The mother of one of the three boys murdered in West Memphis died, but investigators have yet to figure out how.
By Mara Leveritt
December 26, 1997
On March 29, 1996, at approximately 5:40 p.m, Sonny Powell, the sheriff of Sharp County, called Investigator Stan Witt of the Arkansas State Police to report a suspicious death.
Powell told Witt that a woman named Melissa Byers had been taken by ambulance from her residence in Cherokee Village to Eastern Ozarks Regional Hospital. She was pronounced dead after efforts to revive her failed.
Powell was acquainted with Melissa Byers. As most people in the area knew, she was the mother of one of three boys who were found murdered in West Memphis in 1993. The following year, three West Memphis teen-agers were convicted for the killings in a pair of sensational trials, which hinged on allegations of Satanism. Throughout the trials, Melissa Byers and her husband, John Mark Byers, were seen frequently on TV, often cursing the defendants.
Since moving to Cherokee Village in 1994, the couple had had frequent run-ins with police. In 1996 they appeared on television again, this time in a highly praised documentary about the West Memphis murder case that was shown on HBO.
Now, not quite three years after the murder of 8-year-old Christopher Byers--and with some criminal charges against her and her husband still pending--Melissa Byers was dead. The problem facing Sheriff Powell was that no one at the hospital could figure out why. That inability on the part of the doctors to determine the cause of Melissa Byers' death was what prompted Sheriff Powell to telephone Witt.
Melissa Byers was only 40 years old. Her body showed no visible signs of trauma. To Powell, her death looked like a possible homicide. Witt arrived at the hospital about 35 minutes later. There he met with local law enforcement officers and with John Mark Byers, Melissa's husband. While a Sharp County deputy took a statement from John Mark Byers and got his permission to search his home, Witt began taking notes about the condition of Melissa Byers' body. It was nude and lying on the stretcher where she had died. "A visual observation of Byers' body revealed IV puncture marks on the top of her right and left foot, on the inside of her right wrist, and on the upper right thoracic area," Witt noted. "The right thoracic puncture mark and the right wrist puncture mark were both covered by Band-Aids. The puncture marks on the top of her right and left foot were not covered. ... The victim had a silver-colored necklace with a cross around her neck."
The investigator entered several other observations and had the body photographed. While he did that, another state police investigator was questioning a woman who had contacted Cherokee Village police upon hearing that Melissa Byers had been taken to the hospital. The woman told Investigator Steve Huddleston that she had known the Byerses for years, that the couple had recently been estranged, and that Melissa had been taking Dilaudid, a powerful narcotic that, when diverted to the black market, is one of the most popular illegal drugs in the country.
At approximately 9:40 that night, Witt and eight other officers organized a search at the Byers' home. Before granting his permission for the search, John Mark Byers had told a deputy sheriff that police would probably find a small amount of marijuana in the house. The deputy signed an agreement stating that, if they did, Byers would not be charged with possession. Consent thus obtained, the team searched the small, two-bedroom house at 75 Skyline Drive, while Byers waited outside. They found marijuana in a closet of the master bedroom and on a night stand in the other bedroom. They seized the marijuana as evidence, along with a glass on the night stand which contained an alcoholic beverage, believed to be peach schnapps. In addition, they seized six types of medication that had been prescribed for Melissa Byers. Dilaudid was not among them.
At midnight, Witt went to the house next door to interview Norm Metz, a neighbor who had followed John Mark Byers to the hospital. Metz had been one of the last people to see Melissa Byers alive. He told Witt that at a little after 5 p.m. that evening, John Mark Byers had called him on the phone, saying that he could not awaken his wife. Byers asked Metz to come over and see if she had a pulse.
Metz responded by asking Byers why he didn't call an ambulance. The neighbor said Byers responded, "Well, come over. Come through the kitchen door."
As Witt later recorded: "Metz advised that he went to the Byers' residence and went inside through the door leading from the carport and saw the Byers' son, Ryan Clark, and his girlfriend nude on the couch. He advised he went immediately to the bedroom and saw that Melissa was totally naked lying on the far side of the bed on her back. He advised her mouth was wide open, her eyes were closed, she was totally limp, and her arms were down by her side. Metz advised he checked for a pulse, lifted her eyelids, and looked at her eyes. ... He told Mark he was going to call EMS."
When Metz returned to the room, Witt wrote, "Ryan was trying to help John Mark put some pants on Melissa, and he asked John Mark if Melissa was dead. He advised that John Mark advised no, and Ryan had a funny, eery [sic] look on his faceŠ. He advised that when the EMTs got to the residence, Mark kept telling them, 'They've got to bring her back.' Metz advised that Ryan kept mumbling something and he did not seem coherent. He advised that when [Ryan] left, he almost flipped the car over he left so fast, spinning gravel." According to Witt's notes, when Metz later joined Mark Byers at the hospital, "Mark told him he was afraid Melissa had overdosed on a drug that is in the streets of Memphis. Metz advised that Byers told him it could be bought for $50 on the street. He told him the name of the drug. Metz could not remember it but thought it started with the letter 'D.' Metz advised that John Mark Byers also told him he thought her death was a drug overdose and that they were going to accuse him of smothering her. He advised that Byers did not clarify who 'they' were."
The Byers family has been part of the news in Arkansas since the morning of May 6, 1993, when the bodies of three 8-year-old boys--Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers--were found in a drainage ditch in a wooded area near the West Memphis subdivision where they lived. Autopsies revealed that two of the boys had drowned where they had been thrown, hog-tied, into the water. The third boy, Byers, had died of loss of blood suffered during the removal of his penis. The mutilation appeared to have been inflicted with a knife. The murders shocked West Memphis, but weeks passed without an assailant or assailants being found. Finally, a month after the murders, three West Memphis teen-agers--Jessie Lloyd Misskelley, 17; Charles Jason Baldwin, 16; and Damien Wayne Echols, 18--were arrested and charged with the crimes. Their trials were recorded by a pair of documentary filmmakers working under contract with HBO.
The trials were sensational from start to finish, partly for the gruesomeness of the crimes, and partly because the police case was predicated on the belief that the killings had been part of a Satanistic orgy. No physical evidence was produced linking any of the accused teen-agers with the crime, and no motive for the killings was introduced other than that the murders had been part of an demonic ritual. All three boys were found guilty. Misskelly and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, and Echols, who was identified as the ringleader, was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
A year later, when the film "Paradise Lost" was shown on television and then released to theaters, John Mark and Melissa Byers were brought to national attention. Not only had their son Christopher sustained the most savage of the attacks, but John Mark and Melissa Byers stood out as the most demonstrative of the parents in the film. At one point, Melissa looked into the camera declaring her hatred for the three accused teen-agers "and the mothers that bore them." In another scene, John Mark and the father of one of the other murdered boys appeared shooting pumpkins which they pretended were the defendants.
In April 1994, eleven months after the murders, John Mark and Melissa Byers and their surviving son, Ryan, moved to Cherokee Village. But from the start, their residence there was marked by turmoil, including several incidents verging on violence:
--In early 1994, shortly after their arrival, John Mark and Melissa Byers were jailed in Sharp County on charges of residential burglary and theft after more than $20,000 in antiques were taken from a neighbor's home.
--In July, John Mark Byers was involved in an incident in which a group of teen-agers fought while Byers reportedly stood watch with a rifle to make sure the fight went on. One of the boys in the altercation carried a pocket knife belonging to Byers. The boy he was fighting was injured seriously enough to require hospitalization. Byers was later charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
--In September, Melissa Byers was charged with disorderly conduct after a neighbor reported that Melissa had threatened to kill her family. The neighbor quoted Melissa Byers as having screamed, "You can't watch your family 24 hours, and you are going down."
--In October, Melissa Byers was arrested once again and charged with aggravated assault, this time for pointing a rifle at carpet layers who refused to work in her home until the floors were cleaned. By the time the Byerses had been in Cherokee Village six months, police had been summoned to their residence at least eight times.
--In January 1995, John Mark Byers was found guilty on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sentenced to a year in jail, with nine months suspended, and ordered to pay half of the injured boy's medical bills.
--Other charges against Mark and Melissa Byers, including those for the residential burglary, were still pending in Sharp County Circuit Court on March 29, 1996, when Melissa Byers mysteriously died.
Her body was sent for autopsy to the office of the medical examiner at the Arkansas Crime Laboratory in Little Rock. Witt, stymied until he knew the cause of death, waited--and waited. By the end of August--five months after the death--he still had received no word from the crime lab concerning the autopsy results.
But life was continuing for John Mark Byers. On Aug. 28, 1995, he entered into a plea agreement negotiated by his attorney and Stewart Lambert, a deputy prosecutor for the Third Judicial District. According to the negotiated plea, Byers was to pay $20,000 to the woman whose house was burglarized, make restitution to the father of the boy who was injured in the fight, and pay a $250 fine.
An additional part of the agreement was that Byers would leave the Third Judicial District, which is made up of Sharp, Lawrence, Randolph, and Jackson counties and not come back to them, or to Fulton County either.
Lambert, the prosecutor, said he entered the plea agreement with Byers because a key witness in the burglary case was a minor whose mother was reluctant to have him testify, making a successful prosecution difficult. As for ordering Byers out of the district, Lambert said, such an arrangement can be legal if done with the agreement of the party being banished. Byers accepted those terms, but has not made the required payments.
At the end of September 1996, a month after Byers' appearance in court, investigator Witt received the medical examiner's report on Melissa. It noted that she had been 68 inches tall and weighed 211 pounds. Both wrists bore multiple, well-healed, linear scars. A tattoo of a heart and scroll were present on her right upper back, with the name "Christopher" written in the scroll. No distinct scarred needle tracks were present.
However other needle marks were evident. Two of those, which were covered with bandages, were clearly the result of unsuccessful medical attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation, as were a couple of fractured ribs. The origin of the other needle puncture wounds--in the groin, arms, and feet--was undetermined.
There were a few small bruises on the body, some or all of which may have occurred on the way to and at the hospital. And there were some signs of deteriorating health, such as obesity, narrowing of some arteries, and a gallstone. But none of the conditions the pathologists observed would normally prove fatal, either alone or in combination.
Under the circumstances, they were particularly interested in what toxicology tests would reveal. But those findings did not solve the riddle of Byers' death either. Although a glass of peach schnapps had been found at her bedside, she had apparently drunk very little, as no alcohol was detected in her system. Nor were any opiates were found in her blood. Traces of one of her prescribed medications, an anti-seizure medicine used to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome, were present, as were traces of lithium, a medication that had been prescribed for her to treat manic depression. But that was all, and the amounts of neither of those substances exceeded therapeutic levels.
Only her urine was abnormal. It tested positive for marijuana and for hydromorphone, the synthetic narcotic more commonly known as Dilaudid. Melissa Byers did not have a prescription for Dilaudid. On the street, it sells as much as $50 per tablet. The drug is a potent opiate. It can slow breathing, heart rate, and brain activity. What was strange was that, while the drug showed up in Melissa Byers' urine, suggesting recent use, it was not found in her blood, which would be expected of a lethal agent. Moreover, that anomaly in the body was matched by an anomaly in the report.
Through what Jim Clark, the director of the crime lab, recently described as a "typographical error," no mention of the finding of Dilaudid appeared in the autopsy report's conclusions. Instead, on the report's final page, the word "hydromorphone," or Dilaudid, appeared as "hydrocodone," which is another drug entirely. Nor was the Dilaudid mentioned on the page listing the medical examiner's findings.
Asked if the discovery of an illegal drug in the body of a possible homicide victim was not a finding worth listing, Clark affirmed that, "There may be room for some further investigation as to how she obtained the drug." As for the needle marks in the body's arms, feet, and groin, Clark said, "In the pathologist's opinion, all those wounds were probably done at the hospital."
When Witt received the report, it offered no indication that Byers' death might be connected to illegal drug activity. Instead, he had the crime lab's vague conclusion that, "because of the lack of definitive anatomic or toxicological findings, the cause and manner of death are left undetermined." According to Clark, the causes of about 4 to 8 percent of deaths that are presented to medical examiners nationally are found to be undetermined.
In December, Investigator Stan Witt closed his case on Melissa Byers. Sheriff Powell is keeping his open.
'This is a deep story'
John Mark Byers contemplates the deaths of first his son and now his wife.
After her 8-year-old son Christopher was murdered, Melissa Byers became depressed, her widower, John Mark Byers recalled. "She gave up her will to live," he said in a telephone interview. "She didn't want to live without him." Asked if his wife had been using illegal drugs, Byers answered: "To my personal knowledge, no. I did not see her taking illegal drugs. But, if she was or if she wasn't, I'm not going to talk bad about my wife who's passed away. Melissa's death was another tragedy, another heartbreak. I'm the victim here, let's not forget that."
The two had been married for 10 years. After the murders of Christopher and two other boys in 1993, the couple moved to Cherokee Village to get away from what Byers described as persecution in West Memphis. "This is a deep story," he said. "There's a lot of crazy people out there. I mean really crazy people."
After the trials in which three West Memphis teen-agers were convicted of killing the younger children, Byers said residents of the city left dead animals on their car and in their yard, along with notes "saying all types of terrible things." He described the time there as being "pure hell."
But life in Cherokee Village proved no easier. "It was very hard," he said, "because of the backward people that live up there, people that are so narrow-minded. We thought there would be intelligent retired people from up north, but instead there were a lot of inbred, banjo-picking hillbillies living there, people whose family trees run in a straight line."
Asked if they did not perceive him and Melissa as sympathetic figures, being the parents of a murdered child, he said no, that for some reason "they got it confused; they thought I was the father of one of the boys who committed the killings."
Byers now lives "in a modest little apartment" in another city, the name of which he does not want revealed. He subsists on a Social Security disability check which he receives because of a tumor he says is located "in the front right lobe of my brain." Because of the tumor, he said, he cannot work--he used to be a jeweler--and he suffers "terrible migraine headaches."
In the interview, Byers described his life as an unmitigated series of woes, as "pain piled upon pain." Publicity about the West Memphis deaths has kept them "an ongoing thing," he said, prompting people to "want to open the wound and pour salt in it." Asked why, then, he and Melissa had agreed to cooperate with the filming of the documentary "Paradise Lost," he explained, "I just could not stand for my son and his two friends to die for nothing. We didn't want people to forget who he was. We wanted them to know that this witchcraft and black magic and demon worship was real. There's black and there's white, like we said on 'Maury Povitch.'"
One of the most remarkable parts of the film was a segment in which Byers and Todd Moore, the father of one of the other dead boys, blasted pumpkins that they pretended were the heads of the convicted teen-agers. Byers said the producers "asked us what we did with our aggression and our anger. We said we go out and target practice. We said we go out and shoot. We were out there basically just releasing anger, and in our minds, thinking, 'If that was the three of you. ...' We were still very raw with anger. I think anybody would be. But it was not detrimental to anyone. And if we wanted to think that that was them we were shooting, and it made us feel better, what was wrong with that?"
First, he said, he had to suffer being viewed as a suspect in his son's death. "I did not know that when a child is murdered that sometimes they think Š like in the Jon Benet Ramsey case Š that they look at the family members. The police had to explain to me that this is a big puzzle. They said, 'We've got to look at all the pieces and throw away the ones that didn't fit.'"
Byers knows that there are people who still believe that he may have been involved in the three boys' murders. "They just don't have anything better to do with their time," he says of them. "They could just watch the movie "Paradise Lost" and they would know that I'm just a victim. I'm not the villain."
Suspicion of Byers intensified when, toward the end of the filming of that movie, he offered as a gift to the HBO camera crew a knife that, though he said he had never used it, turned out to bear traces of human blood. The blood type matched his own, as well as Christopher's. Critics of the West Memphis Police Department have complained that officers allowed the incident to go uninvestigated.
But Byers has other complaints against the department, chiefly that police did not act quickly enough to find the murdered boys when their families reported them missing. He is also critical of police in Cherokee Village, who he said failed to respond when neighbors threatened him and shot up his house. "I was railroaded up there," he said.
In court, when he was tried on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, he recalled, "I told them, 'The boys got in a scuffle. The boy who went down seemed to be all right. It was no big deal. It's not like boys up there or anywhere else don't get in fights when people talk about their mama. ...' "The boy who was knocked down, his daddy just happened to be a freakin' lawyer. He got a judgment against me, but I didn't have to pay a dime. I didn't have anything to give the man. I'm judgment-proof. I'm indigent. That's why they told me up there just to pack up and leave, to get out of Sharp County, and don't come back.
"I went from my big, fine home and being a responsible citizen to feeling like I'm just an outcast and thrown to the bottom of the pit, when I didn't do anything. It feels so unjust and so unfair, but there's nothing I can do about it."
He was also disappointed with the way the ambulance workers treated Melissa, who he said had drunk a little peach schnapps before the two of them had settled down for a nap at 3:30. When he woke up at quarter to five, he tried to awaken her but she didn't respond. "When the paramedics came in, they jerked her off the bed and onto the floor. They didn't shock her with the paddles but one time. That kind of bothered me. They kind of acted like they didn't care, like, 'Well, good. She's dead. Maybe now he'll leave.' I just felt like they didn't care if she died or not."
Byers had not seen the autopsy report on Melissa, which only became public in December, when the State Police closed their investigation. Asked about the reported comment by his neighbor Norm Metz, that when Melissa was brought to the hospital Byers had said, "he was afraid Melissa had overdosed on a drug that is in the streets in Memphis," the name of which he thought "began with the letter 'D,' and that "could be bought for $50 on the street," Byers denied having made such a statement. He also denied telling Metz, as Metz had reported to police, that "he thought her death was a drug overdose and that they were going to accuse him of smothering her."
In the years since Christopher's death, evidence has come to light suggesting that, prior to the murders, John Mark Byers had worked with Memphis narcotics police as a confidential informant. Asked if that were true, he answered, "I'd have to say 'no comment' on that." When he was told that the police and autopsy reports on Melissa mentioned "numerous needle puncture marks" on her arms, feet, and groin, he responded, "That's news to me."
He also expressed surprise that Dilaudid was found in her system. Rather, he spoke of "drugs and all" as evil. "I think there's a lot of evil in the world," he said, "and if you live in today's society, you will experience evil. It's sent from the devil himself to kill the world. The devil has it out for everybody. The Bible says he's like a roaring lion seeking to and fro to whom he may consume."
But he added, "I have to believe that all things work for good for those who love the lord, so maybe he's letting me live to tell people that there is a devil out there, that there is evil and it will consume your life if you let it."
He has said he considers his son's killers as having been sent from hell. "Anyone who takes anyone's life, it's got to be someone that's very depraved and very twisted," he observed. "Not retarded sick, mean sick. They must have some type of problem that's deeper than I can imagine." He added, "I don't know what makes someone like that tick, because I'm not that way, so I can't say. I don't have the mind or the consciousness of a murderer, so how could I say?" The fact that no cause has been found for Melissa's death "hurts even more," Byers said.
And he wondered toward the end of the interview, "Did she have to die? Did she will herself to die? Did she not want to live anymore because of her son's being murdered? Did God just answer her prayer and take her off this earth?"
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