Within a span of a few hours last week, a strange series of events thrust the rural city into the spotlight:
The town’s first black mayor, Tyus Byrd, who lost re-election earlier in the month, was turning over the reins to her successor last Tuesday. Not long after the mayor’s swearing in, a fire broke out at Byrd’s house early Wednesday, burning it to the ground. Early that same morning, firefighters saw smoke coming out of City Hall, where flames quickly destroyed many city records, the authorities said.
What began as a small town changing of the guard has quickly become a statewide investigation. The authorities suspect foul play, and the State Fire Marshal’s Office is assisting the local sheriff’s office in an arson inquiry. At the same time, the state auditor’s office announced it had opened an audit into Parma’s finances after finding credible allegations of problems under Byrd’s watch. Some have tied the two investigations together, suggesting that the fires were meant to destroy evidence, while another theory purported that Byrd had been targeted because of her race.
Chris Hensley, a chief deputy with the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Department, said the evidence showed that multiple fires had been set at City Hall, and that arson was suspected.
The fire at Byrd’s house was being investigated as “suspicious.” No suspects have been identified, but the location and timing of the fires have sent the town into a tailspin, as the new mayor, Rufus Williamson Jr., tries to take over without key records and as residents speculate about who may be to blame.
“There are tons of theories,” Hensley said Monday. “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.”
For his part, Williamson said he was still waiting on the facts. “I hear a lot of rumors, a lot of this and that,” he said Monday, as he worked on getting City Hall set up in a community building. “But I don’t really have anything to tell you I can put my foot on.”
Byrd took office in 2015, making history as the first black mayor in a city that was about 37 percent black and 62 percent white. But before she was sworn in, four of Parma’s six police officers quit, along with the town’s wastewater manager and clerk.
The employees who left were white, and in the aftermath of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, to the north, over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, some questioned whether the exodus in Parma reflected racial tensions. Locally, many residents seemed to believe that what had happened reflected tensions between an old government and the new one, and was not motivated by race.
More recently, under Byrd’s administration, the Missouri state auditor’s office received a whistleblower tip about financial problems in the city, including issues with payroll, financial oversight and management of city assets. The state auditor opened an investigation in January and found the allegations to be “credible,” according to the auditor’s office, which is now taking a closer look at the city’s finances.
Allen Hampton, a Parma alderman who serves on the City Board, said the Internal Revenue Service recently told the city it owed thousands of dollars, and local businesses had complained that the city was not paying its bills.
The election was held April 2, and Williamson, who is also black, defeated Byrd 115-56.
Then Byrd’s house burned down last Wednesday, and old questions about race surfaced. Her husband, Adrian Byrd, described the fire as a possible hate crime in a Facebook post that was later deleted, The Washington Post reported. Hensley said there was no evidence that her house had been targeted in a hate crime.
Byrd did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday.
Her father, Simon Wofford, who is also a town alderman, said that she was staying overnight for a visit at his house the night of the fire and had been taking a shower when they got the call with the news.
“She is doing OK right now,” he said when reached by phone Monday. “She was a little upset and hurt that night it happened.”
He denied that there had been any cover-up and said that his daughter had not gotten much cooperation as mayor. “When my daughter came in the office, she made some changes to make things better,” he said.
Hampton, who is white, denied that any problems with Byrd, then or now, were about race.
“Of course, everybody has opinions about why and possibly who started the fire, but there is no racial divide, and there will not be,” said Hampton, whose wife was a longtime city treasurer before resigning two months into Byrd’s administration. She is now volunteering as an administrative assistant to the new mayor’s administration.
His theory: “It was definitely arson, and it was, everyone would assume, to cover up and burn evidence.”
By Monday, the new mayor, Williamson, said the city was trying to stay afloat after the tumultuous first days of his administration. The fire disrupted phone lines to city offices and destroyed City Hall’s main computer, along with paperwork that may have offered guidance.
“We’re just doing the best we can here,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.