Local police have called in the FBI for help in investigating the death of a 54-year-old black man found Thursday hanging from a tree in the deep woods of central Mississippi.
The discovery has stunned friends and family members in this small rural town southwest of Jackson, where Otis Byrd, who had disappeared about two weeks earlier, worked as a riverboat employee.
"They're talking about it might be a hate crime," Byrd's nephew, Lee Kendrick Byrd, said as a cluster of relatives gathered outside the family home and were greeted by neighbors with condolences and hugs.
The nephew said the family had been told by police that Byrd's hands had been tied, but he had worked them free and tried to loosen the noose. But that could not be confirmed by authorities, who declined to release details.
At this point, “we don’t know if it’s suicide or homicide,” said Jason Pack, supervisory special agent for the FBI in Mississippi.
He said the hanging victim, who was identified by his family, had last been seen March 2, and had been sought by local authorities since the family filed a missing-person's report on March 13.
On Thursday, 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 half a mile from the victim's last known residence, Pack said.
The Sheriff's Department contacted the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and FBI for forensics and investigative assistance.
Pack said investigators were examining the scene for evidence to determine the cause and manner of death.
"We seen a man who had a bedsheet tied around his neck," Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas told CNN.
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.”
Byrd's father, Willy Shorter, 83, said he was told by authorities that they had found his son's body.
“They told me he was dangling in the tree, up in the tree hanging by his neck,” Shorter said in a telephone interview.
“This is a small town, everybody knows everybody,” and identifying the man wasn’t difficult, Shorter said.
He said he did not go to the scene.
“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.”
Outside the cluster of family homes known locally as "Byrdville," relatives said they were at a loss to understand what had happened.
"He wasn't a bad person. He was working hard," Lee Kendrick Byrd said.
"The good people get taken out quicker," said Randy Derby, a family friend who teaches at nearby Alcorn State University.
Shorter said Byrd was one of “about 19 children” and has about 15 siblings living in the area.
According to Shorter’s wife, Jannie, the family last saw Byrd on March 2, when they saw him walking down a street in Port Gibson. They did not talk at the time, she said.
FOR THE RECORD
A previous version of this post mistakenly rendered the name of Jannie Shorter as Janine Shorter.
A few days earlier, Byrd had come to the Shorter home to visit with his father, she said.
“He would take his daddy to see the doctors” for his kidney problems, she said.
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.
He was paroled in November 2006, according to the Clarion-Ledger newspaper.
The newspaper said Trim's daughter, Martha Rainville, became the first woman in the history of the National Guard to serve as a state adjutant general when she took that post in Vermont in 1997. Her husband, Paul McHale, is a former congressman from Pennsylvania and former assistant secretary of Defense, the paper reported.
As darkness fell, townspeople stopped their cars on the road, got out and offered expressions of sympathy to family members.
"I don't know why someone would do that," said Nicole Byrd, another family member by marriage. "You're going to end up in jail, too. Then the circle goes on again."
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Port Gibson and Muskal from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Lauren Raab in Los Angeles and Richard Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.