FBI: Body is of missing Port Gibson man

Published 12:03 am Friday, March 20, 2015

FBI Agent in Charge Don Alway speaks to the media during a press conference at the Claiborne County Courthouse Friday afternoon. (Josh Edwards / The Vicksburg Post)

FBI Agent in Charge Don Alway speaks to the media during a press conference at the Claiborne County Courthouse Friday afternoon. (Josh Edwards / The Vicksburg Post)

By Josh Edwards

Courtesy of The Vicksburg Post

PORT GIBSON — The FBI confirmed Friday the body found hanging from a tree near Port Gibson Thursday was in fact that of Otis James Brown, 54, of Port Gibson. But, officials still don’t know if Byrd’s death was suicide or a homicide.

The FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s office, as well as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are investigating the hanging.

Byrd’s body was sent Thursday to the state crime lab where an autopsy was performed, FBI Agent in Charge Don Alway said during Friday’s press conference at the Claiborne County Courthouse.

“We’re expecting a preliminary response back sometime later next week,” he said.

The autopsy and investigation will determine if Byrd’s death was homicide or suicide, he said.

A group of 30 federal and state agents were interviewing Byrd’s friends and family and searching his home and a storage unit to “learn about Mr. Byrd’s life,” Alway said.

“The community deserves answers and certainly the family deserves answers,” he said.

Answers, however, were few during the press conference as Alway declined to comment on any evidence in the case.

Thursday morning Mississippi Department Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks agents found Byrd hanging by a bed sheet from a tree limb behind the home he rented on Rodney Road. Byrd had been reported missing since early March.

“They had been looking for Mr. Byrd for some time as part of a missing person’s investigation,” Alway said.

Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas asked members of the community to remain calm and not rush to judgment during the investigation into Byrd’s death.

“I ask that this community allow these agencies to do their work. I commit to you, as the sheriff of Claiborne County, that I will not allow shadows of the past to be cast on Claiborne County,” he told a crowd gathered at the press conference.

Some in the crowd carried with them signs saying “Black lives matter” and “Justice for Byrd!”

Byrd’s former teacher Willie Smith said he was dissatisfied with the amount of information the FBI released.

“I really believe it was foul play,” Smith said.

Byrd was last seen when a friend dropped him off at Riverwalk Casino, Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong said.

Thursday, NAACP officials called for a federal probe into Byrd’s death.

“Our biggest interest in Mississippi, anytime we find anyone hanging from a tree is to determine that it is not a result of a racial hate crime. So we are pleased that the federal authorities are here working with local authorities to determine a true cause of death,” Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said.

Byrd was convicted of capital murder in 1980 in Claiborne County in the slaying of 51-year-old Elizabeth Trim, Mississippi Department of Corrections officials said. Prosecutors at the time said Byrd killed Trim and stole $101 cash from her in order to pay $10 restitution for a prior conviction. He was sentenced in 1980 and paroled in 2006, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

“He served his time and I believe the time he served was enough for justice,” his former neighbor Stephanie Shaw said.