Killer Billy Sunday Birt was a father who left behind a family divided

Stoney Birt, right, with son Stone Birt on the construction site for a new subdivision in Sugar Hill, contends that his father, Billy Sunday Birt, was a good father despite also being a serial murderer. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Stoney Birt, right, with son Stone Birt on the construction site for a new subdivision in Sugar Hill, contends that his father, Billy Sunday Birt, was a good father despite also being a serial murderer. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Stoney Birt and Shane Birt write competing accounts of their gangster dad.

When Billy Sunday Birt, Georgia’s deadliest killer, wasn’t smuggling pills from Mexico, running moonshine, robbing banks, burning down buildings for insurance money or carrying out contract killings, he had a family life.

He married childhood sweetheart Ruby Nell in 1954 when he was 17, and she was 12. They settled in Barrow County and had five children, three boys and two girls. He named all the boys Billy.

His oldest son, Billy Stonewall Birt, who goes by Stoney, revered his father. Stoney, 62, said he knows his father was a gangster, but he was also a great father and the fastest moonshine driver in North Georgia. Stoney once wrote about him: “He was the best man I ever knew. He had more morals and a code of honor that no preacher or politician that I’ve ever known could stand up to.”

Billy Birt’s youngest son, Billy Shenandoah “Shane” Birt, believes his father’s name was “a curse.” Shane, 50, said Stoney’s description of Billy Birt’s moonshine-running life makes it seem like a fun episode from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” It wasn’t. “He was evil,” said Shane.

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Billy Sunday Birt, the Georgia gangster most associated with the so-called Dixie Mafia, was convicted of murder and spent 43 years in prison, more than half his life. Courtesy Billy Sunday Birt

Credit: Billy Sunday Birt

Billy Sunday Birt, the Georgia gangster most associated with the so-called Dixie Mafia, was convicted of murder and spent 43 years in prison, more than half his life. Courtesy Billy Sunday Birt

Credit: Billy Sunday Birt

Combined ShapeCaption
Billy Sunday Birt, the Georgia gangster most associated with the so-called Dixie Mafia, was convicted of murder and spent 43 years in prison, more than half his life. Courtesy Billy Sunday Birt

Credit: Billy Sunday Birt

Credit: Billy Sunday Birt

The lawmen who fought Birt and his powerful Dixie Mafia agree with Shane. Billy Birt was, without a doubt, one of the most prolific killers in the history of our country,” said retired GBI agent Bob Ingram, who put Birt on death row (later commuted to a life sentence) for a 1973 double murder.

Ingram’s colleague, former FBI agent Ron Webb, adds that, as a gangster, Birt had as much in common with Ted Bundy as with Al Capone. “The two couples he murdered that I worked, he would torture the females, make the guy tell them where the money was hid, then kill ‘em,” said Webb.

Birt always had a reason to kill. If you were a fellow bootlegger suspected of talking to the ATF or GBI, you were in danger. If you looked at one of Birt’s girlfriends, that could be fatal. If you walked in on a robbery in progress, that was bad news. If you kept a large amount of cash around the house, as did many of what Webb called the moonshine “retailers,” you were also a target. And there were the murders for hire, which he carried out dispassionately.

Billy Birt even shot his own brother Ray five times, during a fight at Billy’s pool hall. Ray Birt lingered at death’s door for a while, but recovered. Billy also burned down his mother-in-law’s house when she took Birt’s brother Jimmy to court in a family dispute. It was rough justice in Georgia.

Conservatively, Birt killed 56 people, said Ingram. Birt, who died in a Waycross prison in 2017, claimed there were more.

Story of two brothers

For a time, Billy Sunday Birt was a tourist attraction in his hometown of Winder. The Rock Solid distillery, opened in 2020 by Stoney and and his son — he’s named Billy Stonewall Birt II, and goes by Stone — served as a museum of Billy Birt memorabilia, as well as a popular watering hole.

Visitors from around the country sampled whiskey and brandy named in Birt’s honor, bought T-shirts, hats and books about Billy Birt, and heard stories about his heyday. The distillery has since been closed due to a legal dispute with the owners of the building and the lack of a business license.

Birt’s violent career took place mostly in the 1960s, and ended in 1974 when he was incarcerated for life. Yet Birt’s name is hardly known nationally, and even in Georgia many are surprised at the scope of his crimes.

“People who aren’t from around here find it hard to believe sleepy little Winder was like that, back in the 1970s,” said Jimmy Terrell, former chief investigator with the Barrow County sheriff’s department.

That is changing, partly due to the efforts of Billy Birt’s sons.

ExploreBill Torpy: The Dixie Mafia and the enduring tales of murder
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In 1983 Billy Sunday Birt (left), seen here with his son Stoney Birt, was stabbed 10 times by a fellow inmate at the Georgia Industrial Institute in Alto. He lost his left eye in the incident, but recovered from his injuries. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: Handout

In 1983 Billy Sunday Birt (left), seen here with his son Stoney Birt, was stabbed 10 times by a fellow inmate at the Georgia Industrial Institute in Alto. He lost his left eye in the incident, but recovered from his injuries. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: Handout

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In 1983 Billy Sunday Birt (left), seen here with his son Stoney Birt, was stabbed 10 times by a fellow inmate at the Georgia Industrial Institute in Alto. He lost his left eye in the incident, but recovered from his injuries. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In 2017, Stoney Birt self-published two books detailing his father’s life and was the central voice in a successful 2020 podcast, “In the Red Clay,” that focused on Billy Birt and the informally organized moonshiners in North Georgia. The podcast drew customers to Stoney’s distillery.

For the last four years Shane has been working on his own book about his father, with greater attention paid to his mother, Ruby Nell Birt, who sometimes worked five jobs to keep her children fed while Billy Birt served 43 years in prison.

“There’s been a lot of glorifying of his dad in some ways, and he wanted to set the record straight, that his mother was the hero of the family,” said Phil Hudgins, a former newspaper man who has been working with Shane and Ruby Nell to tell that history.

The question remains, how did Billy Birt and tiny Winder, a rural town of less than 5,000 residents in the ‘50s, become part of a crime empire that spread from Georgia to Mexico?

The answer, to start with, was moonshine.

Land of white lightning

Once a garment and textile center, the North Georgia town of Winder was settled by the Creek and Cherokee before Europeans arrived in the late 1700s. Early on the town was called Jug Tavern, perhaps in reference to a popular pub.

The region claims national pre-eminence in the illegal liquor trade, and Birt’s ancestors were early practitioners. His great-uncle John Hegwood was hanged in 1912 on a murder charge related to his whiskey business. On the same day, Hegwood’s brothers Pink (Billy’s grandfather) and Homer were arrested for killing a neighbor during a drunken argument.

Billy Birt joined the trade as a “tripper,” hauling gallons of white liquor in his souped-up Mercury Cyclone. He worked with moonshiners Hoke and Ruth Chancey and later with their son, Harold Chancey. They soon expanded into car theft, insurance scams and bank robberies.

Birt’s children also contributed to the alcohol enterprise. Shane got involved as a pre-schooler, hauling untaxed beer from the cooler on Sundays for customers at the home of another Chancey, Harold Chancey’s uncle Bush.

But as he visited his father in prison over the years, Shane learned that Billy Birt’s crimes exceeded the sins of untaxed whiskey. When Billy Birt switched from running whiskey to smuggling “Black Beauties” (a drug similar to today’s Adderall) and started using the pills regularly, his paranoia and his need to eliminate witnesses led him to kill many of the people who were part of his circle.

At Shane’s place

As workers built a new barn at the back of his 4.5-acre property in Statham, Shane recently sat out on a deck with two friends, sipping a Fresca. He identified one of his guests as his therapist, who asked not to be named; the other was former GBI man Ingram.

Barrow County, where his father had a hand in killing at least 28 people, is still home to relatives of the victims and is full of stressful reminders, said Shane, who was 2 1/2 when his father was imprisoned.

“Before I started therapy and meditation, I couldn’t go anywhere in Winder without these visions popping in my head,” said Shane, who was reluctant to talk to the AJC and refused to allow his picture to be taken. “I have nightmares about Daddy’s murders, like I’m there.”

He tried to escape that trauma with meth, he said, suffering with an addiction that lasted five years until 2003. He became homeless. “I lost my wife, my kids, my land and my business.” He also lost many of his teeth. “I’ve got about $10,000 in my mouth.”

Shane recovered, reconciled with his wife Jill and, with the help of several generous friends, is back in business, excavating, grading and preparing construction sites. Writing the book with journalist Phil Hudgins, he said, was a way to exorcize some of those memories.

Meeting with Ingram has also proved therapeutic. “I put his father on death row, and yet we became friends,” said Ingram, during the outdoor chat. They both understand the flawed character that was Billy Birt.

In the course of researching the book, Ingram and Shane unearthed Birt’s connection to a triple murder in Boone, North Carolina. On a snowy Feb. 3, 1972, a car dealer named Bryce Durham, his wife Virginia and their adult son, Bobby Joe, were murdered in their home.

The blizzard that night made roads almost impassable. Shane remembered Birt, during a visit to the prison, telling him about almost getting caught in the snow during one North Carolina “job” and mentioning the name Durham. Hudgins and Ingram tracked down the incident, and Ingram interviewed Birt’s partner, Billy Wayne Davis, still in prison in 2019.

The crime had remained unsolved for 50 years, but, with Ingram’s help, was put to rest by the Watauga County sheriff in February.

Shane finished his Fresca. The therapist left, and Shane and Ingram drove to a nearby cafe for lunch.

As he ordered a hamburger steak at Blazer’s, Shane seemed the picture of health, his deep tan and powerful arms tokens of a life spent in outdoor labor.

But just talking about the events of his life wring him out, he said, twisting the top off a pepper shaker and blackening his meal with the spice. It would take a few sessions with the therapist, he said, to get over the day’s conversation.

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A plaque at the Moonshine Hall of Fame in Dawsonville declares Billy Sunday Birt the "greatest whiskey driver" in the NASCAR era. Bo Emerson for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bo Emerson

A plaque at the Moonshine Hall of Fame in Dawsonville declares Billy Sunday Birt the "greatest whiskey driver" in the NASCAR era. Bo Emerson for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bo Emerson

Combined ShapeCaption
A plaque at the Moonshine Hall of Fame in Dawsonville declares Billy Sunday Birt the "greatest whiskey driver" in the NASCAR era. Bo Emerson for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

Riding with Stoney

Stoney has also faced difficulties, some of them self-inflicted. He was in jail by age 17, facing a 20-year sentence on a felony theft charge. “I was trying to beat him,” he said of his father, as he wheeled his 1972 Ford Cobra past the site of his dad’s former pool hall, now a thrift store for a ministerial association. “If your dad is Elvis, you want to be a singer.”

Stoney was 14 years old when his father was put away permanently. But before that, Stoney and Billy spent plenty of time together at all-night poker games at the pool hall (the soberly named Winder Recreation Parlor) and even on moonshine runs.

“He didn’t consider hauling whiskey dangerous,” said Stoney, whose father gave him a car when he was 12.

Stoney watched Billy perform miraculous physical feats, such as balancing on the wire that stretched across Tallulah Gorge. And he also saw the downside of the criminal life. One memorable event occurred after a 1971 shootout when Birt’s gang killed Marietta physicians Warren and Rosina Matthews in a home invasion. Gang member Willie Hester was shot, and Birt brought him home where Stoney watched his father dig a bullet out of Hester’s shoulder.

“One night he’d be telling me about Jack and the Beanstalk, and the next night he’d be telling me about blowing up an insurance office,” said Stoney, piloting the throaty Cobra on a tour of Winder and Barrow County.

He passed Chicken Lyle Road where Billy Birt hid the body of his colleague Donald Chancey, who Birt suspected of talking to the feds, and along the Mulberry River, near where Birt buried his good friend Otis Reidling, who was killed because he was perceived to be a security risk.

The day ended with a visit to the graveyard outside the modest White Plains Baptist Church, where Billy Sunday Birt is buried.

At the foot of Birt’s grave is a marker for his mistress Teresa Allen, who is buried in the same plot. Stoney toasted his father with a sip of home-made Rock Solid peach brandy, and pointed to a spot on Birt’s gravestone formerly reserved for Ruby Nell’s name, now covered up with a photo of the father’s famous moonshine-hauling Mercury Cyclone.

Hidden by the cuff of Stoney’s black jeans was an ankle monitor. He was under an injunction to stay away from his wife Linda, and his home in Bogart, after being indicted for assault and kidnapping.

In a separate meeting Linda Birt said the charges were unfounded. The two had an argument and she jumped out of the car he was driving. He never struck or choked her, she said. “Absolutely not.” The reason he was arrested, she said, “had to do with him being a Birt.”

A few weeks later Stoney said the injunction had been lifted, and he was back home.

Death penalty

A topic that comes up frequently in discussions with Stoney and Shane is the case that put Billy Birt in jail for life. On Dec. 23, 1973, a car dealer named Reid Oliver Fleming, 75, and his wife Lois, 73, were tortured, strangled and robbed at their home in tiny Wrens, near Augusta. The motive: jars of cash buried in the dirt floor of their smokehouse.

A 26-year-old Ingram, newly assigned to the GBI office in Thomson, methodically researched the crime, and found a chain of informants leading to Billy Wayne Davis. Davis was already in jail, convicted, along with Birt, of a bank robbery in Loganville. (Because Birt was a stutterer, he wouldn’t speak during bank robberies, for fear his speech impediment would reveal his identity, so Davis did the talking.)

Given immunity, Davis turned on Birt. Davis claimed to have waited outside in an RV while Birt and two others committed the Fleming murders and dug up the hidden money.

After he was convicted, Birt turned the tables on Davis and implicated him in three other killings, including the murder-for-hire of a gambler named Mack Sibley and the killings of the Matthews couple in Marietta. Davis was convicted in the Sibley murder and sentenced to life in prison. Birt’s death sentence was overturned on appeal, and converted to a life sentence.

Stoney maintains that his father was a killer but never tortured anyone. Shane doesn’t buy that.

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In 1972, Billy Birt (left) was hired to murder Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee (right), but Birt backed out of the deal. The two later became unlikely friends, and in 1992 Lee checked Birt out of prison to be baptized at a church in Winder before returning him to custody. File

Credit: Handout

In 1972, Billy Birt (left) was hired to murder Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee (right), but Birt backed out of the deal. The two later became unlikely friends, and in 1992 Lee checked Birt out of prison to be baptized at a church in Winder before returning him to custody. File

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
In 1972, Billy Birt (left) was hired to murder Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee (right), but Birt backed out of the deal. The two later became unlikely friends, and in 1992 Lee checked Birt out of prison to be baptized at a church in Winder before returning him to custody. File

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Aftermath

Birt was named after the famous evangelist Billy Sunday, but he was late to the faith. Stabbed 10 times by a fellow inmate in 1983, he lost his left eye, but perhaps gained a sense of mortality.

Birt’s family credits Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee with bringing Birt to God. Once contracted to kill Lee, Birt had second thoughts and the two became friends. In 1992 Lee secured a court order to release Birt into his custody and took him to a Winder church, unshackled, to be baptized by son Billy Montana Birt.

In 2017 Billy Sunday Birt, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from Parkinson’s disease at Ware State Prison in Waycross, used a strip of bed linen to hang himself. He was 79.

Ingram, 75, is retired from law enforcement, but there are still a few Billy Birt murders in other states he wants to resolve. “Am I going to do this all my life?” he asked rhetorically. (Answer: probably.) Shane said with the publication of his book, he doesn’t intend to speak about his father ever again. “Grace and Disgrace: Living with Faith and a Dixie Mafia Hit Man” will be published by YAV Publications, a small inspirational press in Asheville, North Carolina, this summer.

Stoney, on the other hand, hopes to reopen the distillery and said he has been approached by filmmakers who want to document his life. He said there are plans for another podcast.

All of this means that we haven’t probably heard the last of Billy Sunday Birt.


Copies of “Rock Solid: The True Story of Georgia’s Dixie Mafia,” and “Rock Solid: In His Own Words,” by Billy Stonewall “Stoney” Birt, are available at Amazon and at the Rock Solid website. rocksoliddistillery.com/

The Podcast “In the Red Clay” is available at intheredclaypodcast.com/.

“Grace and Disgrace: Living with Faith and a Dixie Mafia Hitman,” by Billy Shenandoah “Shane” Birt, Ruby Nell Birt and Phil Hudgins, will be published by YAV Publications later this year. https://www.yav.com/