GREENSBORO, Ga.—A body hanging from a tree. For the mother of any black man living in the South, it’s an image laden with awful symbolism.
“It hurt,” JoAnn Henderson said of learning Monday morning that her son, Roosevelt Champion III, 43, had been found hanged from a tree behind a home on Martin Luther King Drive. “It really hurt.”
Henderson and I were standing some hours later in the backyard of a home near the possible crime scene where the family had gathered to grieve and await further news. Siblings were fielding phone calls in tears as more friends arrived to give hugs and offer condolences. Henderson had temporarily left her position in a circle of lawn chairs to speak with me, but she was unable to express much more than shock and grief.
Champion’s siblings said they were blindsided by the news of his death, and they want answers.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, authorities from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) reported that they found no “obvious” signs of foul play in Champion’s death but cannot determine an official cause until an autopsy is conducted.
Champion had been interviewed by police twice in the last week as part of an investigation into the murder of a woman named Carol Lewis, who is white. No charges had been filed against Champion at the time of his death.
The GBI confirmed at the press conference that Champion had been found hanging from a plastic ratchet tie Monday morning. According to the GBI, the position of Champion’s body suggested that he had not been forced into the tree, but given the sensitive nature of the case, the bureau is proceeding cautiously before coming to a conclusion.
“I understand that there is a lot of concern,” GBI Special Agent Joe Wooten told NBC. “Because of that, we’re going to be as transparent as we can be.”
Champion’s death recalls a March case in which a black man named Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree in Mississippi. While Byrd’s race and the location of his body led to some early suggestions that his death was a modern-day lynching, preliminary autopsy results from federal investigators pointed toward suicide.
After obtaining the autopsy results from the FBI, Byrd’s family has reportedly ordered a private investigation into the hanging. They still suspect foul play.
With the Byrd case still in the news, the circumstances surrounding Champion’s hanging have fueled speculation that he committed suicide. But Terri Johnson, one of Champion’s sisters, told me that she doesn’t believe Champion would take his own life.
When she first heard the news, she refused to believe it, she said: “No, that’s not my brother because I know my brother wouldn’t do anything like that.”
After several phone calls, she accepted that her brother had died.
“It broke my heart,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “We were best friends. We were close.”
According to Johnson, Champion had spent the last week with her after starting a new job building a sea wall on nearby Lake Oconee. He seemed happy, she said. As for the investigation into Lewis’s death, Johnson stressed that Champion had cooperated with the police at every stage of the investigation.
With tensions between police and local black communities soaring across the country in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, Champion’s family sought to make it clear that he did not attempt to evade questioning.
“Every time they called him into the station, he went on his own,” Johnson said. “They didn’t come get him.”
Champion’s mother said she wanted to wait for further clarity from the authorities before commenting on the death but Johnson, for her part, seemed certain that Champion did not take his own life. Nothing about his recent comments or behavior would seem to suggest suicide, she said.
“He got up for work every day, came home, sat down, and he’d be himself in the house,” she said. “He was very happy.”
Miranda Wright, another of Champion’s sisters, said she believes the police investigation might have taken a toll on him but that she doesn’t believe his death is necessarily connected to the murder.
“I think he was under a lot of stress from them questioning him, but I don’t know if he committed suicide,” she said.
When asked about the police investigation into Lewis’s death, Wright said her brother was “a very good guy.”
“He had been back and forth to jail, but it was minor stuff,” she said. “I don’t know what happened.”
According to Wright, the GBI has told the family that they will have answers about the hanging by Wednesday, once they obtain autopsy results.
“They need to find out what happened to my brother,” said Johnson.