Saturday, September 11, 2010

Family Questions Cause Of Death

Body Found In Pond
Former Belmont County Deputy Sheriff Chip Williams is the last man known to have seen Justin Hughes alive.
Driving along Belmont County 10, between Barton and Crescent at 1:53 a.m. on March 13, 1994, Williams spotted Hughes walking along the roadway. The 16-year-old told the deputy he was out for a walk after having a fight with his girlfriend.
Williams noted in his incident report that, after a brief conversation with the youth,  he received a radio call asking for backup at a fabric store near the Ohio Valley Mall. The deputy said he responded to the radio call after Hughes declined an offer for a ride. Williams left the youth where he had found him.
At 7:30 p.m. on the same day, Lester Hughes filed a missing person report on his son. When last seen, Justin was wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans and white sneakers.
His body was found seven weeks later on April 29 in a farm pond near Crescent.
Based upon an autopsy report by former Coroner Manuel Villaverde, then-Sheriff Tom McCort ruled the death as accidental. The family vehemently disagreed and the case remains one of the most controversial in the county.
Mrs. Hughes has her own idea of what happened.
"I believe my son was murdered," she said. "I know he didn't get into that pond by himself."
On the day before he went missing, Justin helped his mother, Mary, clean walls in their Brookside home in preparation for painting. He left with a friend at 5 p.m. and called home at 9:30 p.m. to ask if he could spend the night at his friend's house as he had several times previously. Mary approved and told her son to be home by noon the next day to begin painting.
Another friend stopped by the Hughes home at 10:30 p.m. and asked for Justin. Mrs. Hughes told the visitor Justin was spending the night with the other friend. All three boys were said to have been out in the same car at 11:30 p.m. They drove to Barton where the driver said he had to stop at home for gas money. Justin asked to be dropped off at a nearby business to use the restroom and buy a can of pop. His friends claimed they never saw him again. Deputy Williams is the next person known to have seen Justin.
As noon had came and passed the next day, Mrs. Hughes began wondering about her son but she did not suspect anything out of the ordinary.
"Kids get to running around and they forget about time," she later told a reporter.
Disturbing news came when the friend called Mrs. Hughes and said Justin had not spent the night at his house. The call prompted Lester Hughes to file the missing persons report.
An exhaustive search effort, headed by former Belmont County Emergency Services Dick Quinlin, included members of local fire departments, the Ohio Valley Dive and Rescue Team, the Northern Ohio Valley Area Search and Rescue Team, Ohio State Highway Patrol helicopters equipped with heat seeking devices to detect persons on the ground and search dogs. Divers checked Wheeling Creek through Barton and several local ponds. The OSP aerial search covered the Barton area up to and including the pond near Ayers Road and Wheeling Creek from Barton to Bridgeport. Quinlin called the search off after he determined all possibilities had been explored.
Ironically,  divers had not searched the the pond from which Justin's body was recovered. It is located near Crescent several hundred yards up a hill from where Williams had encountered Justin on Belmont County 10.
McCort said "the pond is at the base of an old railroad bed and train track. The lady of the house thought she had seen a goose (floating in the pond) and she had her husband look through binoculars, and he found the body."
He said he ruled the death as accidental after the autopsy and investigation revealed no foul play.
Members of the Hughes family heavily criticized McCort after news reports quoted him as saying Justin had a history of being a runaway.
"The sheriff's department has painted my brother as being a juvenile delinquent and that is not the case," Justin's sister, Corena Mitchell.
Family members question why a deputy sheriff (Williams) would leave a 16-year-old boy along a rural county road at 1:53 a.m.
McCort said Williams had no reason to place Justin in the cruiser.
"If the officer had put the boy in the back of his car he would have detained him, which is a violation of his civil rights," he said.
Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification agents also looked into the case. They collected physical evidence and conducted several interviews involving the death. That probe produced no resolution.
Family members took the case to a national television stage in 1996 when they appeared on the Montel Williams Show with well-known psychic Sylvia Brown, who had a track record of helping law enforcement agencies find missing persons and suspects in unsolved crimes. Brown examined clothing and other personal items which had belonged to Justin.
As the questions and controversy continue, it is necessary to show authorities probable cause as to why the cause of death should be changed from accidental drowning to questionable death.
We encourage anyone who may have information about this case to contact us at