Fires at Missouri city hall, police station, ex-mayor's home have some suspecting cover-up, others hate crime

Shortly after Tyus Byrd ended her tenure as mayor and swore in a new leader for Parma, Missouri -- the politician who had bested Byrd in the election --  fires broke out at Byrd's home, the city's police station and city hall.

Police have called the fire in the former mayor’s home suspicious, and say the blaze at Parma City Hall was caused by arson.

The fires caused considerable damage. Byrd’s home was completely destroyed, and the main computer and many official records at Parma City Hall have been ruined, officials said.

Adding further intrigue is an announcement by state auditors about an investigation into the handling of finances -- while Byrd was mayor.

Several government agencies at the local, county and state levels are offering rewards for information leading to a conviction, KFVS12.com reported.

But in the absence of a clear suspect, there are predominantly two theories swirling about the multiple blazes, according to The New York Times. One possibility is that the fires may have been set to destroy evidence. Others, however, believe the blazes targeted Byrd, who was the city's first black mayor.

“There are tons of theories,” New Madrid County Deputy Sheriff Chris Hensley told the New York Times. “Whenever we go to the local store to get water or sodas, people are steadily talking about this and trying to help us with it.”

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The new mayor, Rufus Williamson Jr., is trying to stay clear of the speculation, but the fires have undeniably affected the nascent administration, which has to get up and running without the assistance of some crucial town records.

“I hear a lot of rumors, a lot of this and that,” he told the Times. “But I don’t really have anything to tell you I can put my foot on.”

The investigation into the city’s finances during Byrd's time in office arose from a whistle-blower tip the state auditor received about questionable practices in payroll and the management of municipal assets, among other things.

The state started the investigation in January and found the tip to be credible, the Times reported, leading the agency to take a deeper look.

Those who believe Byrd, because of her race, is not a suspect but a victim of the near-simultaneous fires note the resignations of several Parma employees -- including four of the city’s six police officers – just before Byrd was sworn in as mayor in 2015. Byrd, a former city clerk, took office after defeating Randall Ramsey, who had held the job for 37 years.

Since the employees who quit were all white, and their resignations happened amid the backdrop of protests and racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, the exodus was viewed by some as being racially motivated.

But, the New York Times noted, others attributed it to differences between the former mayoral administration and Byrd’s incoming one.

A Parma city official, Alderman Allen Hampton, told the Times the Internal Revenue Service said the city was thousands of dollars in arrears. Businesses accused the former administration of not paying money owed to them.

Hampton, for one, believes the fires were an attempt at a cover-up.

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“It was definitely arson,” he said. “And it was, everyone would assume, to cover up and burn evidence."

Meanwhile, Byrd’s husband, Adrian, is convinced the fire at their home was a hate crime.

But Hensley, the deputy sheriff, said there is no evidence pointing authorities to such a conclusion.

Byrd’s father, Simon Wofford, who is a city alderman, denied any attempt to destroy financial records.

“When my daughter came in the office, she made some changes to make things better,” Wofford said.