Ten Years Later: Death of “Jesse” James Hughes Remains a Mystery
Part 1 of 2 by Sean Newman (May 10, 2005)
Introduction: As the 10 year anniversary of a terrible tragedy in the world of boxing approaches, Doghouse Boxing finds it appropriate to revisit the story of former welterweight contender "Jesse” James Hughes, who was the victim of an apparent murder that to this day remains unsolved. This feature is a follow-up to a three-parter written by the same author a few months ago.
“Jesse” James Hughes
(**Those 3 Parts can be found combined here in one Part.)
Jerry Hughes and his wife, Winifred, wake up daily in their Mississippi home and find themselves staring into a photograph, one that contains a familiar face. Far from a simple routine, this heartrending experience is one beset with questions, questions that, for ten years, have gone completely unanswered. That is our son, they must surely think to themselves as the face smiles back at them. James was his name. "Jesse” James, if you are a boxing fan. He had the boxing world, if not the world itself, at his feet, and an entire town cheering him on. Happy memories soon become replaced by those haunting and unrequited queries: Where did it all go wrong? Who is responsible for taking our boy from us? Why would anyone do such a thing? More importantly, why have we been forced to wait ten years, with no end in sight, for these questions to be answered?
Nine months ago, a considerable amount of time was spent speaking with the family of the late “Jesse” James Hughes, a former welterweight contender from Mobile, Alabama who was just beginning to come into his own as a boxer when tragedy suddenly befell him in July 1995. At that point months ago, the family expressed frustration at the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office for what it considered a failure on the part of the department to properly investigate the apparent homicide that took James’ life. Nearly ten years have passed since James disappeared and was subsequently found dead in a Mobile, Alabama swamp, and the case is as close to being solved now as it was the day it was opened.
If you are unfamiliar with the name or the first part of this saga, here’s a refresher: Hughes was the quintessential blood and guts warrior, a Rocky-esque figure who always seemed to snag victory just after standing on the brink of defeat. Like a man in a movie tumbling down the side of a mountain, Hughes would always find that twig to grab onto, stopping his plummet and sparking untapped reserves. His come from behind victories over Anthony Stephens, Adrian Stone, and Nick Rupa won him not only the USBA welterweight title, but also popularity on the ESPN circuit and potential big fights on the horizon against Yori Boy Campas and Felix Trinidad. In his time, Hughes also fought former champions Buddy McGirt, Maurice Blocker and Vincent Pettway. This, however, is not about what James did inside the ring, but what happened to him outside of it.
At the forefront of this story is Sheriff Jack Tillman, who, at the time of Hughes’ death, was a newly elected sheriff, having taken office just months before. The Hughes family claims that the sheriff and his department dropped the ball in the case, while Tillman says that there is nothing more that could have been done. As you will see, this conflict has resulted in a schism between Tillman and the family Tillman once referred to as his “friends.”
Prior to becoming the Sheriff of Mobile County, Alabama, Jack Tillman’s claim to fame was as a welterweight contender in the 1970’s. According to Ring Magazine Editor-in-Chief Nigel Collins, Tillman was ranked as high as number four in the magazine’s welterweight rankings in June 1973. Tillman compiled a record of 44-8-1 (22 KO), and held wins over Percy Pugh, Manuel Gonzalez (who had a win over Emile Griffith), and Billy Backus. He was never quite consistent enough to garner a title fight, however, and he ended his career on consecutive knockout losses (the last one coming to future WBC welterweight champion John H. Stracey) just a year after the Ring ranked him at number four.
After retiring from boxing, Tillman worked in a sporting goods business and ran unsuccessfully for the Mobile County Commission in 1976. Later, he became a “resource officer” with the school system (Tillman says “investigator,” the Hughes family says “truant officer,” but you get the idea) for seventeen years before being elected Sheriff of Mobile County. Almost immediately, he found himself in the middle of a high profile case involving the mysterious death of the man who had become the heart of Mobile boxing, “Jesse” James Hughes.
Days went by before Hughes’ body was found, and the case went nowhere fast.
Jerry Hughes was utterly dismayed when he learned from Captain Driggers, the man in charge of the investigation into his son’s death, that Sheriff Tillman had personally taken the case out of the hands of more experienced investigators. Jerry maintains that Tillman was never qualified to lead a homicide investigation, and says furthermore that the only thing Tillman had ever done was “sneak around schools trying to catch kids passing around marijuana joints.” Tillman, very succinctly, says he never took the case away from Driggers.
“That’s not true,” says Tillman. “I never took over the case. On different occasions, we had five different detectives on that case. Some cases just can’t be solved. We can’t even prove it was a homicide. There were no knife wounds, no cut marks, no holes in his body, there were no powder burns on his body.”
Indeed, the autopsy revealed that Hughes had received a blunt trauma to the head, but not one that would have resulted in his death. The autopsy report also states that trace amounts of cocaine were found in Hughes’ liver, but again, not enough to have killed him or caused him serious harm. So how was it that he came about being found in the swamp, his lungs full of water?
The Hughes family says that when James was found, there were holes in his shirt consistent with a small caliber bullet. To that, Tillman responds, “the hole in his shirt was a tear mark. There were no bullet holes in his body, no stab wounds, period. They were no powder marks on him. All the idiots had to do was read the forensics report to see that.”
At the same time that he was informed that Sheriff Tillman had taken the case from Captain Driggers, Jerry says Tillman himself informed him of a very important lead in the case, involving a female inmate who claimed to have knowledge of the whereabouts of the gun that was “used to kill ‘Jesse’ James Hughes.” The gun, the female inmate said, could be found in an outdoor toilet in a Mobile area known as “The Bottoms,” a place rampant with drugs and crime. When questioned about what became of this lead, Tillman’s memory fails him.
“I’m not familiar with that, what girl are you talking about?” he asks. Reminded of the story recounted by Jerry Hughes of the meeting in his office, Tillman replies, “I don’t know anything about that. We’ve had all kinds of leads. There’s no way I can remember every lead we’ve had. But it doesn’t matter about a gun in an outhouse, because he wasn’t shot! If you saw the graph we have, we’ve followed over 500 leads. We followed through on that and couldn’t find anything. Jerry Hughes doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Every lead we’ve ever had led to dead ends. I even got on an airplane and spent two days with America’s Most Wanted following up leads.”
“He’s a damned liar,” counters Jerry Hughes. “Sure he remembers that, because that happened over a two or three day period, and I went to his office to confront him. Sure he remembers it. He’s lying.”
One has to wonder, if there were so many leads, why has nothing ever come of the case? In addition to all of these leads, there was also a five thousand dollar reward offered by the Hughes family for any information leading to the arrest of their son’s killer. Jerry Hughes even went, unbeknownst to the Sheriff, to the District Attorney’s investigator, who then accompanied Jerry to “The Bottoms” in an effort to coax some information from the locals. That effort was in vain, and Tillman was still in the dark on the issue when questioned.
Pat Hughes, James’ youngest brother, has been very vocal along with his father and brothers Zack and Steve, about the way they claim the investigation was handled, particularly their allegation that James’ truck was pulled away from the railroad tracks where it was found without so much as a fingerprint dusted for. This, in addition to the fact that James’ hat and a hatchet could be found lying next to the truck. Pat speculates that perhaps the truck was quickly ushered away from the scene and everything “cleaned up” in an effort to keep the disappearance quiet. You see, Jack Tillman’s brother, also named Jerry, was James Hughes’ manager, and with James’ history of going into “The Bottoms” to beat up drug dealers and take their cash and drugs, Pat believes it is possible that Jerry Tillman sought to keep it out of the public eye, as James had a fight coming up the following weekend. Sheriff Tillman says the Hughes are dead wrong.
“That’s horseshit,” Tillman says. “We did a total forensics test on the whole truck, our ID Unit went through the whole truck. There was nothing in it. ZERO. His truck was towed and processed like we always do. We went through it backwards and forward and there was nothing in it. You don’t think I want to solve the case? You don’t think my brother spent hours training that man and getting him where he was? My brother loved that boy, and did everything in the world for him. The boy was one heck of a fighter, don’t ever think he wasn’t. He could fight, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. He got in trouble for robbing people by posing as a narcotics agent and taking all their money. He was about to fight for a world title and make himself a half million dollars, but he’d rather smoke crack. Why would my brother want to ‘clean up the mess’?”
Jerry Hughes bristles at any implication that he could have done a better job as a father, as Tillman has publicly made comments to that effect in the past. Jerry explains that as a working father with a son going off to do his own thing, he could not possibly have held James’ hand everywhere he went. We’ve all known our share of families where there were children who turned out completely different from others in the family.
As understandable as that is, it must be remembered that Tillman was a freshman Sheriff hurled into the center of a controversy. Things might have been said in the stressful and tragic situation that were not meant. Tillman, however, didn’t see it exactly that way.
“There was no controversy,” he says. “The controversy is with Jerry Hughes. It’s just if you don’t solve homicides within 48 hours it gets real cold, and if you don’t solve them in 4 to 5 months it gets worse than that. There never was a controversy. I mean we looked for the boy for two weeks. Then a hurricane came through and blew his body into the swamp. We had search crews out, the family had search crews out, we had a flotilla out there, we had a mounted unit on horses. We did everything possible to solve that case. Jerry Hughes’ problem is he won’t let it go. Then he started blaming my brother for all kinds of stuff. My brother would have to go take his truck from him to make him train and keep him straight.”
Tillman continues, becoming almost exasperated.
“Here’s the issue: There’s no cause of death! You know how important that is? Do you know how many homicides out there have never been solved? Hundreds of thousands, usually because there’s no forensics evidence and no witnesses. I’ve done everything for that goofy family you can do. I even talked to one of those clairvoyants, and they took up a bunch of money to get the people to come in from out of town. It got really ridiculous.”
Ironically, the Hughes family might be tempted to agree with that last comment, but for totally different reasons.
Tomorrow: The story of Sheriff Jack Tillman and the Hughes family continues.
Please Send the Hughes Family your kind thoughts and comments at email@example.com.
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