FBI: 'Community deserves answers,' in hanging of Mississippi black man

Investigation is launched after the body of a black man is found hanging in a Mississippi tree

Preliminary results of an autopsy on the body of Otis Byrd, whose body was found hanging from a tree in rural Mississippi, strongly suggest the death was a suicide rather than foul play, sources said, hours before officials said that a formal determination of the cause of the death will be delayed until next week.

At an afternoon news conference, Special FBI agent Don Alway confirmed the dead man’s identity and said he would not speculate about a cause of death. Results of the autopsy will be available next week.

“Everybody wants answers and wants them quickly,” Alway told reporters at an afternoon news conference. “Everybody has heard rumors, but we ask you to hold off.”

He said more than 30 law enforcement agents will continue to pursue the investigation “until we get a definite answer” on the details of Byrd’s death.

Officials said they were looking at a storage locker used by Byrd. They also said there was no indication that he had been shot, Alway said.

“The community deserves answers, the family deserves answers,” said Alway, who met with Byrd’s family before the news conference. Also meeting with the relatives was Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas, who called for prayers on behalf of the Byrd family.

Earlier, a law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times that early results from the autopsy and tests were leading investigators to believe the death was a suicide.

“It looks like that,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, adding “that’s where they are headed,” to a finding of suicide. The official declined to give further details.

After the news conference, sources said that there were no signs of foul play and that suicide was the likely conclusion.

The body of Byrd, 54, was found Thursday hanging from a tree near his  home in Port Gibson. He had been missing for two weeks.

Sheriff Lucas told the Los Angeles Times that a bed sheet was wrapped around the man’s neck, but there were no other visible signs of distress on the body. The  man’s hands and feet were not bound, his mouth was not gagged, there were no other outward signs of injuries.

Lucas said that no note was found on the body and authorities have not heard of any threats against the man.

The sheriff said Byrd, a riverboat employee, was last seen around March 2 when he and a family member visited a local casino. He said Byrd returned home with someone else, whom the sheriff identified as a friend.

“They came back home together,” Lucas said.

Meanwhile, Lucas said, his deputies and FBI and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agents are continuing to scour the woods where Byrd’s body was found, and also are knocking on doors in search of witnesses or tips that could solve the mystery of how he ended up dead in the tree.

Derrick Johnson, head of the state chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group wanted to be certain the death was not racially motivated.

“We want to make sure it was not a racial hate crime,” he said. “We cannot stand by in 2015 and watch a lynching, if in fact that's what happened.”

The discovery of the body stunned this small rural town southwest of Jackson, where Byrd had worked as a riverboat employee.

The Claiborne County Sheriff's Department and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks located the body in the woods near Roddy Road.

About a quarter-mile down a dirt road, investigators had strung yellow police tape around several trees in a grassy clearing. One of the locust trees that fit the sheriff's description appeared to have had a portion of a sturdy vine removed near the ground where someone might have stepped, and an area beneath it was crawling with bugs and stank of decay.

Johnie Baker, 87, who owns the 40-acre plot and leases it out to his nephew for hunting, said he does not suspect foul play.

"I don't think it was repercussions for what happened in the past," Baker, who is white and grew up nearby in a poor sharecropper family, said of Byrd's death. "That would be my last conclusion -- that it's race-related."

According to court records, Byrd was convicted of murder in 1980. The victim, according to news accounts from the time, was a 55-year-old convenience store operator, Lucille Trim. She was shot four times during an armed robbery. Byrd was paroled in November 2006, according to the Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

Lucas told reporters that there was no evidence linking the latest death to the events of 1980.

Willy Shorter, Byrd's father, said authorities told him his son "was dangling in the tree, up in the tree hanging by his neck.” 

“I don’t want to see my son,” Shorter said. “I want to remember him the way I always saw him. I don’t want to remember him hanging from the tree.”

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


1:53 P.M.: This article was updated with new details from authorities.

11:48 a.m. This article was updated to include more details from the sheriff.

11:01 a.m.: This article was updated with information from the preliminary autopsy.

The first version of this article was published at 10:17 a.m.