The body of a man found hanging by a bed sheet in the Mississippi woods was identified Friday as Otis James Byrd, a 54-year-old ex-con who'd been missing for two weeks.
Whether his death was a suicide or a homicide won't be known for another week or so, authorities said.
The circumstances of the discovery — Byrd was black, and his hanging from a tree evoked old images of Mississippi's history of race-based violence — prompted local authorities to call in the FBI. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is also involved, to help determine whether Byrd's death was a hate crime.
"At this point we're trying to determine what happened," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told MSNBC in a phone interview Friday. He said the FBI, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi are "looking into the matter to determine if there are any violations of law that occurred."
"If it's a potential hate crime — we simply don't know enough facts. We're still in the process of trying to gather those facts, but we do have a substantial federal presence to determine what the facts are," Holder added.
Byrd went missing on March 2, and local officials began searching for him a few days later. Searchers discovered his badly decomposed body Thursday morning, about a half-mile from his home in rural Claiborne County, authorities said.
A law enforcement source tells NBC News authorities are looking into multiple casinos he may have frequented before he disappeared.
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas told NBC News that it remained unclear whether the death was a homicide or a suicide, but he confirmed that the victim "had a bed sheet tied around his neck." He also had some sort of cap on his head, Lucas said.
An autopsy will reveal if he died by his own hands or those of another, Lucas added.
Lucas, who is black and is a lifelong Claiborne County resident, cautioned against drawing any conclusions before then. Claiborne County is 85 percent black, he said, and "never had any race issues."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Lucas said. "Let's see what the evidence says."
Donald Alway, special agent in charge of the FBI's office in Jackson, said he expected the autopsy to be completed sometime next week. In the meantime, investigators will interview Byrd's friends and family and others who knew him. "We're still trying to find out more about Mr. Byrd's life," Alway said.
Byrd spent 25 years in state prison for the 1980 armed robbery and murder of Port Gibson convenience store operator Lucille Trimm, according to local press reports and state records. He was 19 at the time.
He was paroled on Nov. 2, 2006, the Clarion Ledger reported.
Lucas said he saw Byrd around town, including church, and in visits with his probation officer. The sheriff said he had no problems with him.
The investigation has so far revealed that on March 2, Byrd was dropped off at a casino in Vicksburg, then got a ride home late that night. Authorities are trying to obtain casino surveillance video, Lucas said.
The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP said it had pressed federal authorities to investigate.
"It's too early in the process to speculate, but based on the history in Mississippi of racial hate crimes, we are always concerned when an African-American is found hung in a tree in this state," said Derrick Johnson, the conference's president.
—Michael Kosnar, Leo Juarez, Trymaine Lee and Jon Schuppe