Billy Sunday Birt was one of the most notorious killers in Georgia’s history, law enforcement estimating he was responsible for the death of more than 50 victims.
Some of the murders might remain unsolved, but there are bodies buried all over Barrow County and elsewhere that are tied to him and the Dixie Mafia, a loosely connected gang of criminals that prospered in Northeast Georgia in the 1960s and ’70s.
One of his sons, Shane, said much had been written and broadcast about his father, some of it distorted or untrue, but he wanted to set the record straight. Mainly, he also wanted to tell the story of his mother, Ruby Nell Birt, Shane’s hero who persevered through her husband’s infidelity and crimes to protect and raise her five children.
Deeply religious, she often had to work five jobs to support the family after her husband went to prison. “The main reason for writing this book,” she wrote, “is to show my children and everybody else that it is impossible to live the life I’ve lived, and to come through it blessed, without the Lord.”
Author Phil Hudgins of Gainesville put together the story, allowing Ruby Nell to tell much of it in her own words. He worked with Shane and the other Birt children, along with law enforcement sources and others who knew Billy Sunday Birt and his long list of crimes. Some of the pages are in Billy Sunday Birt’s own words from letters to his family.
The book is titled “Grace and Disgrace: Living with Faith and the Leader of the Dixie Mafia.”
It was no secret, even to Ruby Nell, that Billy Sunday Birt openly dated other women. He often stayed away from home, either with his woman of the moment or with fellow criminals doing their dirty deeds. Yet he often would buy groceries for the elderly or give money to children he didn’t even know. “He was two people,” Ruby Nell said.
She said she tried to shield their children from her husband’s notoriety. “I lived in terror over how their bearing the name ‘Birt’ would affect their lives,” she said.
Many of Billy Sunday Birt’s murders were “contracts,” when somebody wanted somebody else dead. Those who wanted to eliminate an enemy knew Birt would do it for a fee. Most of the murders were brutal, strangling, drowning, smothering, stabbing or simply shooting. Some were for revenge; people knew not to cross him.
He and his gang robbed banks, hauled moonshine, burned down and blew up buildings. Birt even set fire to Ruby Nell’s parents’ home and shot his own brother.
He and an accomplice eventually were convicted of the 1973 murder of an elderly Wrens couple, whom they strangled with coat hangers. They were sentenced to death, but never executed and served life in prison. Birt also was convicted for the 1972 murder of Donald Chancey, a former associate in crime.
Billy Sunday Birt committed suicide in a prison infirmary at age 79 in 2017.
One of the by-products of Hudgins’s book is the solution to one of Birt and his gang’s murders in Boone, North Carolina, in February 1972. Shane Birt, who often visited his father in prison, remembered him telling about a triple murder during a snowstorm in the North Carolina mountains.
He contacted Bob Ingram, chief deputy in the White County Sheriff’s Office at the time, who then contacted authorities in Boone. Ingram is credited with solving the crime after he interviewed Billy Wayne Davis, the only surviving member of the four who committed the murders. Davis, serving a life sentence in connection to a murder, maintained he was the driver and lookout for Birt and the other two criminals who killed a couple and their son by holding their heads under water in a bathtub.
It apparently was a contract killing, but the motive remains a mystery today.
To pre-order “Grace and Disgrace: Living with Faith and the Leader of the Dixie Mafia,” visit philhudgins.com.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.