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.

Lee again denied having seen any blood in the bathwater when he'd placed Amber in the tub: "If there had been any signs of blood in that water, I would have seen it."

Wrote Kushner: "[Lee] noted that he has been cleared by the police of any responsibility . . ."

That wasn't true, as a state caseworker noted in a 1995 report: "It is still unknown who is responsible for [Amber's] death, although Detective Newcomer has stated that all adults involved in the case are suspects."

Lee also faced separate accusations from Christopher and Cassie that he'd physically abused them and Nancy.

Kushner's conclusions did not bode well for Lee's chances at rearing the children: "Mr. Hughes adamantly maintains that he had no knowledge of any abuse towards this child, and saw no evidence that the child had been bleeding. Given my understanding of the situation, this is apparently rather difficult to understand. At this point in time, returning the child [Cassandra] to Mr. Hughes' care does not appear warranted."

The courts still are edging toward severing Nancy and Lee's parental rights to Cassandra, who is now 6--despite the fact that in 1995, the courts, with CPS' concurrence, returned Christopher to his mother.

Far too many new child deaths have occupied police and prosecutors since Amber Bass died in 1994. But the authorities once immersed in her case haven't forgotten her.

Don Newcomer keeps his box of data on the case next to his desk. He occasionally pulls out a document or a photograph, hoping to see things with a fresh eye.

Prosecutor Dyanne Greer is circumspect, but practically leaps out of her chair when asked how badly she'd like to see justice served in the case.

Tascha Boychuk says she recites a prayer for Amber every Valentine's Day. Last summer, in memory of Amber, she wrote the poem that introduced this story.

A while ago, Kay Rauth-Farley of St. Joseph's Hospital wrote Amber's name and date of death on a Post-it note, which she stuck above her desk.

"There were outrageous things done to that little girl," the pediatrician says, "over-the-edge, sick stuff. I hope someone suffers the consequences of their actions someday. Some way."

Linda Rhea says the last few years have been good for her. Now 34, she dotes on her three surviving children and vice versa.

Rhea says she's been sober since her prison term ended in July 1995; court-ordered drug tests back her claim. She's been working as a waitress at a west Phoenix restaurant since the week after her release, and shares a tidy home with her children and her companion, T-Ray Esquer.

School awards won by her sons and family photos line the shelves. A framed sketch of praying hands that T-Ray drew in Amber's memory hangs near the front door.

"I thought she was impossible for anyone not to love," Linda Rhea says.

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