A Bootheel Town Made National Headlines. Then City Hall -- and the Mayor’s House -- Burned

Parma, Missouri, saw two suspicious fires this spring.
Parma, Missouri, saw two suspicious fires this spring. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY EVAN SULT

After midnight on April 17, an old two-story house in the southeast Missouri town of Parma burned to a pile of ash and twisted metal siding.

The house was one of the largest in Parma, a Bootheel town of 700 people (and falling) about two and a half hours south of St. Louis down I-55. It was best known as the home of former mayor Tyus Byrd, whose four-year term in office had ended just hours before. The city's first black mayor had attended a tense meeting that night, eventually relinquishing power to an 83-year-old political newcomer whose electoral bid was supported by her biggest critics. The new mayor, Rufus Williamson Jr., says the two sides were so divided that Byrd's administration refused to give him the keys to City Hall. "Couldn't find them," Williamson says incredulously. "That's what they said."

The newly ousted mayor, Byrd, had been at odds with her critics since even before taking office. In 2015, when she was the newcomer preparing for her own swearing in, she learned from a television reporter that six of the city's eleven employees had resigned rather than work for her. The dustup made the national news, largely because Byrd is black and all the exiting staffers, including the police chief and officers, were white.

"Black Mayor Is Voted in and a Small Town's Staff Empties Out," read the headline in the New York Times.

In comparison to that, April's changing of the guard initially seemed fairly tame. There were some terse words and lightly restrained animosity, but Williamson (who is also black) was successfully sworn in. The meeting adjourned. And then, a few hours later, the fires began.

The first emergency dispatch was at 12:40 a.m. Byrd's neighbors had noticed the orange glow of flames that morning and called 911. Parma had a fire truck just down the road, but it was out of service. Whether the town had a functioning fire department at all remains a matter of debate. Parma had leaned in recent years on the volunteer departments of the neighboring towns.

"The last couple of years, sometimes a fire breaks out and there aren't resources to fight it," says New Madrid County Sheriff Terry Stevens, whose deputies have helped patrol Parma. "It just burns."

Firefighters driving in from Lilbourn (twelve miles to the east) and Malden (thirteen miles to the west) arrived to find the fire in a full rage.

Byrd was not there at the time, but a neighbor told a TV reporter from Cape Girardeau that the 44-year-old seemed devastated when she eventually showed up. Alderman Simon Wofford, Byrd's father, says she was taking a shower at his house early that morning when they got the news about the fire.

"She just started screaming," Wofford told KVFS 12. "I guess she got a phone call. Started screaming, and I didn't know what was going on. She said, 'My house! My house!'"

The old house turned from white to gray to nothing in less than three hours. The roof came down, as did the second floor and all the wooden framing. Only a pair of metal trellises, holding up the front end of a collapsed balcony, remained standing by the end.

There was only a pile of smoldering rubble when Lilbourn and Malden packed up and left. Dispatch records show them clearing the scene at 3:05 a.m. One minute later, Lilbourn was back on the radio, calling in a second fire.

Smoke was coming from City Hall.

Parma’s City Hall also burned on April 17. - DOYLE MURPHY
Parma’s City Hall also burned on April 17.

The Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Parma's normally barren main street is livened with a couple of dozen American flags.

When national reporters visited in 2015, they described a town in decline. Only a handful of businesses remained, and a once-bustling downtown had deteriorated into permanently closed shops and empty buildings. Parma was "withering away," the Washington Post wrote in its dispatch on Byrd's tumultuous election. The New York Times reported, "Parma's main strip looks like a bombed-out Wild West town ..."

A little hyperbolic, maybe, but Parma is even worse off now than it was four years ago. Several of the vacant buildings that were standing have collapsed. A sign taped to the post office door announces the latest boil order for water is in effect "until further notice."

"We went way down, and we're struggling, and everybody knows it," Mayor Williamson says.

The city lost its high school to consolidation in 1980, and automation of agricultural industry has all but replaced the farmhand jobs that used to sustain families here. Young people moved away. Businesses closed.

None of this is unique, of course. The hollowing out of the Bootheel is an American story. The elements of lost jobs and disintegrating community are achingly familiar whether you used to assemble Cadillacs in Detroit, process Kodak film in an upstate New York warehouse or mine coal in West Virginia.

But Parma has been hit especially hard. Residents wish for the barest of amenities — a Dollar General store, clean tap water or one of the three deserted filling stations to reopen so they can buy gas in town.

On a recent visit, a man in a wheelchair rides down the center of the main road. Passable sidewalks are a rarity in town; so is traffic. "When I grew up here in the 1970s, you couldn't have asked for a better place to live," the man says. "Now, it's full of snitches and drug dealers."

His girlfriend drives past on a riding lawnmower and shoots him a look without stopping. "I'm still proud to say I'm from Parma," he continues. "But I can't wait to leave."

As soon as he moves on down the road, a white pickup that's been idling nearby pulls up. The driver rolls down his window and chats for a moment before nodding toward the departing man in his wheelchair. "That guy's the biggest pedophile in town," he says, launching into a story. For what it's worth, the man in the wheelchair is on the sex offender registry, although whether he's the biggest pedophile in Parma is probably subjective.

When the media came calling in 2015, the city was not at its best, and it is still hoping to regain its footing. The stories that followed Byrd's election and the flight of city workers before her tenure even began painted the fracas as a sign of racial tension among a small town that was two-thirds white and one-third black. But Byrd and the ex-employees alike bristled at that framing. "They made it about race, and it's not about race," the mayor told the Washington Post.

It was, instead, about policing. (And then also kind of about race.)

Residents complained that the police department (a chief, one full-time officer and a couple of part-timers) cracked down on traffic infractions and nitpicked code violations. "They will literally be out in the morning with a measuring tape, measuring your grass," Terrell Thatch, a cousin of Byrd's, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Meanwhile, larger crimes such as burglaries, violence and everything else tied to a blossoming drug trade went largely unsolved, critics said.

Then, about a month before the election, a seventeen-year-old cousin of Byrd was tased by an officer investigating prank calls to the police station. Police claimed the officer's actions were justified. But a group of black residents went to the police station to complain.

The old mayor, 78-year-old Randall Ramsey, believed the incident galvanized black voters against him.

"I think the black population saw they had an opportunity to elect a black mayor, and I think nearly all of them voted for her even though I have a good relationship with the blacks," Ramsey told the Washington Post. "But I think they were just hellbent on voting for a black."

Police Chief Trish Cohen, who quit after Byrd's election, told NBC News that she had run-ins with Byrd's relatives who then posted her address on social media. She worried the mayor wouldn't have her back.

"You can't have an anti-police mayor, and that's the way she made me feel," Cohen told the network.

Both Byrd and Cohen later stopped doing interviews, unhappy with the onslaught of coverage. The ordeal has similarly made the current leadership wary of how the recent fires will be viewed. Williamson says he has been asked repeatedly if Parma has a racial problem.

"If we do, I don't know about it," he insists.

Former Mayor Tyus Byrd spoke with NBC News soon after her election. - SCREENSHOT
Former Mayor Tyus Byrd spoke with NBC News soon after her election.

Byrd has not spoken publicly about the fires and essentially disappeared from Parma immediately after. The New Madrid County Sheriff, Stevens, says his investigators talked to her the first day, and he has since heard she is staying out of state.

"I think she's just kind of in shock," he says.

She did not seek the media spotlight that followed her into office in 2015 and soon retreated, shutting down interview requests before the first wave of coverage had ended. In one of those early interviews, she appeared on NBC News and described her bewilderment at the mass resignations.

"I don't know why," she told the network. "It was cited to me that it was safety issues. I would love to know what those safety issues are. I wish we could have set down to come to whatever the reasons there were. Maybe we could have come to some kind of agreement and understanding."

Instead, employees complained that Byrd never approached the staff after her election. Once she was in office, people claimed she was hard to reach and avoided the public.

In the aftermath of the fires, her father did most of the speaking on the family's behalf. The New York Times, Washington Post and St. Louis Post-Dispatch could not reach her. She did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Asked if she was considered a suspect in the fires, Stevens says he "can't rule it out," but only because they haven't been able to eliminate almost anyone. "Well, she's as much of a suspect as anybody," he says.

Investigators discovered the City Hall fire had been set in multiple places inside the one-story brick building — and happened while firefighters were occupied a quarter-mile away at Byrd's house. By the time Lilbourn's crew noticed the smoke, there was a roaring blaze showing through the front door.

"The fire at City Hall was definitely arson," Stevens says. "There's no doubt."

Lilbourn Assistant Fire Chief Kenny Schaffer responded to the scene that morning after finishing his late shift at a power plant. Back-to-back fires sounded suspicious, so he called for a state fire marshal.

"The front glass was blowed out," he recalls. And when firefighters went around to the rear of the building, they discovered the back door, normally locked, was open.

The building had once served primarily as the police station. Byrd moved government operations there from the community center late in her term, reportedly to save money. It wasn't like the police were taking up much space. Following the 2015 resignations, Parma operated with just one officer.

The fire has turned City Hall into another eyesore, one of three vacant, burned-out buildings within a half block. It is still boarded up across the front. A strand of yellow caution tape stretches over the sidewalk. Mayor Williamson says it would cost too much to repair the building.

He unlocks the back door and leads a quick tour of the damage. The sour smell of damp ash is immediate. The worst of the fire tore through the front office. Wood paneling has been charred black and strips of insulation hang from the ceiling. Tile floors are smeared with soot.

At the center of the destruction, the town's computer sits in a torched heap atop a roasted desk. Investigators and town officials were able to salvage a few boxes worth of paper files from drawers and file cabinets, but whatever was on that computer is gone.

Parma’s former treasurer Kim Hampton says an audit is long overdue. - DOYLE MURPHY
Parma’s former treasurer Kim Hampton says an audit is long overdue.

Among those who visited Parma to poke through the remains of City Hall were a pair of investigators from the Missouri State Auditor's Public Corruption and Fraud Division.

In the fall of 2018, a whistleblower called the auditor's hotline with concerns about operations under Byrd. Details of the allegations haven't been publicly revealed, but state Auditor Nicole Galloway has said that an investigation by her staff found them to be credible.

The next step would be an audit. State law requires a formal invitation or a residents' petition for that to happen. There was no request under Byrd, but the election of Williamson offered an opening.

Then City Hall burned. That very next day, while the fire still smoldered, Galloway revealed that the new administration had planned to make a formal request for the audit at a special aldermanic meeting. It had been scheduled for the following day. But the fire left serious questions: Would there even be records to audit?

While Parma's former treasurer Kim Hampton welcomed the audit, she says it's long overdue.

"If they had come down even two years ago and stopped this madness, we wouldn't be in this mess," she says.

Hampton worked for the city for 23 years under Mayor Ramsey. It was a part-time job. Ramsey allowed her to work from the offices of a cotton gin that her husband owned. She kept the books in a safe at the back of her office.

Then Byrd beat Ramsey, 122 to 84 votes. The new mayor told reporters she couldn't locate basic city documents when she took office.

That still annoys Hampton.

"That was lies," she says.

Hampton says everyone knew where the records were and that a second set was stored in the community building. Ultimately, the arrangement benefited the city, she says, because the gin donated the use of office equipment, such as a printer and copier — not to mention storage space in its safe.

"And it was a fireproof safe," Hampton adds pointedly.

She was sorry to see Ramsey leave office. "He was a really good person, a good man," she says. (Ramsey died last year, in his sleep.) In contrast, Byrd made her and other employees from the past regime uneasy. Byrd had previously been a city clerk for a short time, and when she left, a few thousand dollars were inexplicably missing from court funds, Hampton claims. It was never tied to Byrd, but Hampton says the lingering questions are what prompted much of the old staff to resign. She considered quitting with them but says others in the community persuaded her to stay and keep an eye on things.

She did, for a while, but left after a few months of clashing with Byrd. She says the final straw came after she learned the city was dangerously close to not making payroll. Alarmed, Hampton says, she contacted a clerk for help sorting it out. Word soon got back to Byrd.

"She called me and jumped all over me and chewed me out for telling the clerk," Hampton says.

She quit the part-time job after that, but she did not fade away. Convinced Byrd was steering the city to financial ruin, in 2016, Hampton took her concerns to law enforcement.

The sheriff's office and state police investigated, eventually driving Hampton to Jefferson City to meet with the state auditor's staff. Investigators there reviewed the information but ultimately decided they didn't have enough to determine whether there had been any fraud or theft.

Alderman Allen Hampton clashed with ex-Mayor Tyus Byrd during her time in office. - DOYLE MURPHY
Alderman Allen Hampton clashed with ex-Mayor Tyus Byrd during her time in office.

Then, in 2017, her husband Allen Hampton was elected one of Parma's four alderman. He had hoped to get access to more of the town's financial records but says Byrd often kept information from the board. When he tried to contact her, her staff claimed she was in meetings.

The conflicts came to a head one afternoon. Allen Hampton caught up with Byrd at the community center, but she went behind a clerk's window and wouldn't talk to him, he says. It got pretty heated.

"I was talking strong, and she slammed the damn window on me," Allen Hampton says.

He banged on the window, and she called the town's lone cop to have him arrested. Hampton suggested they also contact the sheriff's office and state police.

When they showed up, Allen Hampton says, they refused to arrest him and told the Parma officer they would lock him up for kidnapping if he tried to make the bust.

Sheriff Stevens says he does not remember all the details but it was clear it was not a criminal matter. "She didn't agree with him," the sheriff says. "He didn't agree with her." Ultimately, nobody got arrested.

Gearing up for the 2019 election, the Hamptons were eager to find a replacement for Byrd. But neither wanted to run.

"Mayor Williamson is the one who stepped up to run for mayor, and that's how we got Mayor Byrd defeated," Allen Hampton says.

And with that, Kim Hampton went back to doing the city's books at the cotton gin, a task that's been complicated by the fire at City Hall. Kim Hampton says she was able to get the past four years of statements from the bank to go with whatever the fire did not destroy. On a recent visit, she sits with a magnifying glass, entering amounts from photocopies of checks into a database. Salvaged papers scent the safe with the smell of smoke and ash.

Hampton says she hopes to quit the volunteer position as soon as she sorts out Parma's finances, but so far the picture is grim. She says the city is now more than $50,000 in debt. Byrd's administration had essentially ignored basic obligations to take out money for state unemployment, state withholding and sales tax among other bills since mid-2017, according to Hampton. In addition, the state notified Parma that the city was being fined $30,000 for not filing its 2018 financial report — a requirement of municipalities. The city had also stiffed local vendors on bills.

"We've got all this debt that we've got to figure out how to pay," Hampton says.

Investigators say the City Hall fire was set in multiple places within the building. - DOYLE MURPHY
Investigators say the City Hall fire was set in multiple places within the building.

Someone set City Hall on fire.

In the background of Parma's political battles and financial wrangling is the investigation into a brazen arson — very possibly two. Sheriff Stevens says that while he's convinced the City Hall fire was intentionally set, the cause of the house fire is murkier. He — and just about everyone else in town — strongly suspect the two are linked. But he is running into a familiar problem in arson investigations: Sometimes the evidence burns up.

"The house was a total loss," Stevens says. "There wasn't even any frame standing. It was a complete burn."

Once the embers cooled, investigators used shovels and a backhoe to sift through the debris. Stevens says they came up empty. Everything had burned, including any sign of how or even where the inferno began. Progress on both fires has been slow, he adds. They have no suspects. No eye witnesses have come forward.

"We're still digging," he says. "We're still rattling cages."

Not that it has slowed speculation in town. The theories of who is responsible generally center around Byrd — either as the suspect or the victim.

Williamson, for one, now suspects there was a reason he wasn't given the keys the night he was sworn in.

"I guess they knew they were going to burn ..." he says, before stopping mid sentence. "Well, I guess they knew it was going to catch fire. I should be careful how I say that."

The charred remains of former Mayor Byrd’s home. - DOYLE MURPHY
The charred remains of former Mayor Byrd’s home.

Everyone has an idea of who is responsible, but investigators say they've uncovered precious little evidence. Multiple people insist to a reporter that a local drug addict set the fires, although they're split on whether he was motivated by Byrd's camp, her adversaries or his own demons. Some say he was spotted carrying a gas can near City Hall on the night of the fires.

Stevens has, of course, heard the same stories. "We've got a lot of conspiracy theories that we've been approached with — 'I think this guy did it, I think that guy did it,'" he says.

Those who suspect Byrd point to the looming state audit, theorizing the house fire was a diversion, occupying firefighters while the town's computer and other records went up in flames. And yet, burning down your own house would be a pretty extreme move.

"She didn't burn her own house down," says a relative of Byrd's, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Mary. "That's ridiculous."

She and others in Byrd's camp suspect the fires were the culmination of four years of animosity.

"Last night a possible 'Hate Crime' took place in Parma, MO!," Byrd's husband, Adrian Byrd, wrote on Facebook hours after the fire. "Thank God my Family is safe! We do not have confidence in New Madrid County Sheriff dept investigation! Hopefully State and or Federal authorities will find out who is responsible for this cowardly act! Thank you for all your prayers!" He soon deleted the post.

Schaffer, the Lilbourn assistant fire chief, says he only saw the scene after firefighters had cleared, but what he saw seemed odd.

"It just didn't look like a normal burnt structure," he says. Even in the worst of house fires, a few things usually remain. At Byrd's house, there was nothing. "No bed frames or springs. Nothing metal that should have been stuck up. No refrigerators. No appliances."

He emphasizes that he is not accusing anyone of anything, but the fire continues to seem strange to him.

"By the looks of the remains of the house," he says, "I don't think the house was occupied."

Byrd's father, Simon Wofford, owns a small auto body shop in Parma. Even with Memorial Day weekend in full swing, he is at work early on Saturday morning to pull the transmission out of a truck and does not have much time to talk.

A longtime alderman in Parma, he knows some people think his daughter was somehow involved with the fires. That makes him shake his head.

"When something like that happens, they're going to look at us first," he says.

Whereas some saw his daughter as combative, the 71-year-old Wofford is soft-spoken and generally regarded around town as measured and thoughtful. He worried about Byrd when she was the mayor. Her election and the ensuing spotlight sparked a frightening fury in some.

"She received some threats," he says. "She would get notes on her door."

One man even threatened to burn her house down, according to Wofford. After the fire, he counseled her to avoid Parma until things calmed down.

He says it's true his daughter often stayed out of town, even when she was mayor. Her husband works in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and she would make the 90-mile commute to Parma on nights she stayed there. The house is in Wofford's name, and he says another of his daughters had been living there recently.

After a few minutes, he says he has to get back to work on a truck, but he is happy, for Byrd's sake, that her time as mayor is over. It made her too much of a target.

"I'm glad she's not in the position anymore," he says.

Parma Mayor Rufus Williamson Jr. says there are no plans to rebuild City Hall. - DOYLE MURPHY
Parma Mayor Rufus Williamson Jr. says there are no plans to rebuild City Hall.

Mayor Williamson is hoping to start fresh. When he took over in April, Parma again saw a giant shakeup: this time, because Williamson fired everyone from Byrd's staff, including Parma's only police officer. There were no national headlines about that — only the fires.

The city now depends on a skeleton crew of part-timers and volunteers. Williamson, who spent much of his career working for Pfizer in St. Louis before returning home to the Bootheel, spends his days mowing city properties, overseeing a pair of part-time maintenance workers and chasing down the odd nuisance complaint, such as dumped tires. His salary is $400 a month.

"We're going to clean it up, paint it up — make it look accessible," he says of the town.

City Hall, however, is probably done. "I don't think we're going to rebuild that," Williamson says.

Volunteers from a nearby VFW post spent part of Memorial Day weekend making repairs to the community center, so Parma can reopen city offices there.

Two of Parma's few remaining thriving businesses — agriculture companies QMI Fertilizer & Grain and AgXplore — donated to the cause. Williamson says they have had so many offers to help rebuild Parma that he has had to turn people down.

"We've had people tell me, 'I'm going to help you fix our streets. I've got two shovels, I'm going to fix some of these holes,'" the mayor says.

There is still much to be done. Originally, Williamson says, he thought it would take him about six months to get the city looking presentable. The fires have pushed that timeline back, but he is still optimistic.

"Why don't you come back a year from now and see how we look?" he says.

He always knew it would be a hard job, but he says he had no way of knowing how hard. He did not expect to be finding a new home for city operations or waiting on answers in an arson investigation.

A reward for information in the fires has topped $20,000. Williamson went out in the dark that morning. He remembers standing there before the sun had risen on his first day as mayor and taking it all in.

"This was smoking," he says, gesturing to City Hall, "and that house was still smoking. I thought, 'My God, what has happened here?'"

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