PORT GIBSON, Miss. (AP) — An FBI agent appealed for patience Friday after a black man was found hanging from a tree in Mississippi, saying 30 federal, state and local agents were working intensively to determine whether he was killed or committed suicide.
"Everybody wants answers and wants them quickly. We understand that," FBI Special Agent Don Alway told a crowd outside the Claiborne County Courthouse. "We are going to hold off on coming to any conclusions until the facts take us to a definitive answer."
The county coroner confirmed that the man found hanging from a white sheet Thursday was Otis Byrd, an ex-convict reported missing by his family more than two weeks ago. Byrd lived just 200 yards from the spot where his body was found, in a wooded area off a dirt road that ran behind his house.
Alway said investigators are interviewing Byrd's family and friends and searching his rental home and a storage unit for clues, and will not reveal any evidence along the way.
"We are trying to paint a picture of Byrd's life. We are trying to find out what was going on with him personally and professionally," he said.
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas Sr. told The Associated Press earlier Friday that Byrd did not appear to have stepped off of anything in the area where he was found hanging from a tree limb about 12 feet high. His feet were dangling about two feet off the ground, and his hands were not bound, Lucas said.
"Life matters," Lucas told the crowd. "I commit to you, as the sheriff of Claiborne County, that I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future."
The results of an autopsy by the Mississippi Crime Lab could take days; investigators expect to have preliminary information about the cause of death next week, Alway said. Byrd's body was released Friday to Rollins Funeral Home in Port Gibson, said Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain. An employee at Rollins said funeral arrangements will be made early next week.
Byrd worked on offshore oil rigs and enjoyed gambling in casinos in his off time after getting out of prison, where he served 26 years for fatally shooting a woman while robbing $101 from her convenience store in 1980.
He wasn't the type to commit suicide, friends and family said.
"He tried to turn his life around. He was going to church every Sunday," said his stepsister, Tracy Wilson. "Anybody could have done this. I just don't see him doing it to himself."
Lora McDaniel, a high school classmate who went to church with Byrd and his family, said "he always had a smile on his face. I just can't see him committing suicide."
"He was a quiet man. He didn't bother nobody," added Anita Smith, another high school classmate. "He had been out nine years and all of the sudden this happens to him? Impossible."
Smith said she is planning to participate in a march Monday in Port Gibson to protest Byrd's death.
Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson suggested that it's too early for that.
"We do not want to rush to judgment. We just want to make sure there's a thorough federal, state and local investigation," Johnson said.
The hanging is being investigated by the FBI, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's office as well as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. These officials are on the scene to determine if it's a potential hate crime or other violation of federal law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Video surveillance was recovered showing Byrd at the Riverwalk Casino on March 2, Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong said.
"We didn't see anything of significance on the tape. He was just walking around the casino. We did not see him after that," Armstrong said.
Claiborne County sits on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, with Natchez to the south and Vicksburg to the north. A sign leading into Port Gibson, the county seat, says Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant declared the town "too beautiful to burn" during the Civil War. About 85 percent of the county's 9,250 residents are African-American.
Signs hanging above the main street say "Port Gibson. A Real Life Postcard." The town still boasts several stately, columned mansions that are either private homes or bed-and-breakfast inns, but is mostly dotted with modest houses and trailers in states of disrepair.
Port Gibson is in the district of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat and the only black member of Mississippi's congressional delegation. He issued a statement calling on the government to use "every resource available to bring swift justice" if foul play was involved.
"Given the history of the state, it is unavoidable that the hanging of a black man in Mississippi justifiably engenders deeply raw emotions," Thompson said.
Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.