A small southeast Missouri town has been under a watchful police presence in the week since nearly simultaneous fires hours after the mayor left office burned her home as well as the building that houses City Hall.
Adding to the intrigue in tiny Parma, a racially-mixed town of 700 people 175 miles south of St. Louis, was the fact that Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway was preparing an audit of the city amid reports of questionable financial activity. Many of the records that would have been subject to the audit were destroyed.
The New Madrid County Sheriff’s Department has had officers on extra patrol in Parma since the fires broke out before dawn on April 17. The City Hall fire was deemed arson and the fire at former Mayor Tyus Byrd’s house was called suspicious.
“You can’t say what’s what when you don’t have proof,” new Mayor Rufus Williamson Jr. said Wednesday. “We know that there seems to be something wrong here.”
Parma is part of the Missouri’s impoverished Bootheel region. Census data shows that Parma’s median household income was $27,220 in 2016, compared to the Missouri median of $51,749.
Voters earlier this month ousted Byrd, electing the 83-year-old Williamson by a 115-56 vote. Williamson was sworn on the evening of April 16.
Hours later, shortly after midnight, 911 calls alerted authorities to a fire at Byrd’s home. By the time firefighters arrived it was engulfed in flames. No one was hurt, but the damage was so bad that identifying the cause has proven difficult.
As crews were leaving, they saw smoke coming from a block away. City Hall was on fire, too.
The exterior of the small brick building was salvaged, but inside, nearly all records and the computer were lost, Williamson said.
New Madrid County Chief Deputy Chris Hensley said investigators found several origin points inside the structure. “It was clearly set,” he said.
Hensley said investigators are looking into the possibility that City Hall was burned to destroy records prior to the audit. Williamson agreed the timing was suspicious.
“We think maybe they didn’t want (auditors) to find what they were going to find,” he said.
In a news release last week, Galloway said a complaint to her office’s whistleblower hotline about “questionable financial activity” prompted an investigation by her public corruption unit that found the allegations credible enough to merit an audit.
The intrigue increased Friday when five city employees were fired: the fire chief, city clerk, city collector, a police officer and a water and sewer maintenance employee. Williamson said the employees aren’t accused of wrongdoing related to the fires, but City Council members decided to let them go, essentially, just in case.
“We didn’t know whether they were in on it or not so we just fired them,” the mayor said.
Investigators have no suspects in the fires, but leads are starting to trickle in now that rewards totaling $21,000 are being offered, Hensley said.
Byrd was elected mayor in 2015, defeating longtime incumbent Randall Ramsey. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time that she was immediately concerned by the fact that she couldn’t find financial statements, meeting minutes and other key documents.
Almost immediately after Byrd’s election, the police chief and other city workers resigned. Byrd wasn’t sure why, but speculation centered on race — Byrd is black; Ramsey is white. Others believed the departures were simply out of loyalty to the former mayor.
Williamson, the new mayor, also is black. As he helped haul equipment into the community center that now serves as temporary City Hall, he paused to ponder the situation he was thrust into.
“I was going to be hands-on anyway, but I wasn’t going to do what I’m doing,” he said.
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