Hard Life, Hard Death

In her final days, little Amber Bass suffered from a heart condition, a broken home, dubious caretakers and a sexual mutilation. Her memory inspires authorities in their quest for justice.

It was the latest sad chapter in Rhea's struggle against addiction to methamphetamines--also known as speed.

Desperate to keep her brood together after being jailed in 1993, Rhea called upon a Phoenix couple, Nancy and Lee Hughes: "I saw how they treated their own kids, and I thought my kids would be safe with them."

In light of what happened to Amber, Rhea's mother and stepfather--Corinne and Jim Patton, of Dolan Springs, Arizona--condemn Rhea for her lack of judgment in trusting the Hugheses.

"We weren't getting along with Linda," Corinne Patton says of her daughter, "so she wouldn't even tell us where the kids were until just before Amber died. I don't want to have anything to do with her. She's ruined more than her own life."

In the months before her drug arrest, Rhea had become close with the Hugheses, who were in their mid-20s. Lee Hughes was a mechanic. Nancy had a job as a data-entry clerk at a bank.

Nancy had two young children--a 7-year-old boy by her first husband, and a 3-year-old girl she'd had with Lee. She apparently didn't use illegal drugs herself. But the men in her life did.

Court records show her first husband--the father of her son, Christopher--was a drug abuser who landed in prison.

Nancy married Lee Hughes in November 1992, two years after their daughter, Cassandra, was born. Lee was a high school dropout from Alabama with a knack for fixing cars and a yen for crystal meth.

After Amber died, police found a notebook containing a handwritten recipe for the drug in the Hughes bedroom. Lee told detectives it wasn't his.

But in the wake of Amber's death, he was forced to provide authorities with details of his extensive drug history. Lee's accounts, while inconsistent and likely understated, paint the self-portrait of a drug abuser.

He told police shortly after Amber's death that he hadn't used speed since August 1993, around the time he'd been arrested on drug-possession charges; the case was dropped because of a lack of evidence.

In July 1994, Lee Hughes told a psychologist that he did speed almost daily from March 1989 until the end of that year. He said he'd resumed usage in late 1992--"It gives you a strong feeling . . . like you're invincible," he said--but had last taken the drug early in 1994. The psychologist's report doesn't indicate if Lee admitted to using the drug at the time of Amber's death.

Last November, Lee pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to sell a stolen truck. A probation officer asked Lee about his drug use. Lee said he'd snorted one gram of meth during a week in late 1989, then quit for almost five years. He said he'd resumed use of the drug in October 1994--after Amber died--then quit again in August 1995.

Medical journals and police ledgers detail accounts of how meth can make excessive users uncontrollably violent. That's important because police suspect drugs may have been a factor in provoking the sexual attack on Amber.

An assault on any child is unfathomable. Those who loved Amber Bass are rendered almost speechless at the thought of it.

"She was a beautiful child with a great personality," says Jim Patton. "I can't even think about what happened to her."

Amber was a child with big green eyes and blond hair. She loved to color, solve jigsaw puzzles and play with friends. She would cling to the legs of adults she trusted--her mother, grandparents, and a few others.

Amber was a quiet, slightly introverted child. But when her life was in turmoil, she could test the patience of a saint with incessant crying and screaming.

Amber's final weeks were tumultuous: Her mother was in jail, she didn't know her father, her caretakers were strangers, she was sleeping on a floor in a room with three older boys. And her health, as always, was fragile.

When Amber was about 2, Linda Rhea began to suspect that something was wrong with her. Rhea says her child became winded for no good reason, and was prone to respiratory illness.

Doctors diagnosed Amber's problem as restrictive cardiomyopathy, a mysterious, irreversible disease in which the heart muscle becomes enlarged and cannot relax. Cardiologists say Amber probably wouldn't have survived to adulthood without a heart transplant.

On January 14, 1994, Linda Rhea signed a document at the Mohave County Jail which made the Hugheses legal caretakers of her four children.

One month later, Amber died.

Much of what happened in the day before Amber's death remains in dispute.
Although Amber's genitals were caked with blood when she died, the main suspects in her death--Nancy and Lee Hughes, and their live-in friend, Frances Rogers--have said they never saw signs of sexual abuse.

Amber's two older brothers--who were 8 and 9 when Amber died--haven't pointed the finger at anyone.

Nancy's son, Christopher, who was 7 at the time, also added little of substance. In the investigation's initial stages, police did not eliminate Christopher as a suspect, especially after hearing from the Bass boys and Lee Hughes that he'd hit Amber on several occasions. Detectives say their prime suspects now all are adults.

The Hugheses' daughter, Cassie, told a chilling story during a June 1995 talk with Phoenix therapist Tascha Boychuk.

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