Ten Years Later: Death of “Jesse” James Hughes Remains a Mystery
Part 2 of 2 by Sean Newman (May 12, 2005) 
“Jesse” James Hughes
If you side with the Hughes family on the credibility scale, then you would believe them on the matter of a man named Steve Byrd, who Pat says was a suspect known to brag in bars that he had passed a polygraph while under the influence of Valium. Byrd, it is said, boasted that indeed he was the man who had killed James Hughes, and that “James Hughes deserved to die.” Tillman says Byrd, a supposed friend of Hughes’, never was a suspect.

“We never could put him at the scene,” says Tillman. “That’s Jerry Hughes talking all that crap. Steve Byrd wasn’t anywhere around when all that happened. James was by himself, at 9am in the morning. He withdrew the money (from the bank), went straight to the Bottoms and bought crack. That’s what he did. When he did, they cornered him and beat him up. But again, we don’t have any proof of that. Everything I’m telling you is speculation. I’m not for sure he took a lie detector test. If he took one, I don’t recall that. That’s bullshit. We looked into Byrd for five years. There’s nothing there.”

Another contradiction, another memory lapse, if what Pat Hughes says is true. How could one be “looked into” for five years without being a suspect? Byrd, who was not associated with “The Bottoms,” was described by Tillman as someone Hughes “ran with,” a typical, as Tillman puts it, “crackhead.”

Sheriff Tillman
“The problem was that half the people he ran with were crackheads, and none of them can remember anything!” Tillman says.

While again cautioning that his words are pure speculation, Tillman believes that he and his department know the fate that was ultimately visited on James Hughes. He believes that Hughes, who was photographed withdrawing money from the bank on the morning of his disappearance, went to “The Bottoms” to buy crack. According to the Sheriff, a few days prior to this Hughes had gotten into an altercation in that area and had beaten and robbed a black male. It is Tillman’s belief that revenge factored into Hughes’ death, and that on this visit to “The Bottoms,” Hughes was cornered by four males, hit in the back of the neck and knocked unconscious, then unceremoniously dumped into a creek and left for dead.

Tillman even claims to know the identity of the four males he believes were involved, and says that two of them are dead, one was in prison for a stretch, and the other just got finished with a seven year term for an unrelated offense.

“How’s somebody going to come forward with information when there probably wasn’t anyone there except James and whoever killed him?” Tillman rhetorically asks. “You think the four guys who killed him are just going to come in one day and say, ‘We killed him?’ We fairly sure we know who was there, but knowing who was there and knowing who did something and proving it are two different things.”

Jerry Hughes questions whether things were done or not done because, as he says, James once told him that he knew things about the Sheriff’s Department that could “get some people hurt.”

Jerry says that the drug problem in Mobile has progressively gotten worse during the almost three terms Tillman has spent in office, and this is what James was talking about when he said he “knew things.” Hughes guarantees that if he were the Sheriff, he could clean up the problem. When asked why he doesn’t run for the office, Hughes has a good laugh.

“You know what? I’ve been asked several times, but I live in Mississippi so I can’t. I still own a house in Mobile, so I guess I could kick my renters out and move back in. That would be a fun time. I would light his ass up everyday. He’d probably drop out after about two months because I’d tell so much shit on his sorry lying ass. That would be a very brutal, nasty campaign, I promise you!”

Sheriff Tillman acknowledges the friendship that once existed between himself and Jerry Hughes (Hughes says that he was even once paid to be a bodyguard for Tillman during the latter’s boxing career), but says that that friendship has soured.

“Jerry Hughes and his family have been friends of mine for years,” says Tillman, who is currently the Alabama state boxing commissioner in addition to his law enforcement duties. “To be honest, I don’t know what Jerry Hughes is looking for. I guess he’s looking for something to make himself feel better by blaming his shortcomings on me and the Sheriff’s Department. But we’ve done everything possible. They know we have nothing. We have no physical evidence, we have no forensics evidence, and we have no cause of death, so you tell me what else we can do. We are still working on it. We’re still getting information on it. We have worked constantly. We spent a solid two years, all of us, and then after that I put another detective on it. Right now I’ve got a cold case worker working on that case. He’s been on that case for a year, and I’m paying him out of contract money, out of one of my pistol permit funds. Jerry Hughes doesn’t even know that. He’s given me a lot of heartache, running that mouth of his.”

Pat and Steve Hughes
Pat Hughes has a different take.

“My father and my mother lost one of their sons, and I think they’ve done anything any other parent would have done,” he responds. “I think they tried to trust in the system, and the system didn’t work.”

Pat says that things could have been so much different, even if the case had remained unsolved.

“I think the best defense that somebody has when they’ve screwed up is to say, ‘What else do you want me to do?’” says Pat. “To create a wall, to create some bad blood, because you don’t have anything to work with and you’re tired of this person coming to you and asking questions, when you screwed up from the beginning. If they had handled the case properly from the beginning, my Dad should be welcome at the Sheriff’s office any day of the week. And it should be a handshake and ‘Jerry, I wish we had more to go on.’ But that isn’t the case. Instead it’s ‘Don’t bring those Hughes around here.’ What my dad did to him, I have no idea. Like I said, the best defense is creating animosity and to push somebody away where you don’t have to deal with them. That’s an easier role to play. My dad hasn’t done anything to them except go down there and try to find out about his son. Simple as that, open and shut.

“Bottom line is, Jack Tillman is done with it. First of all, if you don’t like me, you’re not going to do much for me. Whatever my dad has done to Jack Tillman was in trying to make their life miserable, that’s what Tillman makes it out to be. So the last thing they’re going to do is worrying about finding anything out about James Hughes for Jerry Hughes.

“The sheriff’s department in Mobile has done all they are going to do, and we want to go a step further,” Pat continues. “The part with Jack Tillman is over. I think we need to go to some people who are higher up, and just go a different route. It’s time to take Jack Tillman out of the loop a little bit, and let him wonder what people are doing.”

Tillman, for his part, gives credit to James Hughes’ pugilistic ability and expresses remorse for the Hughes family, but once more defends his actions and those of his department in the investigation.

“There’s no doubt James Hughes was a good fighter,” says Tillman. “James Hughes could have been a hero. But he chose another road, and ended up losing his life. You can’t blame Jack Tillman for that. I feel sorry for Jerry, I feel sorry for his family. But there isn’t a thing in the world I can do about it.”

At the close of my conversation with Sheriff Jack Tillman, I thanked him for his time, and told him that I understood that he must be sick of hearing the same questions so many years after this case was opened. His response?

“I’m sick of Jerry Hughes, that’s the main thing.”

Just days after our interview with Sheriff Tillman, a secret indictment was issued against him, charging him with five felony counts of theft, perjury, and using his office for personal gain, according to the Mobile Register. He was booked into his own jail and released half an hour later without posting bail. The perjury charges stem from a matter involving his sister-in-law, Brenda Pate, who Tillman appointed as the planning supervisor for his department. Pate was convicted of stealing funds that were left over from a 2000 law enforcement conference and spent a month in jail for theft and violations of state ethics laws for public officials. Tillman testified at her trial that he told her she could either keep the surplus as compensation or donate it to the department, since she would have been responsible for any loss incurred. This testimony was in conflict with his grand jury testimony on the matter, wherein Tillman stated that he did not tell Pate anything, and that he didn’t know whether she had kept the money.

Tillman, who turned 58 recently, has also been under fire in the County press for amassing a few hundred thousand dollars in excess jail food money, using the same risk/benefit analysis that got Pate into trouble. The theft and ethics law violations that Tillman is charged with stem from transactions where Tillman took the surplus from the food fund and opened an individual retirement account in the amount of $12,869, money he later returned with interest after questions were raised. He did not, however, return the $100,000 he used to open a certificate of deposit, but that transaction was not part of the charges levied by the grand jury. That CD is currently frozen under court order at the direction of District Attorney John Tyson, Jr.

Tyson says that the Sheriff’s Department’s jail operations have been under investigation since the July 2000 death of an inmate from a flesh-eating bacteria, and also noted that there are still other things to be done in the food fund investigation, but did not comment on whether those things involve the CD. There remains an ongoing dispute as to whether under state law the sheriff could personally “keep and retain” the state allowance for jail food.

Tillman had not decided whether he would run for a fourth term in 2006, but that decision may now be out of his hands. If convicted of any one of the five felonies he is charged with, he would be automatically removed from office and possibly see some jail time. Two of the charges carry minimum sentences of one year and the other three have a minimum sentence of two years.

An opinion editorial in the Mobile Register stated that “Sheriff Tillman’s credibility as one of the top law enforcement officers in Mobile County is called into question because of the nature of the charges.”


And if you ask Jerry Hughes, the people of Mobile should have figured that out ten years ago.

In this endeavor to shed light on the case of “Jesse” James Hughes, I cannot help but feel responsible for causing additional heartache to the Hughes family. For this, I apologized to Jerry Hughes, and the words he left me with say all that needs to be said.

Jerry Hughes, Zack Hughes,Winifred Hughes, Pat Hughes, Steve Hughes and Jessie Hughes
“The heartache is waking up every morning and looking at James’ picture and wondering what happened to my son.”

We continue to hope that someday, Mr. and Mrs. Hughes and their family can wake up without those vexing questions. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, a killer remains at large and unpunished.

Writer’s Closing Note: It is our sincere and heartfelt hope that these stories will trigger someone to come forth with information on this horrendous crime. The Hughes family certainly has not forgotten about what happened all those years ago, and would love to hear from anyone in possession of any information that can help them bring “Jesse” James’ killer to justice. If you have any helpful tips, know someone who may, or even if you just want to say hello and lend moral support to the Hughes family, we encourage everyone to e-mail them at: jessejameshughes@yahoo.com.
For Part 1: Click Here
(*Also see our 3 Page Report that came out beofore this 2 Parter:
*Those 3 Parts can be found combined here in one.)
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