(Reuters) – The FBI is investigating the death of a black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi on Thursday in what may be a crime or a suicide, the agency said.
The man, whose name was not released, was found in a wooded area in Claiborne County, in western Mississippi, about half a mile from his home, Jackson-based FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack said in a statement.
The man had last been seen on March 2, and his family filed a missing-persons report six days later, Pack said, adding that the body was found in the course of a search conducted by local and state authorities.
“Investigators are currently processing the scene for evidence to determine the cause and manner of death,” Pack said.
Local authorities did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The FBI is investigating the death of a 54-year-old Mississippi man found hanging less than a half-mile from his home in rural Claiborne County.
Otis Byrd was last seen on March 2, being dropped off by a friend near a casino in Vicksburg. He was reported missing by his family on March 8, and the sheriff’s office reported Byrd missing to the Mississippi FBI office on March 13th.
Jason Pack, a special agent with the FBI office in Jackson, Mississippi, said in a statement emailed to MSNBC Thursday that Byrd’s body was found “hanging in the woods near Roddy Road a half mile from his last known residence” after members of the Claiborne County Sheriffs Department and the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks “conducted a ground search.”
“The sheriff’s department contacted the [Mississippi Bureau of Investigations] and FBI for forensic and investigative assistance,” Pack’s emailed statement said.
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi state branch of the NAACP, told MSNBC the investigation into Byrd’s death is “very preliminary.”
“We’ve been in touch with the FBI, who’ve just finished meeting with the family,” he said Thursday evening.
Johnson confirmed that Byrd had been “formerly incarcerated for a murder” for which he was convicted in 1980. He said Byrd was “convicted of killing a white woman in the same county.” But he declined to speculate on whether Byrd’s past had any connection to his death, and said it was unknown whether he had faced any threats prior to his disappearance. Johnson said Byrd was released from prison “less than a year ago.”
Byrd’s residence just outside of Claiborne County was in an extremely rural area, for which the closest town is Port Gibson, about 45 miles from Jackson and 20 miles from Vicksburg.
Claiborne County “has the highest percentage of African-Americans in the state,” Johnson said.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division is also investigating Bird’s death, a Justice Department official told MSNBC.
Johnson said the NAACP is awaiting word from investigators and is drawing no conclusions about whether Byrd’s death was a suicide or a homicide. He noted that the sheriff of Claiborne County is the immediate past president of the local NAACP branch, and that the organization feels confident in “withholding judgment” and allowing the investigation to proceed.
UPDATE Via MSNBC
On March 2nd, Otis Byrd went to the casino.
Byrd sometimes liked to gamble, said Sheriff Marvin Lucas, who has lived in rural Claiborne County, about an hour and a half drive from Jackson, Mississippi, all his life.
Trim, then 55, was white. Byrd was black, and 19 years old at the time.
Lucas, who besides being sheriff is also the immediate past president of the local NAACP chapter, knew Byrd, whom he would sometimes see at services at Mount Burner Baptist Church. Lucas has known the church’s pastor, Ray Earl Coleman since eighth grade.
Byrd was on probation in February 1980 when he robbed the Trim Grocery store in Port Gibson, the nearest town. “The store was not far from where his dad lived on Tillman Road,” Lucas said of Byrd. “Lucille Trim had this little store and he robbed it, and when he did he shot and killed her. He probably went there every day. He knew her.”
Byrd was paroled in 2006, after serving more than 25 years. He returned to Claiborne County, and became reacquainted with Wood. He rented a house on Rodney Road, from a man named Mr. Buck, who Lucas said, “buys old houses and rents them out.” Byrd lived alone, but his father, Willie Shorter, his sister, Reather Ann, an assortment of nephews, nieces and other family members sprawled out over the smattering of houses in a heavily wooded area just outside Port Gibson, checked in on each other frequently. Byrd had been to see his father just two days before he disappeared. People who knew him around town, who aren’t hard to find in the small enclave, say he mostly kept to himself. “He was quiet,” said Andre Wyatt, who said he’d known Byrd his whole life.
“After he came back” in 2006, Wyatt said, “you didn’t hear about him getting into anything.”
And Byrd enjoyed gambling in Vicksburg, at the casino boats less than 20 miles from his rented home. Read Full Story