Longform

Hard Life, Hard Death

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin