The fact that longtime state Sen. Tommy Burks was fatally shot as he readied a pumpkin patch for visiting schoolchildren was shock enough to residents of this farming community 75 miles west of Knoxville.

But what really has people here buzzing is the disappearance of his political challenger, Byron Looper, a controversial Republican who changed his middle name from Anthony to Low Tax, who already was in considerable legal trouble -- and who now is wanted for questioning in Burks's killing.

Although no charges have been lodged against Looper, who serves as the Putnam County tax assessor, residents are beginning to wonder if he might have attempted a shortcut in his bid to win the election -- by eliminating the opposition altogether.

Looper, who was last seen Sunday night, has not shown up all week for work at the courthouse and telephone calls to his Cooke-ville home have gone unanswered. Investigators this afternoon formally announced a request for the public's assistance in locating him.

"We feel the investigation has developed to the point where an interview with Byron Looper is necessary," said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the local district attorney's office and two area sheriff's departments in a joint statement. "We are concerned about his unexplained absence."

Looper's attorney, Lionel Barrett of Nashville, told WSMV-TV in an interview that he had recently spoken to Looper. "I would think that by this weekend or early next week that we may be in a position to have him meet with authorities," the Associated Press quoted Barrett as saying.

Burks, 58, a conservative Democrat who served 28 years in the state legislature, was found about 8:30 a.m. Monday by one of his farm workers, sitting slumped inside his old pickup truck, shot once at close range near the left eye. Investigators speculate his assailant may have driven up alongside him, fired and sped away.

Rumors are rampant that a man was seen leaving Burks's farm Monday morning in a dark-colored Chevrolet. But investigators said there was no evidence of robbery and there had been no hostile confrontations between Burks and Looper during the campaign.

Here in this shrinking farm town of 2,000 in the hills near Interstate 40, where violence is a rarity, the death of the popular and folksy Burks has shaken residents profoundly.

"Everybody loved Tommy. He could eat with governors, and he could sit down with a farmhand and eat a can of Vienna sausage," said Burks's minister, Johnny Fox of the Sycamore Church of Christ, who officiated at the Wednesday funeral.

Gov. Don Sundquist (R) and most members of the Tennessee legislature were among the 2,500 mourners.

Burks, according to Democrats and Republicans, had seemed virtually assured of reelection Nov. 3, and his approach to campaigning had reflected his apparent confidence. Except for a couple of fund-raisers he held early on, the race had been devoid of the usual campaign trappings, with no debates between the candidates or political ads.

State Democrats announced Wednesday that Burks's widow Charlotte, a homemaker, has agreed to run as a write-in candidate for her husband's seat in the 15th Senatorial District. "It's what Tommy would have wanted," she told reporters.

The announcement drew support even from state Republicans, including Senate GOP leader Ben Atchley, all of whom seemed eager to distance themselves from Looper.

"We did not recruit Mr. Looper to run for the state Senate or any other office," said Brad Todd, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party. "We have not assisted his campaign in any material way, nor will we."

In his political ambitions, Looper, who is in his late thirties, did not appear to seek the blessings of the political power structure.

He has been a controversial figure locally since he defeated Democrat Bill Rippetoe in 1996 for the county tax assessor's job. After his victory, he alienated local officials by firing off frequent faxes in which he referred to them as "good ol' boys," questioning their intelligence and accusing them of various instances of wrongdoing, according to the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville. He also often boasted publicly that he was the "most educated" tax assessor in the state, the newspaper reported.

Looper earlier this year launched an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by Democrat Bart Gordon, at the same time putting his name on the ballot to challenge Burks for the state Senate seat.

In March, however, he was indicted on charges of theft and misuse of county property and employees, apparently for campaign purposes, after an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He is facing trial in December. Looper publicly has denied any wrongdoing. The Associated Press reported that Looper also has been sued for $1.2 million by a former girlfriend who alleges he forced her to have sex and illegally transferred ownership of her home to himself.

Burks, meanwhile, the father of three and grandfather of seven, had made his reputation as a hard-working, down-to-earth lawmaker whose conservative views -- against abortion, legalized gambling and a state lottery -- were in keeping with the sentiments of the farm families he represented. Two years ago, he received some ridicule across the state when he sponsored a controversial bill that called for the firing of public school teachers who taught evolution as fact rather than theory. It did not pass the legislature.

At home, Burks was known as a generous sort who visited widows and elderly residents to check their supplies of coal and firewood in the wintertime, and made an October ritual of inviting schoolchildren to his farm for hayrides and to select pumpkins to take home for jack-o'-lanterns. CAPTION: Law enforcement officers guard evidence as they investigate slaying of state Sen. Tommy Burks, who died of a gunshot wound to head, in Monterey, Tenn. ec CAPTION: Former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter, right, with Jim Batey of state Highway Patrol, leaves graveside service for state Sen. Tommy Burks. ec