The last person who saw Otis Byrd before he disappeared was a friend who dropped him off on March 2 at a casino in Vicksburg, Miss.
Byrd, 54, enjoyed going to casinos every so often, a family member told local television station KMBC. He reportedly attended church regularly and held down various jobs, including work on an oil rig.
He also had a criminal history: Byrd did over 25 years in prison for the 1980 murder of Lucille Trimm, whom he killed during a robbery, according to the Clarion-Ledger. He was released on parole in 2006.
On March 8, Byrd’s family filed a missing person report with the Claiborne County Sheriff’s Department, and his disappearance was reported shortly after.
On Thursday at about 10:21 a.m., the body of a black man was discovered hanging from a tree about a half mile from Byrd’s residence. KMBC reported that the man had a bed sheet tied around his neck, and that his hands were untied.
By later on Thursday, the FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations were investigating the death.
The FBI released a statement to KMBC that revealed how the body was discovered.
“The Claiborne County Sheriffs Department and the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks conducted a ground search for a man who had been missing since early March,” the statement read. “Officers located a man hanging in the woods near Roddy Road a half mile from his last known residence.” (The statement appeared to misspell the name of Rodney Road.)
The Claiborne County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as Byrd’s family, said the body was Byrd’s. Officials did not immediately confirm it publicly, but KMBC reported an anonymous law enforcement official said he also believed the body was Byrd’s.
Investigators have yet to determine whether the hanging was a suicide or homicide. But the specter of horrific crimes against southern blacks in decades past resurfaced after investigators discovered the hanging.
The president of the Mississippi NAACP released a statement asking for a full investigation of the death by the Justice Department.
“Considering Mr. Byrd’s body was found hanging from a tree, we are calling on federal authorities to immediately investigate to determine whether his death is a result of a racial hate crime,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Marvin Lucas told the Ledger that foul play is still being considered in Byrd’s disappearance.
“We didn’t close down any options because we really didn’t know what had happened to him,” he told the USA Today. “We can’t rule anything out right now.”
“This is the first time I have witnessed anything like this in Claiborne County,” the sheriff said.