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.

Things were moving fast. The Hugheses vacated the Oasis Apartments the day after Amber died, temporarily residing with one of Nancy's relatives; Fran Rogers moved in with a friend.

Amber Bass was buried February 20, 1994, in the Garden of the Angels wing of a northwest Valley cemetery.

Linda Rhea was granted a compassion leave from jail to attend the service. But her mother and stepfather chose not to come.

"I would have told her she was the cause of this whole thing," Corinne Patton says. Her husband, Jim, is even more blunt: "I would have killed her."

Police reports say Nancy Hughes was the only suspect who attended services. Nancy later told police Lee had asked her to put three roses in the child's tiny casket--a red one for love, a green one for courage and a white one for innocence.

Tascha Boychuk now is an assistant professor at ASU's College of Nursing. But in 1994, she was affiliated with the Phoenix-based Children's Advocacy Center. In that capacity, she met with Nancy Hughes on February 25, 1994, as part of the process to determine when and if Nancy would be reunited with her son and daughter.

Nancy revealed a piece of information near the session's end for the first time: She told Boychuk that Fran Rogers had handed her a plastic bag while the trio was packing to leave the Oasis Apartments. She said it held the sheet and nightgown onto which Amber had vomited hours before her death.

Boychuk informed detective Don Newcomer, who tracked down Nancy Hughes.
"Nancy . . . hid the plastic bag in the U-Haul," Newcomer wrote in a report. "[Nancy] added that she told Lee about the sheet and the nightgown. Lee questioned Nancy as to who[m] she told about these items. Nancy told Lee she had not mentioned them to anyone."

Either the Phoenix police had missed the bag in their February 14 search or someone had hidden it before the search began. Nancy told Newcomer where in the U-Haul the items could be found.

Later that day, the police executed a search warrant of the U-Haul. As promised, it held the sheet, Amber's nightgown and three pink socks. The latter two items were still wet when seized, according to Newcomer's police report. Testing revealed no blood on the items.

Police view the U-Haul episode as odd and suspicious, and say they believe the suspects were exhibiting a consciousness of guilt. But the truck search provided no smoking guns.

Nancy was starting to express doubts about her husband's innocence. She told Newcomer that Lee was having recurring nightmares about Amber Bass.

"In one dream, Amber is crying out, 'Help me,'" the detective wrote. "Nancy told me that, whoever hurt Amber, she wants them to pay. She added that, even though she loves Lee, if it was him, she wants him to pay."

It became clear in the weeks after Amber Bass' death that detectives hadn't connected enough dots to make arrests.

"Amber couldn't talk anymore, but she told me some things," Don Newcomer says. "She told me through all of her screaming and crying that she was a very sick little girl and that someone had hurt her badly. We had a wild series of events and excellent suspects, but no confessions or directly self-incriminating statements. What we had was frustrating."

By May 1994, the suspects in Amber's death had gone their separate ways. (The Hugheses' divorce became final in 1995.) Lee was living with a friend, Nancy was staying with her mother, and Fran Rogers had vanished.

Linda Rhea's children were in foster care, as were Nancy Hughes' two children.

The state of Arizona has adopted a federal policy that mandates "reasonable efforts" to reunify wayward parents and their children. But on occasion, the state asks the courts to sever a person's legal rights to a child, and to approve that child's adoption.

The severance process is tedious, with the parents in question being offered counseling services, classes and other efforts geared toward reunification. Many parents also undergo psychological testing before the court decides what to do.

By mid-1994, state Child Protective Services officials were making preliminary decisions about Nancy Hughes' children, Christopher and Cassandra.

On May 6, 1994, an assistant attorney general representing CPS questioned Lee Hughes in the presence of his lawyer. Lee later gave Linda Rhea a copy of the transcript, in an envelope on which he wrote, "Read with caution."

"When was the very first time that you noticed anything wrong with Amber at all?" assistant attorney general Patricia Trebesch asked Lee Hughes.

"The morning of the 14th."
That claim was absurd. Later in the 57-page document, Lee conceded he had taken Amber to doctors "four or five times" in the month she lived with him.

"It was extremely hard to keep Amber well. She had a very low tolerance to fighting off sicknesses. For Amber to get a cold, it could kill her," Lee said.

Trebesch then asked Lee a crucial question.
"Do you have any idea how Amber could have sustained massive trauma to the vaginal or anal area?"

"Absolutely none."
In July 1994, clinical psychologist Bruce Kushner interviewed Lee Hughes as the state's parental-rights investigation continued.

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