Federal investigators are looking to interview relatives and acquaintances of Otis Byrd, whose body was found Thursday hanging from a tree, with a sheet tied around his neck, in rural Mississippi. So far, the investigation hasn’t ruled out foul play but suicide is also still a possibility. The FBI said Saturday that it expanded its search for people connected to Byrd both inside and outside the state.
“Everybody wants answers and wants them quickly,” FBI Agent Don Alway told reporters at a news conference Friday in Port Gibson, Mississippi. “Everybody has heard rumors, but we ask you to hold off.” Preliminary autopsy reports point to suicide, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing anonymous sources. Byrd’s body was found unbound, suggesting he wasn’t restrained at the time of his death, but there also wasn’t anything at the scene that Byrd would have stepped off to hang himself from a tree branch 12 feet off the ground.
"It wasn't no chair, no ladder," Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas told CBS News. "We all know the history of Mississippi, and I don't want anyone to feel like I got anything to hide.”
Mississippi was a hotbed of violence against African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. It led the nation in lynching black men in the decades prior to the rise of civil rights activism in the 1960s, records kept by the Tuskegee Institute show. But while the circumstances of Byrd’s death have evoked harsh memories of the state’s past, the FBI has yet to offer any statements suggesting Byrd was the victim of a race-inspired killing.
Byrd, 54, had been missing for two weeks before his body was found about 500 yards from his house. He served 26 years in prison for fatally shooting a convenience store clerk in a $101 robbery in 1980. After his parole in 2006 he spent time working on offshore oil rigs. Local sympathizers who believe Byrd was murdered are planning a march in Port Gibson on Monday, CBS reported.