- Angela Roberts
- NO PEACE YET: Melissa and John Mark Byers, now facing criminal charges themselves, hold a picture of their murdered son Christopher in their new home at Cherokee Village.
On Nov. 6 police in Memphis responded to a call that someone had been shot at 4460 Kerwin St., the home of Pamela and Terry Hobbs. The Hobbses are the mother and stepfather of Steve Branch, who was one of three 8-year-old boys found murdered in May last year, in a wooded area near where the family used to live in West Memphis.
Sgt. Mike Houston of the Police Department said police who went to the house pieced together the following of what had transpired:
Pamela Hobbs said that earlier in the day, her husband Terry had beaten her with his fists. Police said they observed injuries to Pamela Hobbs' face and to the back of her head.
Before she went to the hospital. Pamela Hobbs told police, she called a relative in Blytheville and told him she believed her jaw was broken. That person reportedly contacted other relatives in Blytheville, and together they drove to Memphis, where they confronted Terry Hobbs about the assault.
According to Houston. Hobbs refused to talk to the relatives, but instead left the house and went to a truck outside, from which, unbeknown to those inside, he removed a .357 magnum pistol, which he put in his pocket.
At that point. Jackie Hicks, Pamela Hobbs' brother, came from the house and confronted Terry Hobbs again. Houston said it appeared that "Hicks passed the first lick," and a fight ensued. Hicks had gotten Hobbs down on the ground, when Hobbs reached into his pocket, pulled out the gun, and shot Hicks in the abdomen.
Hobbs then reportedly pointed the gun at some of the other relatives, threatening that he would shoot them too. When police arrived, Hobbs was taken into custody and charged with assault on his wife and aggravated assault on Hicks, his brother-in-law.
Hicks was hospitalized in critical condition. He has since been released from the hospital.
The assaults are but another twist in a tragic saga. And here is another: A year and a half ago, it was Jackie Hicks who, as part of a search team scanning West Memphis for the missing children, was the first to discover the bodies of young Steve Branch and his two murdered playmates.
A longer trail of violence followed the lives of Melissa and Mark Byers, the mother and stepfather of Christopher Byers, another of the young victims of that crime, who, besides being murdered, was also found castrated.
In April of this year, shortly after the trials at which three West Memphis teen-agers were convicted of the killings, the Byerses moved to Cherokee Village, a quiet community of about 4,000, close to the Missouri border. They told reporters they wanted to escape the publicity that had engulfed them and live peacefully, but police say, rather, that, since arriving, the couple has disturbed the peace.
Police from Cherokee Village, the neighboring town of Hardy and the Sharp County Sheriff's Office all have been called to investigate incidents involving Mark or Melissa Byers, or both. Donna and John Kingsbury, who live next-door to the house where the Byerses moved, have sought a restraining order against their new neighbors, alleging that Mark Byers whipped their 5-year-old son with the metal end of a swatter, that shots have been fired at their house, and that Melissa Byers threatened them, saying, "We'l1 put you in a hole you can't get out of," and "I lost my Christopher. Maybe you need to see what it's like to lose a child."
The Byerses, who did not respond to requests for an interview, have also sought a restraining order against the Kingsburys.
But the feud between neighbors is minor compared to two other incidents, both of which have resulted in the filing of charges against the couple.
Last summer, the home of a Cherokee Village woman was burglarized, with an estimated $20,000 worth of furnishings taken. In September, Mark and Melissa Byers, who live not far from the house, were charged with the residential burglary and theft. If convicted, each could receive a sentence of from three to 10 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
The two pleaded not guilty at their arraignment in October. A trial is scheduled for next March.
(Intriguingly, a second crime occurred two weeks ago at the home of Brenda Atwood, the woman whose house the Byerses are charged with burglarizing. The sheriffs is now investigating an explosion and subsequent fire that destroyed 1976 Dodge Travelmate motor home that was parked in Atwood's driveway.)
Mark Byers also faces charges as the result of an episode July 11 in Hardy. Emest R. Rose, Hardy's chief of police, said that, with only a few exceptions, Byers' account of that incident agrees with the accounts provided by other witnesses.
According to Rose:
Byers drove into Hardy accompanied by a teen-aged boy. Byers has a teen-aged stepson, but the boy who was with him on this day — who will not be identified because of his age — was not a relative.
While Byers went into the local gas company to conduct some business, another boy passed by the truck and he and the boy who was riding with Byers "exchanged words." The boy on foot then proceeded to what's known as the old Hardy bridge over the Spring River, where he joined a group of four other friends, ranging in age from 15 to 17 years old.
Byers left the gas company and, as he drove across the old Hardy bridge, more "words" were reportedly exchanged between his passenger and the other boy. Byers drove on, but then turned around and returned to the bridge, where witnesses said he asked the boy from Hardy if he "had a problem," and suggested that he "take it over in the shade and settle it like a man."
The group of seven people — "six juveniles," as Rose put it, "and Byers" — then moved to a spot by the river known as the Pecan Grove. There is some dispute then about how the pocket knife got into Byers' passenger's hand, but no one disputes that one did — or that it belonged to Mark Byers. Rose said, "Byers told me he told the juvenile, 'Don' t open the knife.' He also told me he has taught the boy how to use the knife."
The two boys who had "exchanged words," reportedly over a girl, now found themselves in a vicious fight, with Byers' companion using the folded knife in his hand as what the boys called a fist pack. When someone in the group noticed the knife, and hollered out, "He has a knife," Byers' companion threw the knife — an Uncle Henry bone-handled, 5-inch pocket knife — aside.
At that point, the boys watching the fight moved in and tried to stop it. "But as they did," Rose said, Byers told them to stand back. He said, 'Stay where you are. It' s not between you, it's between them.' And," Rose added, "he does admit to saying that, too."
The boys did back off, in part because Byers was holding what appeared to be a gun. When Rose questioned Byers later, he confirmed that he did hold a gun at his side throughout the incident, but, Rose said, "He told me, 'At no time did I intimidate or threaten any of those kids.'
Rose said, "I asked him, 'You don't think that just having a gun in your hands under those circumstances was intimidating and threatening?' He said, 'No.'"
Finally, the boy with Byers asked his opponent, "Have you had enough?" He had. Ha had been beaten badly enough that he lost consciousness and later had to be hospitalized.
Byers and his companion got back in their car and drove alongside the victim of the fight, who was still lying on the ground. Some of the boys in the group said that Byers told them, "You'd better not mess with me. You don't know who I am." Byers denies saying that.
No one disputes, however, that the boy with him then reached out the window with a can of Mountain Dew and poured it over the prone boy's head, saying, "This will wake him up."
A highway department employee working nearby heard the altercation and ran over to intervene. He met Byers, who was leaving, on his way, and reported that Byers told him, "Some smart-ass kid got his ass kicked. He got what he deserved."
When Rose reached the scene, he questioned the boys involved, none of whom, he said, he's had any trouble with before. They described Byers, whom no one knew, as "dirty, with a blonde beard and sunglasses, 230-250 pounds, wearing 'like a flag shirt' with blue jeans, 35-40 years old, with brownish-black hair." They also gave a description of his vehicle. They said the boy with him lived at Cherokee Village.
Rose called police at Cherokee Village, read them the description, and, he said, "they told me who I was looking for." As a result of the incident, the boy whom Byers had driven to the altercation and who had used Byers' knife ended up being charged with second-degree battery, a Class-D felony. He had had no prior criminal record.
Byers himself was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a Class A misdemeanor. Rose said that when he told Byers there could be charges, Byers seemed incredulous.
"He kept asking me, 'What is your opinion?' He said, 'I think they ought to have fought it out, don't you?'
"I said, 'No, I don't. That's one of the reasons I'm arresting you.'
The arrests of the two stepfathers of the murdered children at West Memphis tend to underscore questions raised months ago by attorneys for defendants in the triple slaying case — particularly about the adequacy of the investigation that led to the arrests of three local teenagers, none of whom had a record of prior violence.
Attorneys for Darnien Wayne Echols, who was sentenced to death last May for the killings, made several efforts to at least raise the possibility that a family member of one of the victims was involved, especially after a knife belonging to Byers was discovered with human blood on it — blood that matched the type of both him and his stepson Christopher.
When police questioned Byers about the knife, in January of this year, nine months after the murders, they did not tell him at first that t.he blood had been discovered. They asked, instead, if he had ever used the knife.
"No," he said, according to a transcript of that interview. "That knife had not been used at all."
When told about the finding of blood, Byers changed his statement, claiming that he had used the knife to cut deer meat to make jerky.
"Okay. Alright," investigator Gary Gitchell said. "Let me go a little bit further and say there's a problem with that. The problem is we have sent this knife off and had it examined and it has the blood type of Christopher's on it."
Byers responded, "Well, Gary, I don't have any idea how it could be on there."
Gitchell said, "That's our problem." Lacking a coherent explanation from its owner, the question of how human blood got on that knife — a 9-inch long, serrated Kershaw — has never been cleared up.
Defense lawyers tried to suggest that family violence may have played a role in the killings, rather than satanic blood-thirst, as was alleged. But most of defense lawyers' efforts to bring that information before the jury never got out of the judge's chambers.
The lawyers particularly wanted to focus on the criminal history of Mark Byers — a history that, according to police records, involved prior attacks on family members, and to which police apparently paid only slight attention.
In 1973, when John Mark Byers was 16 years old and living in Marked Tree, police there were called to his home by his parents, who said he was threatening them with a knife. Deputy Sheriff C.L. Carter, now retired, responded to the call.
Carter recalled, "Mark had a knife after them He wanted them to give him money to buy dope with."
When Carter cornered Byers in a closet, ordered him to throw down the knife, and took him in custody, he said Byers vowed, " I'll cut your throat."
By 1987, Byers had been married, fathered two children, been divorced, and remarried. A former neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she reported Byers about that time to child abuse authorities, because "he was whipping Christopher [who was two at the time] so badly I was afraid for his life." The woman said she reported the incidents again during the investigations into the murders, but was never asked to testify.
That same year, Byers was arrested and charged with terroristic threatening for an assault on his former wife. John Griffm, of the Marion Police Department, wrote in his report that "a concened neighbor...advised that she heard a woman screaming [and that] there were two small kids outside by themselves, unattended."
When he entered the house, Griffin wrote, he found Byers' ex-wife on the floor and Byers brandishing an electric shock device known as a Power Zapper. He said Byers behaved arrogantly, and that the woman was upset and begged him not to leave.
"Mr. Byers acted strange," the report noted. "A few minutes he would calm down
and talk normal, but then all of a sudden, he would get arrogant again, advising me that he was the father and he was going to take the kids. However, he could not produce any papers showing that he had custody of the kids.
"He also became upset when I advised him that I was going to keep the Power Zapper, which he wanted back. I could not smell any type of intoxicant on his breath, [but] he appeared to have been either on some type of medication or intoxicant [by] the manner in which he was acting."
Byers was convicted of terroristic threatening in the incident. He served three years probation. In 1992 he petitioned to have the charge dismissed and the record of his conviction expunged — a petition that was granted.
That was on May 5, a year to the day before the three boys' murders. Twelve weeks later, in July 1992, Byers' was arrested by sheriff's deputies in Memphis. He was charged with a felony cocaine count and carrying a weapon.
Records of what happened next are vague. It is documented that the morning after his arrest, Shelby County authorities placed Byers in federal custody, in the hands of U.S. marshals. But officials at the Marshal' s Service say Byers was released, and no record apparently exists showing to whom he was released or why.
What is known is that over the course of the next year, Byers worked as an informant, at least for police in Memphis and West Memphis, and possibly others. When West Memphis police questioned Byers two weeks after the boys' murders, they asked him about this undercover work and people who, as Byers put it, "maybe would be vindictive."
Byers mentioned two people in Memphis whom he put in that category, and he referred to helping authorities at Marion on their investigation into an illegal methamphetamine lab.
At the same time Byers was informing for the police — during late 1992 and early 1993 — he was also being investigated by the Arkansas State Police for what they concluded was a scam involving a shipment of Rolex watches. The state police investigation had just ended, their information had been turned over to West Memphis police, and they were expecting Byers to be arrested when the boys' triple murder occurred.
Byers was not arrested nor was the case against him revealed. After the murders, restitution was made for the watches, and the matter was never prosecuted.
Daniel Stidham of Paragould is the lawyer for Jessie Misskelley, who was accused, along with Echols and Jason Baldwin, of killing the three West Memphis children. While Echols was characterized as the group' s ringleader and sentenced to death, Misskelley and Ba1dwin were sentenced to life in prison.
Police admit that the case against the teen-agers was circumstantial, based almost entirely upon a confession from Misskelley, a boy who is borderline mentally retarded.
Stidham, who is preparing Misskelley's appeal, says that one of the points he will raise is that Misskelley denied any involvement in the murders until police told him he had failed a lie-detector test. He had, in fact, passed it, but it was after that that Misskelley gave his damning confession.z
Stidham says he has a hard time sleeping at night, so convinced is he that his client and the boys convicted with him were victims of what one witness for the defense labeled "a satanic panic." He is aware of Byers' record, and of the further violence erupting in the family of Steve Branch, but Stidham is careful about throwing stones.
He cautions, "My client was convicted without evidence. That was wrong. And no one else should be convicted without evidence, either."
After allegedly beating his wife and shooting his brother-in-law, Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steve Branch, was released from jail in Memphis on $20,000 bond.
Mark Byers faces trials on both the burglary charge and the charge stemming from the teen-agers' fight. In the meantime, he has hired Larry Kissee, a lawyer in Ash Flat, to represent him in a lawsuit he is considering fling against the city of West Memphis.
Kissee said, "I don't know how you put a pricetag on a little boy' s life." But he said the Byerses believe their son would still be alive if police had begun searching for the three boys sooner, after Pamela Hobbs reported them missing.