Sheriff Mike Byrd surrenders, faces 31 criminal charges

Charges include embezzlement, fraud, witness tampering and extortion

mbbaker@sunherald.comAugust 30, 2013 

OCEAN SPRINGS -- Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd silently walked into the Ocean Springs Police Department on Friday afternoon to surrender for arrest on 31 criminal charges, 29 of them felonies.

The four-term sheriff usually wears his uniform with medals pinned to the chest, but was dressed in a casual shirt and jeans, lawyers by his side, when he stepped through a back door at the Police Department. Newspaper and television reporters followed, while photographers snapped pictures.

Behind closed doors, Byrd confronted a grand jury indictment that accuses him of committing the crimes while serving as chief law enforcement officer of the county.

The 31 charges include embezzlement, fraud, witness tampering, hindering prosecution, attempting to influence others to perjure themselves before a grand jury, extortion and intimidating an officer.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence and his office investigated the case for months and secured the grand jury indictment. The county's four city police chiefs, all in uniform, came to serve Byrd his arrest papers.

"We decided to do it together so no one would have to shoulder the burden alone," Pascagoula Police Chief Kenny Johnson said after they finished and left.

A special judge had to set Byrd's bond and preside over his case because Jackson County's three circuit judges recused themselves. The state Supreme Court appointed former Circuit Judge William F. Coleman. Coleman set Byrd's bond at $31,000 -- $1,000 for each charge.

After Byrd had been arrested, Deputy Police Chief Mark Dunston passed out copies of the indictment to reporters, along with a typed statement from Lawrence. No news conferences were held.

In the statement, Lawrence emphasized Byrd is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Lawrence said he "will take all necessary and proper steps to ensure that the criminal justice system in Jackson County stands for truth and justice."

The sheriff was well known around the county for his vocal solos in church and at funerals. Several of the indictments accuse him of embezzlement and fraud for ordering several Sheriff's Office employees in September and November 2012 to collect money for the 11th annual Sheriff's Gospel Sing on county time, using county equipment.

Jackson County Circuit Clerk Joe Martin said early Friday there is no mechanism for removing an indicted public official from office. "Until you plead guilty or are found guilty, you are innocent," Martin said.

If Byrd were to leave office, it would fall to the Jackson County Board of Supervisors to appoint a replacement. Board President Mike Mangum said early Friday afternoon Byrd had not indicated to county officials he would leave office. "He runs his office the way he wants to," Mangum said. "So, it's business as usual."

Byrd's attorney, Joe Sam Owen, confirmed Friday evening Byrd had no plans to resign.

"Suffice it to say that this indictment will proceed to trial," Owen said, "and we will let the citizens of Jackson County decide each count that is submitted to them."

Karen Nelson and Anita Lee, Sun Herald staff writers, contributed to this report.

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