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Sheriff David W. Oaks

1922-1966

Perhaps the darkest night in the history of the Burke County Sheriff's Office presented itself on August 21, 1966. On that Sunday night, Sheriff David W. Oaks, known widely for his still-busting abilities, was shot to death when he and his deputies attempted to arrest a textile worker who already had wounded a deputy sheriff.

The following excerpts concerning Sheriff Oaks' death appeared in the August 22, 1966 edition of the News Herald and are reprinted with their permission.

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Arrested on a charge of murder after one of the most intensive manhunts in the county's history was 62 year old Boyce C. Liverett, a fixer employed by the Henry River Cotton Mill.

 

Liverett, who suffered a minor gunshot wound while eluding officers during the night, was booked at 6:30 a.m. today at Burke County Jail, where he is being held without bond on a charge of slaying Burke's colorful sheriff with a spray of bullets from a 22-calibre semi-automatic rifle.

 

Oaks fell mortally wounded shortly after midnight, and was pronounced dead on arrival at Valdese Community Hospital.

 

Several deputies reportedly witnessed the shooting when they said Liverett, after repeatedly shouting, "I give up", suddenly lowered his upraised hands as he started out of a house filled with tear gas, and fired his rifle.

 

They said he disappeared through the rear of the house to start a five -hour search in which over 200 law enforcement officers took part.

 

Before Sheriff Oaks was shot, Liverett was charged with assault with a deadly weapon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Burns who was wounded in the right forearm by a rifle bullet when he attempted to serve two peace warrants on the man shortly after 10 p.m.

 

Burns' injury was a flesh wound and he remained on the scene until additional officers arrived with tear gas.

 

A prolonged exchange of shots occurred after Sheriff Oaks, who came down from his mountain cottage at Jonas Ridge after hearing reports of the shooting of Burns, and Chief Deputy Alvin H. Wise headed a contingent converging on the Henry River community.

 

Tear gas shells were lobbed into the house where Liverett was reported found. Officers said Sheriff Oaks urged them to caution as they approached the entrance, seeking shelter behind an auto parked near the door. Deputy Hal Gassman kicked open the door and quickly stepped aside, spotting the suspect lying on the floor just beneath a cloud of tear gas.

 

Officers said Liverett began shouting, "I give up," and Oaks told the man "Come on out with your hands up and nobody will hurt you."

 

His deputies said Oaks carried his own pistol in his right hand at his side and beamed a spotlight through the door where Liverett was expected to appear. In the meantime, the sheriff instructed Gassman to back up to where he was behind the car, and Gassman, a small man, said he was standing directly in front of Oaks when Liverett started toward the door with his arms upraised and then quickly lowered his automatic type rifle and began shooting in the direction of the sheriff's spotlight.

 

Oaks was struck by three bullets-one hitting him in the throat, another in the chest and a third fracturing the bone in his upper arm. The sheriff collapsed without firing a shot, telling his deputies that he had been badly shot. He was placed immediately in a car and rushed to Valdese Hospital but died on the way.

 

A call for additional officers brought State Hgihway (sic) patrolmen from three districts and top officers from Asheville, sheriffs and deputies from neighboring counties, and city policemen throughout the area. It was one of the largest concentration of law enforcement men seen in these parts.

 

While scouring the area, a call from a window notified officers that the man they sought was inside.

 

Liverett was found in the mill-owned house occupied by 42-year old Paul Lewis Lucas, a new employee of the Henry River mill. Lucas, ordered held under $1,000 bail as a material witness, told officers he and his wife, unaware of the violence which had occurred earlier, were awakened by a knock on the door about 4 a.m.

 

Lucas said he asked who was knocking and was told "Boyce the fixer." He said he let the man in the house and was told that the (sic) was afraid of his nephews and some men who were (sic) threatened him and wanted to stay on the Lucas sofa until daylight.

 

Lucas said he consented and returned to his own bedroom where his wife said men were walking around outside with flashlights. Lucas said he called through the window and asked who the men were and were told they represented the sheriff's department. It was then that he said he old (sic) them a man was inside the house.

 

Sheriffs from two neighboring counties-Damon Huskey of Rutherford and Haywood Allen of Cleveland-were in the search squad making the arrest, along with a number of Burke officers and highway patrolmen from the area.

 

Sheriff Allen said, "We were crossing from one house to another and a man called out of the window and asked, 'Who are you?' Everybody hit the ground. This was around 4:30 a.m."

 

The squad then moved in, mounting the porch.

 

"As we opened the door, " Allen later recalled, "the man we wanted was just inside the door. The first thing I saw was a rifle in his hands-a 22 automatic. I kicked the gun out of his hands and away from him. I had a choice of kicking the gun or shooting him."

 

With the arrest ending the massive search, Liverett was brought first to Grace Hospital after officers noticed blood on his side, found to be the result of a gunshot would described as minor. A 38-calibre bullet was removed from the flesh at his side, with only a small bandage being required.

 

Among the number of officers who exchanged gunfire with the man during the night, it was believed that the bullet came from a revolver fired by Deputy Gassman. Particles of wood attached to the bullet indicated it has been fired through a door, but it was not clear at what point during the night's search that Liverett was wounded.

 

After emergency treatment, Liverett was taken to jail.

 

The night's violence began with the wounding of Deputy Burns who went to Henry River to serve two search (peace) warrants on Liverett. Earlier in the evening, Burns said he was unable to find Liverett until he got a cousin of the man to help him.

 

The relative, locating Liverett inside a house, called and tried to persuade him to come outside, but the sought man refused and said he would shoot the first deputy who came through the door.

 

At that point, the man started firing his rifle through the closed door and then stuck the rifle barrel out through the hole which the bullets created.

 

Deputy Burns said he stepped behind a tree in the yard for protection until he saw a woman, identified as Alma Cline, who had been in the house with Liverett but who came outside in her efforts to persuade him to come out.

 

Burns said he was afraid the woman would get shot, so he reached out from behind the tree to pull her to safety. As he did so his arm was exposed, and a rifle bullet struck him in the right forearm.

 

The deputy radioed for help, which brought a number of deputies in addition to the sheriff.

 

Burns said two residents of the area had obtained peace warrants against Liverett, alleging that earlier on Sunday he had threatened to shoot them. Signing the complaints were Roy Rudisill and Jackson D. Scruggs. The two men and Alma Cline, who had been with Liverett, were listed as witnesses for a hearing on the request for peace bond.

 

Oaks, a Republican and one of the regions's most colorful law enforcement men, was elected sheriff of Burke County in 1962, unseating an incumbent who had held office for 16 years.

 

Sheriff Oaks was a candidate for re-election and was already conducting an intensive campaign looking to the November 8 general election.

 

With a vacancy on the GOP ticket, the Republican Executive committee is expected to meet soon to name a candidate for sheriff.

 

A large man physically, standing six feet one and a half inches and weighing about 220 pounds, Oaks usually wore a black homburg hat and bow tie.

 

With the vacancy created by the death of Oaks, the coroner of the county, Dr. John C. Reece, automatically becomes temporary sheriff, assuming the duties under the provisions of General Statutes 162.5 until the county commissioners hold their next meeting and appoint a sheriff to fill out the unexpired term.

 

Dr. Reece said today that he has asked Chief Deputy Alvin H. Wise and the present staff to continue their work as usual for the brief period that he expects to have the legal responsibility of serving in an interim capacity.

 

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Sheriff Oaks left behind a wife, three daughters, a son, and other family members who remember him for how he lived rather than how he died. A brave man who reportedly destroyed 65 illegal distilleries in an eighteen month period, his legacy lives on through his son, David "Wally" Oaks, who currently serves as a Burke County deputy.

 

The Henry River community is a quiet neighborhood today in contrast to the 1960's era. Most of the mill houses and the old cotton textile mill and store lie in ruins, although a number of the homes are still inhabited.

 

Boyce Liverett was sentenced to prison and was paroled prior to his death in 1989.

 

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