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.
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.”
Trim, then 55, was white. Byrd was black, and 19 years old at the time.
Lucas says the motive for the 1980 robbery was a meager amount of money. “He was trying to get money to pay his probation officer fees,” Lucas said of Byrd. “It was $15 a month that he had to pay. He robbed the store to get it.” County records show he got $101. He was convicted of capital murder on October 28 that year and served more than 25 years.
The dead woman’s daughter, Martha Rainville, went on to become the first woman state adjutant general in the history of the National Guard in Vermont in 1997. She currently lives in Virginia and is married to former Pennsylvania Congressman Paul McHale, who is also a former assistant secretary of defense.
Lucas says prison is likely where Byrd met Tom Wood. Wood had a troubled past of his own. Around 1983, the sheriff said, Wood and two friends, Cornell Curtis and Carla Curry, committed an armed robbery at another store in Port Gibson, killing the mother of a local man, Cody Parker. Parker still lives in town. Lucas says he runs a company called Deer Park Fencing.
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.
On the morning of March 2nd, Byrd’s niece was the first to take him to the Riverwalk Casino in Vicksburg, Lucas said. She told the sheriff she drove her uncle back to his house afterward and dropped him off. Sometime later that day, Byrd decided to go back to Vicksburg and gamble some more.
“Tom Wood took him to the boat and dropped him off,” Lucas said, and Byrd “caught a ride back” with a man Lucas declined to name, since he came forward anonymously, telling the sheriff he dropped Byrd off at the house on Rodney Road, alive and well. “That was Monday night, 10:30 to 11:00 at night,” Lucas said. The fact that the house is where the friend says he last saw Byrd was “how we knew to look around there” when Byrd went missing, the sheriff said.
When six days later, on March 8, Byrd’s family hadn’t seen or heard from him, they filed a missing person’s report.
"Something kept telling me we need to look back there in them woods."'
“I don’t have a whole lot of deputies,” Lucas said. “So I called MBI to help.” The Mississippi Bureau of Investigations entered the case on March 13. But Lucas said they didn’t bring enough manpower either, so he called in the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks Department. “I needed some men on foot to go into those woods,” Lucas said of his decision to call in the fish and wildlife department. “Something kept telling me we need to look back there in them woods.”
Byrd’s body was found on Thursday, hanging from a tree, suspended by a bed sheet. Lucas said Byrd’s hands weren’t bound. There was a skullcap on his head. There was nothing to indicate whether it was a suicide or a homicide. After the body was found, given the way it was found, the Claiborne County NAACP called the statewide chapter, whose president, Derrick Johnson, called the Justice Department.
"It's too early in the process to speculate,” Johnson earlier told NBC News. “But based on the history in Mississippi of racial hate crimes, we are always concerned when an African-American is found hung in a tree in this state.”
The FBI has been scouring the area, talking to family members and neighbors. Authorities are seeking surveillance video from the casino in Vicksburg. “At this point we are trying to determine what happened,” Attorney General Eric Holder told MSNBC on Friday.” The FBI, the [Justice Department] civil rights division, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, are looking into the matter, to determine if there are any federal violations of law that occurred. If it’s a potential hate crime.”
“We simply don’t know enough facts,” Holder added. “We’re still in the process of trying to gather those facts, but we do have a substantial federal presence to determine what the facts are.”
Lucas said that as far as the county investigation is concerned, neither Wood nor the second man who took Byrd to the casino are suspects, particularly since it has not been determined that a crime occurred. Asked if Byrd was known to be suicidal or to have any enemies, the sheriff said, “I don’t know.”
The sheriff said there’s no Klan activity in the area that he knows of, or any other indication of overt racial tension in Claiborne County, where more than 85% of the approximately 9,600 residents are black. Right now, authorities are just trying to figure out how Byrd met his fate, and whether it was by his own, or someone else’s hand.