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.

In one of Nancy's statements to police, she said she'd put Amber in the bathtub and told the child to clean herself. In that account, Amber was still in the tub when she returned within a half-hour or so after taking the boys to school.

In another version, Nancy said she'd taken the boys to school before giving Amber her final bath.

In all of her accounts, Nancy said she'd noticed Amber's lips were purple and her pupils were large while bathing the child that morning.

"Nancy was asked if she recalled seeing any blood on Amber," Newcomer's report stated. "She said that she did not notice any." Lee Hughes apparently returned from Chandler around the time Nancy got back from delivering the boys to school. He said Amber was in her bedroom, naked and in the fetal position on the floor, lying in her own feces. He said he told her to clean up and get dressed.

Lee didn't recall seeing any blood.
He said Nancy then sat Amber in the tub and told her to wash up. Fran Rogers apparently dried her, then Nancy dressed the child.

Nancy told Newcomer that she had to lift up Amber's legs to put her underwear and overalls on her.

Nancy said she asked Lee (Lee claimed he did it on his own) to call Amber's pediatrician because of the child's changing colors, sluggishness and incontinence. It was about 9:45 a.m.

An assistant to the doctor later said a man had informed him by phone that Amber seemed ill, but suggested she might be faking. The man scheduled an appointment for Amber later that day.

Lee also spoke that morning with Amber's cardiologist, Dr. Robert Williams. The doctor recollected that Lee said Amber had been "unwilling" to take her heart medicine, and had defecated on herself. Williams asked him if Amber had a fever, was breathing rapidly, or was changing colors. But the doctor said Lee Hughes had assured him it wasn't an emergency.

Nancy Hughes said she covered Amber on a living-room couch with a blanket. Amber kept asking for water, also saying how tired and badly she felt.

Just before noon, a Phoenix policeman served an order of protection against Fran Rogers on behalf of her estranged husband. Officer Kwan Jin didn't see Amber Bass, and said no one at the apartment mentioned her. He left at 12:10 p.m.

Minutes later, Nancy said, she tried to rouse Amber, who still was on the couch.

Amber wasn't breathing.
Nancy dialed 911; Fran Rogers ran outside to find Lee. He rushed in and performed CPR on the child.

It was too late.

Prosecutor Dyanne Greer says decisive action is required to solve most child homicide cases.

"If we're going to catch a break, it usually happens in the initial investigation--within hours or a few days," says Greer, a onetime senior attorney for the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Washington, D.C.

The opposite occurred in the Amber Bass case.
It wasn't clear at first if police were looking at a murder or a sexual assault in which the victim happened to die.

Because of the uncertainty, Phoenix detectives from both the homicide and sex-crime units initially investigated. The ambiguous division of duties, police concede, allowed the Hughes apartment to be compromised as a crime scene.

One officer remained at the Oasis Apartments after the ambulance took Amber away. But reports indicate Fran Rogers and friends of the Hugheses' were allowed access to the apartment. When the boys got home from school that afternoon, they, too, were allowed to enter the abode.

Meanwhile, it had become tragically clear at St. Joseph's Hospital that Amber had been sexually ravaged in the day before her death.

Police that afternoon obtained a warrant to search the Hughes apartment. Among other items, they found a pillowcase--Amber's--with her blood on it.

Detectives also conducted their first interviews of the Hugheses and Fran Rogers, at the police station and the apartment complex, respectively. Later that night, state child-protective workers put Linda Rhea's three surviving children and Nancy Hughes' two children into crisis shelters.

About 10 p.m., Rhea recalls, she called the apartment from jail to check in with her children.

Rhea recalls, "Lee said, 'You don't know? Amber's dead.' I lost it."
Detectives focused on the Hugheses and Fran Rogers.
None of the three could be reached for comment. The Hugheses have split up. The last phone number listed for Lee Hughes was a car-repair shop--the person who answered said Lee doesn't work there anymore. Nancy Hughes' last phone number listed in voter's registration records is no longer hers. Fran Rogers' whereabouts is unknown.

Police interviewed friends of the trio, some of whom had been at the apartment in the days before Amber died. And they spoke with doctors familiar with her medical condition.

Detective Don Newcomer asked the heart specialist, Robert Williams, if the trauma of a sexual assault could have affected the child's damaged heart.

"He replied that it could," the detective wrote. ". . . Dr. Williams stated that Amber had a high diastolic [blood] pressure and that certainly, in his opinion, the physical stress from a molest act could have caused her demise."

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