Longform

Hard Life, Hard Death

Page 4 of 7

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin