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 last found dead after he warned his mother that he was being followed by white men who were hurling racial slurs.
In an interview with NBC News, Smith County Sheriff Joel Houston defended his initial determination, saying that no evidence at the time pointed to homicide. But he said his department is still waiting for the search warrant to rule more definitively.
For the first time, the sheriff revealed key aspects of the investigation, including the department’s process for weeding out potential suspects.
The interview came a day after Carter’s loved ones and their attorney, Ben Crump, rebuked officers for more than four months stonewalling them and accused police of 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 October 2, after his mother called him to say he had called for police help and that white men in three trucks were following him. That was the last day Carter’s family heard from him.
On November 2, authorities said they found her 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,” although the matter was under investigation.
Carter’s loved ones and family lawyers were disappointed by that quick decision from the sheriff and urged the Justice Department to handle the investigation as a civil rights matter during a news conference Monday.
“It was a nefarious act. It was a wicked act,” said Crump. “Somebody murdered Rasheem Carter, and we can’t let them get away with it.”
The sheriff said Tuesday that his department initially said no foul play was suspected to ease public concern after finding no initial evidence Carter was followed.
“It was just telling the local or general public that no one else is believed to be involved at this time,” he said. “It seems to have caused unnecessary headache, but we only have what the evidence tells us. At that point, the evidence didn’t suggest anything.”
Carter, a welder from Fayette, Mississippi, was in Taylorsville, about 100 miles 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 named it after her 7-year-old daughter, Callie.
“That was his goal,” she said. “That’s why he went back to work.”
But in October, while at the job site, Carter had an altercation with at least one co-worker and fled in fear for his life, his mother said.
“She said, ‘I got these people who were trying to kill me,'” Carter’s mother recalled her saying.
She advised Carter to go to the nearest police station for help but eventually lost contact with her.
On Tuesday, the sheriff said his department interviewed “everyone involved” with Carter’s previous job, including four to five people whom Carter had pointed out to her mother as potential threats.
Houston said police “ruled him out” after determining through phone records and GPS coordinates that his equipment was at another job site about 100 miles away from Taylorsville when Carter was last seen alive.
The sheriff said that Carter’s colleagues and supervisor noted in their interviews that Carter had “not been himself” for about a week before he went missing.
“He said his whole demeanor had changed. He wasn’t sure what was going on,” Houston said. “He just said he kept to himself more. He usually jokes, and in the last week or so they haven’t been able to do that.”
Houston said Carter had “some verbal disputes” with at least one co-worker. But the sheriff did not say what the disagreement was about or whether the dispute prompted the change in Carter’s behavior.
Houston said Carter was last captured on a private landowner’s game camera in the woods just after 4:30 p.m. on October 2, adding that he was the only person seen in the footage.
The sheriff said that when the property owner learned about it in mid-October, he turned the image over to police. Houston said it took about two weeks to search several hundred acres using cadaver dogs.
Along with Carter’s scattered remains, authorities found some cash, bank cards, driver’s license, a vape and a phone charger from inside his blue jeans, although they never recovered his phone.
The sheriff’s department has submitted a search warrant to Google to determine if any devices were pinged in the area where Carter’s remains were found at the time of his disappearance.
“It’s a last-straw-type deal to determine whether or not someone else was with him,” he said. “It’s not unusual to use this tool.”
However, the process has been ongoing since mid-November, Houston said, and the department has had to revise, reduce and resubmit its request several times recently, including last week.
Houston said he welcomes the Justice Department’s involvement and that he wants justice for Carter’s family “as much as the family does.”
The Carters disagree.
Three family members said officials told them that wild animals must have dismembered his body.
“He was in so many different pieces,” said Yokena Anderson, a cousin of Carter’s mother. “They wanted to tell us that he went out there and died and the animals were eating him.”
Carter’s mother said that her son was clear about the incoming threats during his last phone call 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 lie after lie.”