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?"