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.

Then 4, Cassie had been living in foster care since Amber died. After a time, she started to open up with her foster mother about Amber's death, which led to the session with Boychuk.

Cassie told the therapist that her father had "shot" Amber in the crotch with a gun. Authorities speculate Cassie may be referring to Amber's possible sexual assault with a gun barrel. By several accounts, Lee Hughes owned at least one gun in February 1994, though police found no weapons when they searched the Hughes apartment.

Boychuk asked Cassie to demonstrate with a doll if and where she saw blood on Amber.

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". . . So you're pointing between the doll's legs here, okay," Boychuk said. "Where was the blood going?"

"Between her legs."
"So Amber was bleeding there, and who cleaned up the blood?"
"My mom Nancy . . . she put it right in the washer."
"Did anybody tell you not to tell?"
"Yes."
"Who was it that told you not to tell?"
"Uh, Nancy and my daddy."

Cassie's statements seem to incriminate her parents, Nancy and Lee Hughes. But it's uncertain if the courts would deem a child who was 3 years old when Amber died competent to testify.

Shortly before Amber's death, Nancy and Lee Hughes faced eviction from the Oasis Apartments. The landlord cited tardy rental payments, excessive noise, people coming and going at odd hours.

After Linda Rhea's kids moved in, nine people lived in the Hugheses' cluttered two-bedroom apartment.

Frances Rogers at the time was estranged from her husband and four children. She was a chronic meth user, and admitted to police in March 1994 that she'd last taken the drug a few weeks earlier--around the time of Amber's death.

The three boys and Amber slept in one room, with Amber assigned to a makeshift bed on the floor. Rogers slept on a couch.

On February 4, 1994, the Hugheses took Amber to a pediatrician because she had a cough and fever. The doctor diagnosed the child with viral pneumonia, but didn't consider her ill enough to need hospitalization.

A few days after that, Nancy Hughes spoke with Amber's heart specialist, Dr. Robert Williams. The doctor said he reminded Nancy how essential it was that Amber take her medicine twice a day.

On the evening of February 13, 1994, Nancy gave the children heart-shaped boxes of candy as Valentine's presents. Amber had missed the previous week of school because of illness, but planned to attend her kindergarten class the next day, a Monday.

Linda Rhea says she spoke to Amber that night in a phone call from jail.
"Everything seemed to be okay," she recalls. "I asked Amber how she was feeling. She said fine. She said she wanted the police to let me out so I could be with her. Me and Amber were very, very close. Why didn't she say something to me about how sick she was, that someone was doing bad things to her? But, now, I realize that Lee or Nancy or someone was right there when she was talking. Maybe that's why she didn't say anything."

The children went to bed about 8:30 p.m.
One of Amber's brothers says she began making "moaning, screaming and crying noises" soon after retiring. Nancy Hughes repeatedly implored the child to be quiet.

"I'm trying to be quiet," Amber's brothers say she responded loudly.
Probably before midnight, Nancy led the child to a living-room couch, then returned to bed. Lee Hughes--who had been sleeping--arose around 11:30 p.m., he told detectives, to the sound of Amber's coughing and whining.

Minutes later, Lee said, Amber vomited on a living-room couch as he and Fran Rogers looked on. Lee told police he'd placed her--still in her long, white nightgown--into a bathtub.

He said Amber yelled at him and Fran Rogers "at the top of her lungs" to leave her alone.

Shortly after midnight, a friend of the Hugheses' showed up with her boyfriend. The friend later told police she never saw Amber that night, but heard her say over and over, "I just want a drink of water."

For reasons that remain murky, Lee Hughes left the apartment to visit a friend in Chandler.

Fran Rogers later told police that Amber had retreated to her bedroom and was lying on her pillow and blanket. The child still was clad in her soggy, vomit-stained nightgown, but Rogers said she wouldn't let her get close enough to remove it. So, Rogers left her alone, apparently for hours.

Rogers said she awoke Nancy after dawn after somehow noticing Amber had soiled herself. Nancy later told a detective she'd asked Amber what had happened. Pale and cold, the child hadn't replied.

"[Nancy said Amber] was very limp, like a rag doll," detective Don Newcomer noted, adding that Nancy admitted she'd thought Amber was exaggerating.

Amber's brother, Andrew, knew she wasn't.
"I didn't get one second of sleep that night [because Amber was crying]," Andrew told a therapist after his sister died. "In the morning, she wouldn't get up. She said, 'If I get up, I'll fall down.'"

Lee Hughes still was in Chandler, he said later, having watched a video of The Silence of the Lambs in the wee hours with his pal.

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