The Briley Brothers


This month marks the anniversary of the largest escape from a death row in history. It’s an event that will never be forgotten by those of us who were involved in the manhunt that stretched over hundreds of miles and several states. But first, a little history about the masterminds of that prison break from the maximum security facility that was once dubbed “escape proof.”

The late 1970s brought fear into the city of Richmond, Virginia. Not knowing who would be the next victim in the Briley Brothers killing spree caused many to stay inside their homes, hiding from a pair of murderers who assassinated  people for fun. The two brothers, Linwood and James (J.B.), were responsible for nearly a dozen homicides during a seven month period.

Linwood was the first of the brothers to kill. In 1971, while still a juvenile, he sat at his bedroom window with a rifle and took aim at his elderly neighbor through her kitchen window as she went about her daily routine. He shot and killed her. Later, he told police that she had heart trouble and was going to die soon anyway. Linwood served only one year in a juvenile facility for the murder of his neighbor.

James, in the meantime, was following in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, was sent to a juvenile facility for shooting at police officers during a pursuit.

The Briley Brothers had a younger brother, Anthony, who joined his older siblings in their rampage, along with a friend, Duncan Meekins. Meekins would later testify against the Brileys.

The Briley’s victims:

William and Virginia Butcher – tied up and left to burn to death after the Brileys robbed them and set their home on fire. These are the only two victims to have survived an encounter with the Briley Brothers.

Michael McDuffie – assaulted and shot dead before being robbed of his possessions.

Mary Gowen – violently raped and murdered.

Christopher Phillips – dragged into a back yard by the three brothers and pinned to the ground while Linwood crushed his skull with a cinderblock.

John Gallaher – Gallaher stepped outside a nightclub where his band was performing and was kidnapped by the Briley Brothers. The men placed Gallaher into the trunk of his own car and then drove to a location near the James River where Linwood Briley shot Gallaher in the head at point blank range. Linwood then dumped the body into the river. The kidnapping was a random act. Gallaher just happened to step outside into the paths of the passing brothers.

Mary Wilfong – beaten to death with a baseball bat by Linwood.

Blanche Page and Charles Garner – Page was beaten to death. Garner was assaulted with many weapons including a baseball bat, scissors, several knives, and a meat fork. The scissors and fork were left embedded in Garner’s back.

Harvery Wilkerson, his wife, Judy Barton (she was five months pregnant), and their five-year-old son – Wilkerson and Barton were bound and gagged. Judy Barton was sexually assaulted by Linwood and Meekins. Meekins then shot Wilkerson in the head while James shot Barton and the five-year-old boy.

The four killers were arrested shortly after the murders in the Wilkerson home. They were each tried and convicted for their crimes. The two older Brileys were sentenced to death.

Electric chair at the old Virginia Spring Street penitentiary. The chair was later moved to Greensville Correctional Center in Sussex County, where I witnessed the execution of serial killer Timothy Spenser, The Southside Strangler.

Anthony Briley was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. Meekins, in exchange for his testimony against the three Brileys, was sentenced to life plus eighty years, which made him eliglible for parole in 12-15 years.

But this was not the last that Virginia would hear from the Brileys. On May 31, 1984, the Brileys would lead the largest successful mass escape from a death row in history. Please return on Monday June 1st for details of the escape, capture, and execution of the Briley Brothers. I’ll also describe my conversation with Linwood Briley after his capture.

  1. Jerry W.
    Jerry W. says:

    I am a Richmond Native .
    These men were so Hated that If the KKK Had whiped and hung them in the Blackest most crime ridden area of town . The people would swear that the KKK was not involved.
    The night of the executions people held parties in North side to celebrate.
    These men were beyond EVIL.
    I have a friend that was on the street violence task force when the briley brothers escaped from death row that was ordered to watch the briley’s home in case they returned.
    They were ordered by the police chief and mayor not to bring them in alive.
    If ever any one thing joined the black and white communities togeather it was the hatred of the briley’s

  2. Carla F
    Carla F says:

    Thanks, Lee! Sometimes the law just doesn’t make sense. On average, 15 years is not the remainder of one’s natural life unless the person in question is quite up there in years. I’m sure the victims would’ve been happy to have another 15 years of life, but they and their families were robbed of that time. I can only hope that 15 years in prison *does* feel like it’s a lifetime to the one serving it.

    Can’t wait to read the rest on Monday!

  3. queenofmean
    queenofmean says:

    I’m with Sarah. I wonder how a ‘human being’ can so brutally (& seemingly without remorse) attack & kill other human beings. Even animals don’t kill for fun. I know these type of people exist out there, but each time I read about them, I get sickened. These are the type of crimes that warrant the death penalty – actually death is almost too good for them.
    Sorry, that sounds really horrible. I work for a doctor who sometimes acts as an forensic expert in murder cases. I’ve heard the stories about how child abuse, drug abuse, head injuries, etc made them who they are. I understand all that, but at lot of times, I still can’t dig up any sympathy.

  4. Sarah Grimm
    Sarah Grimm says:

    I know I’m not the only one…I can’t understand what makes people such brutal killers. Such horrific ways that their victims suffered before death. There are no words.

    Looking forward to reading about their escape and capture.

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Carla – I agree with you, but the law is the law. Here’s the Virginia code section (most states are similar) that addresses parole for a person sentenced to a single life sentence:

    C. Any person sentenced to life imprisonment for the first time shall be eligible for parole after serving fifteen years, except that if such sentence was for a Class 1 felony violation or the first degree murder of a child under the age of eight in violation of § 18.2-32 (statute for murder), he shall be eligible for parole after serving twenty-five years, unless he is ineligible for parole pursuant to subsection B1 or B2.

  6. Carla F
    Carla F says:

    I don’t understand the legal system. How does “life plus 80 years” equal parole eligibility in 12 – 15 years? Shouldn’t a convicted criminal be eligible for release 80 years after their life term is completed? If we don’t follow through on the exact terms of punishment, where’s the punishment?

    I try not to side with capital punishment (your prior description of execution by electric chair really made me think; for some crimes, though, I’ll happily make an exception) but it just seems like some of these heinous crimes result in little more than a slap on the wrist. The victims won’t have the option to get up and walk away after 12 years of good behavior, so why should the criminals? Or am I preaching to the choir?

    Sorry, I think I tripped over my soap box again.