Hard Life, Hard Death
We will not be fainthearted
in our search for the truth.
I shall plant a rosebush
of gentle radiant amber.
I will patiently care for it
until we find out what happened.
For now the answer is denied
by guilty silence.
--Tascha Boychuk, 1996, on the unsolved death of Amber Bass
Phoenix police detective Don Newcomer went to St. Joseph's Hospital on Valentine's Day 1994 to investigate the death of Amber Lynn Bass.
Paramedics had rushed Amber to the hospital after responding to a 911 call from the Oasis Apartments, 2402 West Devonshire. She suffered from a heart condition and simply stopped breathing, a frantic caller had told an operator.
Emergency-room doctor Jeff Hill pronounced Amber dead on arrival at 1:13 p.m. She was one month shy of her 6th birthday.
It seemed likely Amber's rare heart disease--restrictive cardiomyopathy--had been the culprit. But Hill's examination of the 32-pound child's body shattered that supposition.
The presence of blood around Amber's genitals was an obvious sign of foul play. A closer look revealed severe trauma to Amber's vagina and rectum.
Hill contacted Dr. Kay Rauth-Farley, medical director of St. Joseph's Child Abuse Assessment Center. Rauth-Farley rushed over as hospital officials also notified Phoenix police.
Detective Newcomer later described the scene inside room number six: "Amber was totally nude and had a tube protruding out of her mouth. There was dried blood around her mouth, vagina and anus. . . . [Dr. Rauth-Farley] told me that the victim had massive trauma to her vagina, and was bleeding from both the vagina and the rectal area. She estimated that the bruising occurred within the last 24 hours. She questioned how everyone missed the amount of blood which the victim had lost. She added that the victim's underpants and overalls were blood-stained."
Newcomer's thoughts that day wandered beyond his investigative duties.
"I looked at this little girl laying there," he says, "and I thought of my own young children, alive and healthy. It was over for Amber, just over. It was really sad--a nightmare."
The heartache was just beginning for Newcomer and others assigned the task of determining what had happened to Amber, and who had done it.
"When you know that a life was taken away by a homicidal act and you can't prove who did it . . ." says deputy county attorney Dyanne Greer, speaking generally. "I'll say this about Amber. There are cases that particularly haunt me--this is one of them."
Greer attended the girl's autopsy, a report from which suggests Amber had been penetrated with a blunt object--perhaps a gun barrel.
County medical examiner Philip Keen reserved judgment on the cause and manner of Amber's death for five weeks. On March 22, 1994, he concluded it was "natural," not homicide. He said the cause of death was "acute congestive heart failure."
Wrote Keen: ". . . Sometime shortly prior to [Amber's] demise, she had evidence of being the victim of a sexual assault, and there is historical and confirmatory toxicologic evidence of cessation of cardiogenic drug therapy resulting in death due to acute congestive heart failure. . . . The withdrawal of this drug is more likely responsible for the acute congestive heart failure than is the intervening event of sexual assault."
In other words, Amber hadn't been getting enough of her heart medicine before she died. Keen's use of the word "withdrawal" implied an intentional, reckless or negligent act. He seemed to say that Amber's death was as unnatural as a "natural" death can be.
If prosecutors can prove that, it may yet lead to criminal charges against Amber's legal caretakers. (See accompanying story.) So far, however, many factors have kept those responsible for Amber's injuries and death from justice.
Her complex case illustrates the struggles authorities often face in prosecuting violent crimes against children. From the start, police and prosecutors faced monumental stumbling blocks:
At least three adults had access to Amber in the critical hours during which she was sexually attacked and then died. But each denied wrongdoing. Short of a confession or a snitch, it was impossible to say who had violated her.
Complicating matters was the fact that Phoenix police allowed key suspects and others to prematurely gain access to what had become a crime scene. That, investigators concede, might have allowed suspects or their friends to hide or destroy inculpatory evidence.
That nobody has been held accountable criminally for Amber's demise is maddening. What eats at authorities is how valiantly Amber fought to make her way despite being surrounded by meth freaks and petty criminals. She will not be forgotten.
"This case has screwed up just about everyone who's come in touch with it," detective Don Newcomer says, "but we all have found ways of keeping her in our minds. She's never far from my thoughts. Never."
Linda Rhea faced a world of trouble in late 1993. She was in a Kingman jail on charges of possessing methamphetamines and, as a repeat offender, faced a certain prison sentence if convicted.
From her cell, Rhea had to sort out what to do with her four children--including an infant daughter.
"There was no one in my family who could or would take all four," she tells New Times. "I couldn't just let the state stick 'em in different foster homes. I didn't know what to do."
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.
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.
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.
". . . 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?"
"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.
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."
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?"
In July 1994, clinical psychologist Bruce Kushner interviewed Lee Hughes as the state's parental-rights investigation continued.
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.
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.