For the family and friends of Corri Howard, a Moss Point Police Department press release sent out over Facebook on Friday afternoon confirmed only one thing: That police officers were the last people to see him alive.
The Coast tattoo artist’s body was found in a marsh on Thursday, not far from where police began pursuing him after a traffic stop.
The press release, issued nearly a week after the initial incident, said a patrol officer tried to stop a silver Honda for speeding just before 1 a.m. on Jan. 8.
The driver got out of the still-moving vehicle and fled into the marsh behind homes on Howze Street, just off Magnolia, the release said. An officer chased the suspect but lost sight of him. A K9 team called in to search the area found nothing. The officers impounded his car, where they found a stolen 9 mm handgun, and went back to patrolling.
On Saturday evening, a neighbor turned over 9 mm ammunition she had found and thought might be related to the commotion she had heard hours earlier. Police searched the area again but found nothing.
On Wednesday, the press release said, Howard’s family members reported him missing and “stated that he had been the driver of the Honda that fled from police, but no one had heard from him since.”
On Thursday, officers returned to the scene after someone reported finding a black jacket they thought belonged to Howard.
“After retrieving the jacket, the officers walked further out into the marsh,” the press release said. “Laying in the marsh grass the officers located the body of Mr. Howard.”
Howard’s fiance, Anissa McGary, said none of it makes much sense. She asks: Why did officers fail to identify Howard after the chase, even though they had his vehicle? Why didn’t they find Howard’s belongings and his body in the area during earlier searches? And how, exactly, did he die?
McGary also questions why the police didn’t make greater efforts to locate the person they had chased into a swamp, or to alert the public to the situation.
“Apparently everybody knows it’s a dangerous area,” she said. “There’s swamp, gators. The officers know that area is dangerous. Why didn’t y’all call him in that night when you chased him in there?”
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which investigates all deaths that occur in law enforcement custody, is conducting an independent investigation of Howard’s death, since the situation started with a police pursuit.
An autopsy on Tuesday will be conducted to determine the cause of death, said Jackson County Coroner Bruce Lynd. Lynd responded to the scene on Thursday but said he cannot release any information before the state crime lab autopsy is complete.
McGary said she plans to hire an expert to conduct an independent autopsy.
Moss Point Deputy Police Chief Jim Roe said the department has “hours and hours” of body and dash camera footage that have been turned over to MBI. He said when their investigation is complete, the department will share footage and documents publicly.
“It’ll plainly show we followed all our procedures and everything was done properly and above-board,” he said. “It’s a tragic, tragic event. But our officers never laid eyes on him, never encountered him. I’ve got all the facts that’ll back it up once we can release it.”
Howard’s roommate and close friend, Lametra Danielle Bilbo, said Howard had run from the police because he was on parole and had a gun in the car.
“He did not want to go back to jail,” she said. “I’m not saying he was right. He was wrong for running. But baby, nobody deserves to die.”
Moss Point police chase man into marsh
When Howard never came home from a night out on Friday, Jan. 7, Bilbo grew worried, because the tattoo artist was almost always home by 9 p.m. When a client came over for an appointment on Saturday and Howard wasn’t responding to text messages, she started to feel sick.
Though they weren’t blood related, they called each other sister and brother. She was the one who woke up in the night when he had seizures, to make sure he had his mouth guard. And on that Saturday morning, the sight of his bottle of seizure medication sitting right on his nightstand convinced her he had intended to come home.
At first, they didn’t even know where Howard’s vehicle was. Bilbo drove from the D’Iberville bar he had visited Friday night to Moss Point, trying to see if she could find it.
On Sunday, they got a message from a man who said he had been in the car with Howard when police tried to pull them over. He said Howard had fled and the police chased him. The man got out of the car and walked away; the police didn’t see him. Then Howard’s family knew where to start looking.
“If he hadn’t [come forward], we would have never found him,” Bilbo said.
The passenger did not respond to Facebook messages from the Sun Herald seeking comment.
Roe confirmed there was a passenger in Howard’s vehicle, though police didn’t see the passenger at the scene. He said dash camera footage captured the passenger leaving the vehicle.
The family started calling local law enforcement agencies and asking if they had participated in a pursuit on Friday night. Bilbo said Moss Point said they had not.
McGary also spoke to the passenger and later called Moss Point police, too. She said the person who answered the phone at the police department on Wednesday told her there was no record of an attempted traffic stop and pursuit before 1 a.m on Saturday.
Roe said the department had properly documented the pursuit and turned over all records, including radio traffic from that night, to MBI.
The department records all phone calls, so if given a time frame Roe said he could look for the recordings of the phone calls from McGary and Bilbo, but without more specific information it would take too long.
“I’m not gonna go back to research something to disprove something that I know is an absolute fact,” he said.
On Sunday, the Sun Herald requested incident reports relating to the attempted traffic stop.
Vehicle not identified
Bilbo said Howard had bought the vehicle, which relatives said was actually white and not silver, from a man in Vancleave a few months ago. He had just gotten the motor working again and Bilbo was about to get it registered in his name.
But even without the vehicle registered to him, she said, officers could have used the Vehicle Identification Number to find its former owner in Vancleave, who would have told them he sold it to Howard.
Roe said he did not know if officers had run the VIN at the scene.
Roe added that police generally see no reason to notify the public about someone fleeing police in their area when there’s no evidence that the person is violent or a threat to anyone.
“If there’s no real danger to the community, there’s no reason to wake up the entire neighborhood because somebody fled from a speeding ticket on foot,” he said.
Roe said it is standard procedure for officers to impound a vehicle after a suspect flees. Officers can’t spend their whole shift guarding a suspect’s car, he said, and it’s unlikely that a suspect would return while police are still on the scene anyway.
He said Moss Point Police Chief Brandon Ashley wants to sit down with Howard’s family members and address their questions and concerns.
Ashley did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
‘I find the situation puzzling’
On Saturday, members of Black Lives Matter Mississippi and the Mississippi chapter of the American Descendants of Slavery traveled to Moss Point to talk with neighbors and walk the swamp where Howard’s body was found.
A group of Moss Point women were the first ones to find Howard’s belongings, including the jacket and wallet. One of them said she felt God had called her to go search the marsh for him.
The Jackson County NAACP has interviewed people who were involved in searching the marsh and taken statements, chapter president Curley Clark told the Sun Herald.
“I find the situation puzzling and at this point,” he said. “We’re trying to make some sense of the actions that were taken by the Moss Point Police Department,” he said.
After the cause of death is identified following the autopsy, Clark said, the organization will determine their next steps.
Howard was a popular tattoo artist on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Friends and family said it was hard to go anywhere without running into someone who knew him.
He had two children: a 5-year-old daughter and pre-teen son.
Howard and McGary met about a decade ago, at a crawfish festival in Biloxi. She said he was a caring man with a “loving heart.”
“One thing for sure, he was a really good father,” she said. “He loved his two kids. … Everything he did, it was always for those kids. He made it known to everybody. If you ask anybody in the community, Corri loved his children. That’s all he talked about.”