Man Found Living in a Small Town Under New Name 37 Years After He Escaped From Prison
Billy Burchfield was serving a 16-year sentence when he escaped Jackson County Correctional Institution in 1979.
A Georgia man who escaped prison and spent nearly four decades hiding in plain sight was captured and will now be made to serve out the rest of his sentence, authorities said.
Billy Burchfield, 67, was arrested in 1973 and charged with voluntary manslaughter in the death of his 22-year-old wife Vera Sue Burchfield, who he shot in the neck during an argument.
Burchfield was serving a 16-year sentence at Jackson County Correctional Institution when he escaped in 1979, police said.
Authorities searched for Burchfield to no avail and remained unaware he had assumed the identity of his late cousin Harold Arnold and make a life for himself in London, Kentucky, officials said.
"Billy Burchfield had been living under the assumed name for the past 37 years," Sheriff John Root with the Laurel County Sheriff Department said.
Burchfield reportedly went on to marry twice, run multiple businesses — including a diner that was frequented by law enforcement officials — and become a deacon at the local church.
But that life came to a screeching halt when authorities acting on a tip came knocking on Burchfield’s door June 15.
Burchfield’s sisters told the Dalton Daily Citizen that another relative who was arrested on drug charges offered up the wanted man’s whereabouts in exchange for having his own charges dropped, but they declined to name the tipster.
Burchfield submitted to fingerprinting, which revealed his true identity, police said.
News of Burchfield’s arrest stunned those who knew him in his post-escape life.
“He is one of the most great and generous men you can meet or know,” Kathy Burchfield, who identified herself as the wife of Burchfield’s grandson, told InsideEdition.com, calling him the “most loving person you can ever meet in your lifetime.”
She said she had no idea her in-law was running from the law, hearing of his 1973 arrest for the first time when he was captured last month.
“I didn’t know what to think,” she said. "We are just waiting for all this to be over."
Still, she stressed that his past does not line up with the man she knows, saying she wants people to know “that he was a good man.”
Others who knew Burchfield spoke of a well-liked and well-mannered man.
“He was a quiet man, but charismatic. Every time I went into his store, he had a smile on his face,” said Paul Alsip, who lived next door to Burchfield’s business and knew him by the last name “Arnold.”
“He was friendly with everyone I seen and would chat with anyone and everyone,” Alsip said. “I even remember some of the local police visiting his deli/restaurant, quite frequently and speaking in deep conversation.
“I've heard stories of him, doing a lot of good deeds for people in the community,” he said, recounting the many times Burchfield gave a single mother milk from his store, free of charge. “Apparently, she was trying to pay in all change.”
“The guy I knew from the store was a friendly man. I don't think anyone here, even the local police, would deny this about him,” he continued.
But relatives of his victim feel differently about Burchfield’s capture, saying he must pay for what he did to Vera Sue Burchfield, who died three days after being shot.
“I let it go when I thought he was dead, but then when I found out he was alive — oh, I got mad,” Janice Smith, Vera Sue Burchfield’s daughter, told WTVC-TV.
Her mother’s death haunts her every day, she said.
“I may have been five, but I remember. I'll never forget that,” Smith said.
She told the television station that her mother had been arguing with Burchfield and was packing his bags, readying to make him leave, when he shot her.
Burchfield made his escape while on a work detail at a landfill, the Jackson Herald reported at the time. Under the guise of needing the restroom, Burchfield fled to a car waiting nearby. Then he and the driver, a woman, took off.
“The person who helped him and knew he was alive all these years running around, they should be ashamed of themselves,” Smith said.
It was not the first time Burchfield had made a break for it. He and a few other inmates escaped a work detail in 1975 and were caught in Detroit later that year. Another year was added on to his sentence for his escape.
After his second and successful escape, he reportedly settled in California where he had two children. He then moved to Kentucky, where he married a woman he divorced after five years. The couple recently reconciled and was living together at the time of his arrest, according to reports.
A woman who answered the phone at Burchfield's listed residence declined to comment when reached by InsideEdition.com.
Burchfield met his second wife, Carol Shell, in the late 1980s. The couple wed and remained married until Shell died of cancer in 2006.
“He waited on her hand and foot,” his sister, Martha Jones, told the Dalton Daily Citizen. “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.”
Burchfield was extradited to Georgia on July 5, when he began serving out the rest of his original sentence — which will now end on January 15, 2026, authorities told InsideEdition.com.
Burchfield will then serve a year and one week for escaping, officials said.
"It's shocking to think one man could fly under the radar for so long without getting caught. You have to admit, it's quite impressive!" Alsip said. "The guy lived under his dead cousin's name. He started a complete new life, marriage and all. The guy even opens a store in which the local police visit regularly and befriend him.
"You can't help but think, what good is prison going to do for this man, at this point in his life?" Alsip said. "How will it rehabilitate a man who seems to have already rehabilitated himself?"
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