A Mississippi sheriff said Tuesday that he has not ruled out the possibility of murder in the case of Rasheem Carter, months after initially saying there was “no reason” to suspect foul play in the Black man’s death.
Carter, 25, was found dead last fall after he warned his mother that he was being chased by white men hurling racial slurs.
In an interview with NBC News, Smith County Sheriff Joel Houston defended his early determination, saying no evidence at the time pointed to homicide. But he said his department is still waiting on search warrants to rule more definitively.
For the first time, the sheriff revealed key aspects of the investigation, including the department’s process of ruling out potential suspects.
The interview came one day after Carter’s loved ones and their attorney Ben Crump slammed authorities for stonewalling them for more than four months and accused the police of covering up what they believe was a brutal hate crime.
“Nothing is being swept under the rug,” Houston said Tuesday. “There’s nothing to hide.”
Carter was reported missing on Oct. 2, after his mother said he had sought help from police and frantically called her to say white men in three trucks were pursuing him. That was the last day Carter’s family heard from him.
On Nov. 2, authorities said they found his remains in a wooded area south of Taylorsville, Mississippi. In a statement on Facebook a day later, the Smith County Sheriff’s Department said it had “no reason to believe foul play was involved,” though the case was under investigation.
Carter's loved ones and family attorney were dismayed by that swift decision by the sheriff and urged the Justice Department to take over the investigation as a civil rights case during a news conference Monday.
"This was a nefarious act. This was an evil act,” Crump said. “Somebody murdered Rasheem Carter, and we cannot let them get away with this.”
The sheriff said Tuesday that his department initially said that no foul play was suspected to ease public concern after finding no early evidence that Carter had been chased.
"It was just letting the local or general public know that at this time no one else is believed to be involved," he said. "It does seem to have caused unnecessary headache, but we only have what the evidence tells us. At that time, the evidence didn’t suggest anything."
Carter, a welder from Fayette, Mississippi, was in Taylorsville, about 100 miles away from home, working a short-term contracting gig. His mother, Tiffany Carter, said he was saving money to reopen his seafood restaurant, which closed during the pandemic and which was named after his 7-year-old daughter, Cali.
“That was his goal,” she said. “That was why he went back out to work.”
But while he was at the job site in October, Carter had a disagreement with at least one co-worker and fled, fearing for his life, his mother said.
“He said, ‘I got these men trying to kill me,’” Carter’s mother recalled him saying.
She advised Carter to go to the nearest police station for help but eventually lost contact with him.
On Tuesday, the sheriff said his department interviewed “everybody involved” with Carter’s last job, including four to five people Carter had mentioned to his mother as possible threats.
Houston said police “ruled them out” after determining through phone records and GPS coordinates that their devices were nearly 100 miles away from Taylorsville at another job site when Carter was last seen alive.
The sheriff said Carter’s colleagues and supervisor mentioned in their interviews that Carter “had not been himself” for about a week before he went missing.
“They said his whole demeanor had changed. They weren’t sure what was going on,” Houston said. "They just said he kept to himself more. He usually joked around, and in the last week or so they weren’t able to do that.”
Houston said Carter had “a couple of verbal altercations” with at least one co-worker. But the sheriff did not say what the disagreement was about or whether the altercation prompted Carter's behavior change.
Carter was last seen captured on a private landowner’s game camera out in the woods on Oct. 2 after 4:30 p.m., Houston said, adding that he was the only person spotted in the footage.
The sheriff said the property owner passed the image along to police when he found out about it in mid-October. Houston said it took about two weeks to search several hundred acres, using cadaver dogs.
Along with Carter's scattered remains, authorities found inside his blue jeans some cash, bank cards, a driver’s license, a vape and a phone charger, though they never recovered his phone.
The sheriff's department has submitted a search warrant to Google to determine whether any devices pinged in the area where Carter's remains were found around the time he went missing.
“It’s a last-straw-type deal to determine if anyone else was with him or not,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to use this tool.”
However, the process has been going on since mid-November, Houston said, and the department has had to revise, narrow down and resubmit their request several times, including most recently last week.
Houston said that he welcomes the Justice Department's involvement and that he wants justice for Carter's family "just as much as the family does."
The Carters disagree.
Three members of the family said authorities told them wild animals may have torn his body apart.
“He was in so many different pieces,” said Yokena Anderson, a cousin to Carter’s mother. “They wanted to tell us that he went there and fell dead and the animals were feeding off him.”
Carter’s mother said that her son was lucid about the threats he faced during their final phone calls and that he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and had no history of mental illness.
"I just know what my son told me," she said Tuesday. "I don’t believe anything they say. It’s lies after lies."