PORT GIBSON, Miss. (AP) – A black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi was Otis Byrd, a convicted killer whose family reported him missing more than two weeks ago, the FBI said Friday.
Thirty federal agents are on the scene, interviewing Byrd’s friends and family, and searching through his home and a storage space as they try to determine whether it was homicide or suicide, FBI special agent Don Alway said.
Byrd lived about 200 yards from the tree, which was in woods down a dirt road behind his house.
“Everybody wants answers and wants them quickly,” Alway said, but he declined to reveal any evidence discovered so far. He said the government is bringing the resources “we need to come to a conclusion, wherever that takes us.”
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas Sr. told The Associated Press earlier Friday that Byrd did not appear to have stepped off of anything before he died.
“Life matters,” Lucas told the crowd outside the county courthouse. “I commit to you, as the sheriff Claiborne County, that I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future.”
Byrd was found Thursday hanging by a bed sheet from a tree limb about 12 feet high, and his feet were dangling about two feet off the ground. His hands were not bound, he said.
The results of an autopsy by the Mississippi Crime Lab to determine whether the death was homicide or suicide could take days, Lucas said.
The hanging is being investigated by the FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s office as well as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.
The feds are there to determine if it’s a potential hate crime or other violation of federal law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.
“We simply don’t know enough facts,” Holder told MSNBC.
Lucas knew Byrd, who had to check in with the sheriff’s department as a condition of his parole in 2006 after serving 26 years in prison for the murder of a woman during a robbery in 1980.
Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong said Friday that after local authorities asked his department to check on a report that Byrd had been at a casino, video surveillance was recovered showing Byrd at the Riverwalk Casino on March 2.
“We didn’t see anything of significance on the tape. He was just walking around the casino. We did not see him after that,” Armstrong said.
The body was found by state wildlife officers and had “obvious signs” of decomposition, suggesting that it had been hanging in the woods for some time, said Jim Walker, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.