On March 29, 1996, at approximately 5:40 p.m, Sonny Powell, the sheriff of Sharp County, called Investigator Stan Witt of the Arkansas State Police to report a suspicious death.
Powell told Witt that a woman named Melissa Byers had been taken by ambulance from her residence in Cherokee Village to Eastern Ozarks Regional Hospital. She was pronounced dead after efforts to revive her failed.
Powell was acquainted with Melissa Byers. As most people in the area knew, she was the mother of one of three boys who were found murdered in West Memphis in 1993. The following year, three West Memphis teen-agers were convicted for the killings in a pair of sensational trials, which hinged on allegations of Satanism. Throughout the trials, Melissa Byers and her husband, John Mark Byers, were seen frequently on TV, often cursing the defendants.
Since moving to Cherokee Village in 1994, the couple had had frequent run-ins with police. In 1996 they appeared on television again, this time in a highly praised documentary about the West Memphis murder case that was shown on HBO.
Now, not quite three years after the murder of 8-year-old Christopher Byers—and with some criminal charges against her and her husband still pending—Melissa Byers was dead. The problem facing Sheriff Powell was that no one at the hospital could figure out why. That inability on the part of the doctors to determine the cause of Melissa Byers' death was what prompted Sheriff Powell to telephone Witt.
Melissa Byers was only 40 years old. Her body showed no visible signs of trauma. To Powell, her death looked like a possible homicide. Witt arrived at the hospital about 35 minutes later. There he met with local law enforcement officers and with John Mark Byers, Melissa's husband. While a Sharp County deputy took a statement from John Mark Byers and got his permission to search his home, Witt began taking notes about the condition of Melissa Byers' body. It was nude and lying on the stretcher where she had died. "A visual observation of Byers' body revealed IV puncture marks on the top of her right and left foot, on the inside of her right wrist, and on the upper right thoracic area," Witt noted. "The right thoracic puncture mark and the right wrist puncture mark were both covered by Band-Aids. The puncture marks on the top of her right and left foot were not covered. ... The victim had a silver-colored necklace with a cross around her neck."
The investigator entered several other observations and had the body photographed. While he did that, another state police investigator was questioning a woman who had contacted Cherokee Village police upon hearing that Melissa Byers had been taken to the hospital. The woman told Investigator Steve Huddleston that she had known the Byerses for years, that the couple had recently been estranged, and that Melissa had been taking Dilaudid, a powerful narcotic that, when diverted to the black market, is one of the most popular illegal drugs in the country.
At approximately 9:40 that night, Witt and eight other officers organized a search at the Byers' home. Before granting his permission for the search, John Mark Byers had told a deputy sheriff that police would probably find a small amount of marijuana in the house. The deputy signed an agreement stating that, if they did, Byers would not be charged with possession. Consent thus obtained, the team searched the small, two-bedroom house at 75 Skyline Drive, while Byers waited outside. They found marijuana in a closet of the master bedroom and on a night stand in the other bedroom. They seized the marijuana as evidence, along with a glass on the night stand which contained an alcoholic beverage, believed to be peach schnapps. In addition, they seized six types of medication that had been prescribed for Melissa Byers. Dilaudid was not among them.
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