn't have taken much for me to have jumped him," Morgan said recently, adding that Linwood started mouthing off to him. Another detective told Morgan to cool off.
Morgan's recognition of the ring helped solve his friend's murder. "I got some satisfaction out of that," Morgan said. "Yes, I did."
When the Brileys escaped years later, Morgan's sergeant asked if he wanted any extra patrol units outside his house for protection.
Morgan declined the offer. He had a .357-caliber Magnum at home. If the Brileys showed up, that would be fine with Morgan. He would be ready.
. . .
There are few known survivors of a Briley attack.
William and Virginia Bucher were lucky. They got away after the gang left them to burn alive in their Henrico County home.
Bucher, now 88, believes he was saved by the inexperience of Meekins, the Brileys' then-15-year-old accomplice. Bucher's wife has since died, as has his second wife.
The Brileys knocked on the Buchers' door on Lafayette Avenue off Hilliard Road shortly before 9 p.m. on March 12, 1979. Bucher figured it was the paper boy coming to collect payment.
Instead, a man Bucher didn't know told him his car had broken down and asked to call AAA. Bucher said he would be glad to call for him and told the man to give him his AAA card.
The man fumbled around and pulled out a card. Just when Bucher cracked open the screen door to accept the card, the stranger produced a gun and barged inside.
Virginia Bucher looked up and saw a man walking toward her with a gun at her husband's head, a knife at his throat. One of the men warned her not to make any noise or they would cut off his ear.
The Buchers were forced to lie on the floor in separate rooms. They were tied up with rope.
William Bucher believes the person who tied him up was Meekins because he seemed especially young and green, like he didn't know what to do. Bucher kept telling him not to tie the rope too tight because it would hurt. Meekins obeyed, a fact that probably saved the Buchers' lives.
The Briley gang ransacked the house and started spraying lighter fluid all over, including on Bucher's leg as he lay on the floor. They soaked a nearby sofa, put clothes under a table in the dining room. Soon, flames were everywhere. The smoke alarm was going off.
As soon as the Brileys left, Bucher wiggled one hand free and untied himself. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen and cut his wife loose. They ran outside to safety.
"I felt doggone lucky," Bucher now says. The couple's cat, Tinkerbell, perished in the blaze.
The Brileys stole the couple's car and abandoned it. They took two televisions and other items, including Bucher's .32-caliber gun and his police scanner.
The brush with death kept the couple from going out at night for a while. Even now, Bucher is leery. He refuses to go shopping alone at night.
. . .
The three brothers lived on Fourth Avenue in Richmond's Highland Park with their father and several pets, including a boa constrictor, a tarantula and piranhas. The brothers kept a scrapbook of newspaper articles chronicling their exploits. Meekins lived on the same block.
For months, authorities found no pattern linking the Brileys' crime scenes. Eventually, months of seemingly random mayhem started to meld together.
Richmond and Henrico police were interested in a group of young men who seemed particularly aggressive and standoffish and practiced martial arts in a North Side park.
It was Oct. 19, 1979, and James Briley told a Richmond judge he had no plans of getting back into trouble. He had been paroled after serving time for robbing a convenience store.
That night, he and Meekins killed three people -- a man, a pregnant woman and their 5-year-old son -- in their home on Barton Avenue in North Richmond. It was perhaps the gang's most horrific crime.
Early that evening, Shirley Englehart, then a Henrico police investigator, was alone in a surveillance van and heard James and Linwood arguing outside their house about whether police were inside the van watching them. James didn't think so, but Linwood did.
The brothers walked up to the green Chevrolet van, looked through the tinted windows and started shaking the vehicle. James fired a gun into the air and into the ground in their yard.
If police were inside the van, James told Linwood, they would have stormed out after the gunshots. That settled the argument, and they got in their car and drove away, Englehart recalled Thursday.
Still under surveillance -- at one point from the air and on the ground -- the Brileys parked that night near a home in the 2300 block of Barton Avenue. Officers lost sight of the gang.
Inside the house, two of the Brileys and Meekins raped Judy Diane Barton, who was pregnant. James Briley shot her four times in the head.
Then he told Meekins what he had to do. "You got to get one," he said.
They took a pillow, held it to Harvey W. Wilkerson's head, and Meekins shot him through the pillow. James Briley put another round in the head of the couple's 5-year-old son, Harvey Wayne Barton.
The brutal slayings were the last ones attributed to the Briley gang.
The police who were conducting surveillance heard the gunshots and saw the gang hurry back to their car and drive off. But authorities didn't know where the shots came from, and they didn't detain the Brileys.
Two days later, authorities discovered the three bodies in the sweltering house on Barton Avenue after someone went to the home and notified police.
Wilkerson had pet snakes, and the Briley gang had let them out before they left. Animal-control officers had to clear out the house so investigators could work the scene.
Von Schuch, the veteran prosecutor, still remembers his shoes sticking to the blood-caked floors as he walked through the house, and the smell lingered on his clothes. When he got home, he peeled them off and threw them out with the trash.
The day after police discovered the crime scene, they arrested the Brileys and Meekins. James Briley was sentenced to death for his role in the triple murder.
Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr., who was a city police investigator at the time, chased down and captured Linwood Briley near the intersection of East Brookland Park Boulevard and Meadowbridge Road in Highland Park after Linwood jumped out of a car he was driving.
The car, with Linwood's father and Meekins inside, kept going and hit a telephone pole. Police caught Meekins as well.
Once Meekins was in custody, it didn't take long for Detective Sgt. Norman A. Harding, now retired, to get him talking in the presence of his parents. He told investigators all about the violence of that year, linking the Brileys to crimes that the investigators had no idea the gang had committed.
Meekins also told authorities something else James Briley did. Before police had found the bodies on Barton Avenue, James decided he needed a better TV for his room to match all the stuff in his brothers' rooms.
So James went back to the house on Barton, stepped past the bodies and carried off the family's TV.
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