Something strange is happening in Parma, Mo., a city of fewer than 700 people in the state’s impoverished Bootheel region.
On Tuesday, the city’s new mayor, Rufus Lee Williamson Jr., was sworn into office. Hours later, the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Department got a call: The house belonging to the outgoing mayor, Tyus Byrd, was on fire. As they worked to contain the blaze early Wednesday morning, a group of firefighters spotted smoke coming from a few blocks away. Parma City Hall was engulfed in flames, they discovered, and the city’s police department, located in the same brick building, was burning along with it.
Investigators quickly determined that the blaze that hollowed out city hall was “most definitely arson,” New Madrid County Sheriff Terry Stevens told the Sikeston Standard-Democrat. The fire at Byrd’s house, which had been reduced to ashes and charred debris, was deemed suspicious. No one was harmed in either fire, but many of the city’s records were destroyed, plunging the already-struggling community into chaos.
“I guess you could call this a catastrophe,” Williamson, the new mayor, told KFVS on Wednesday.
Five days later, who started the twin infernos — and why — remains a mystery. No arrests have been made, and the sheriff’s department has no strong leads, Stevens told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Friday.
Two competing theories have been floated: Either Byrd, who faced mass resignations when she was elected the city’s first black mayor in 2015, was targeted, or the fires were set to cover up questionable financial activity that has recently faced scrutiny from state auditors.
Although the circumstances are unusual, fires aren’t exactly an uncommon occurrence in Parma, a once-prosperous farming community surrounded by cotton fields in the southeastern corner of the state. Ever since the second half of the 20th century, when industrial-scale agribusiness began replacing smaller family-owned farms, the city has been in decline. Virtually every business has vacated the old brick downtown, and buildings regularly go up in flames after sitting empty for years.
If the city’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of a controversy that landed it on the map in 2015. Byrd, then 40, was elected that year, beating out Randall Ramsey, a 78-year-old white man who had served as mayor for decades. Six of the city’s 11 employees promptly quit — including two-thirds of the police force and the city clerk who was supposed to administer the oath of office.
It was less than a year after the unrest in Ferguson, about three hours away. Parma, which is roughly two-thirds white and one-third black, became a trending hashtag. All of the employees who had resigned, critics were quick to note, had been white.
“I think it’s about being a woman and being black,” Nelvia Donaldson, who is also African American and had just been elected as an alderman, told the Post-Dispatch of the mass resignations.
But Byrd, like many others in the community, claimed that the exodus had not been about race. Black and white residents alike told reporters that they were tired of being cited for minor offenses such as having a barking dog and that police officers had been known to measure lawns with a ruler to see if the grass length complied with ordinances. Byrd had spoken out against aggressive law enforcement tactics after her 17-year-old nephew was Tasered by an officer who accused him of making prank calls from the town’s only pay phone, and voters of both races said they shared her concerns. To them, it made sense that the officers who favored a more heavy-handed approach would choose to leave after she won.
The officers who spoke publicly about quitting also denied any racist intent. Trish Cohen, who had been the police chief, claimed that Byrd’s relatives had posted her home address online. So did Rich Medley, the former assistant police chief, who told The Washington Post at the time that Byrd’s extended family had been “very vocal about being anti-police.”
Eventually, the national media moved on, and Parma returned to obscurity. During the April 2 municipal election this year, Byrd was supplanted by Williamson, receiving 56 votes to his 115.
Then, just after midnight on Wednesday, the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Department received a call about a fire at Byrd’s home. No one was home at the time, officials said, and Byrd’s father, Simon Wofford, told KFVS that she had been taking a shower at his house when she got the news.
“She just started screaming. I guess she got a phone call,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. She said, ‘My house, my house.’ ”
Byrd couldn’t be reached for comment and has not spoken publicly about the fire. In a Facebook post Wednesday, her husband, Adrian Byrd, described it as a possible hate crime and wrote that his family did not have confidence in the sheriff’s department and wanted state or federal authorities to intervene. (Officials from the Missouri Department of Public Safety’s fire safety division are assisting with the investigation, a spokesman confirmed to The Post.) He later deleted the post and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Although online commenters have speculated that Byrd was the victim of racist harassment, others in Parma are skeptical.
“I think there is absolutely, positively nothing to that,” Allen Hampton, who has been an alderman since 2017 and is white, told The Post on Thursday. “It could have been set up to be portrayed as a hate crime, but that would not be correct.” He pointed out that Williamson is also black.
Hampton noted that there had been “a lot of suspicion around the handling of money” at city hall. On Wednesday afternoon, as investigators dug through the smoldering ashes, Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway (D) announced that her office’s public corruption unit had investigated a whistleblower tip about Parma’s finances and found it credible. At city officials’ request, she was opening an independent review, she said.
A spokeswoman for Galloway didn’t reply to an inquiry about whether her office thinks there was any connection between the fires and the planned audit.
That hasn’t stopped some former employees from speculating. Medley, the former assistant police chief, told The Post in a Facebook message that he was suspicious of the timing. He also said that the KFVS interview had raised questions about why Byrd wasn’t at home at the time. “She had her own residence, why was she conveniently in the shower at her father’s residence while her house was burning?” he asked.
Byrd has yet to comment on the audit but had previously raised questions about bookkeeping practices that were in place when she was elected in 2015. She told the Post-Dispatch that she had initially been unable to find financial statements, meeting minutes and other official documents, then later learned that Kim Hampton, the city’s longtime treasurer, had been storing them in a fireproof safe at the cotton gin where she worked. Hampton, who is married to Allen Hampton and resigned two months after Byrd took office, told the paper at the time that residents looking to fulfill a public records request “all know where I’m at.”
Byrd also discovered that city employees “routinely used city credit to purchase personal items and then paid the city back by having money withheld from their paychecks,” the Post-Dispatch reported. Ramsey, the previous mayor, explained that city employees were paid very little. “In my mind, I considered it a benefit of the job, like having a credit union,” he said.
Williamson, the new mayor, has said that he welcomes the audit, which is expected to investigate payroll taxes, city expenditures and other oversight questions, according to the Post-Dispatch. Allen Hampton told The Post on Thursday that the Internal Revenue Service had visited city hall in August because Parma had not paid its payroll taxes since early 2016 and owed $60,000. He said he was later informed that the city had worked out a payment plan with the IRS, something he understood to be illegal because it had not been approved by the board.
Whether the state auditors will be able to find the records they’re looking for is an open question. Hampton said that the main computer used in Parma City Hall had been destroyed in the blaze, but that investigators had found papers that could prove important and were trying to dry them out.
In the meantime, the immediate aftermath of the fire has created plenty of headaches for Williamson, the new mayor. City employees need to get paid, he told KFVS on Wednesday, but he has no record of how many hours they worked. Water bills would soon be due as well, but there was nowhere for residents to pay them. The city will be up and running again soon, he promised.
“Nobody wants to come to Parma,” he told the station. “You don’t want to come to Parma, and I wish I wasn’t in Parma sometimes. But what we’ve got to do, since we’re here, we’ve got to try to make it a better place.”
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