MOBILE, AL (WKRG) — He had common man charisma and a powerful punch and was an up-and-coming star in the boxing world.
In July, 1995, Mobile’s “Jesse” James Hughes was months away from a $300,000 pay day and a world championship bout with Felix Trinidad.
And then, he vanished.
“He seems to just have disappeared,” Hughes’ friend and promoter Jerry Tillman said at the time. He and the Hughes family were distraught.
“I’m appealing to anyone out there who knows anything about where my son is,” said Hughes’ father Jerry.
Hughes truck was discovered two days after he vanished near some railroad tracks in Theodore. But there was no sign of the boxer.
“Hopefully something will turn up but right now we don’t have anything,” said Mobile County Sheriff Jack Tillman, brother of Jerry Tillman.
Ten days after Hughes disappeared, on August 5, 1995, Hughes’ body was found by railroad workers, floating in a ditch, in four feet of water.
An autopsy by the Alabama Dept. of Forensic Science revealed no clues.
“Sadly the discovery by the CSX workers was because of the smell,” said Captain Paul Burch, of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s how quickly the body was decomposing.”
Burch was not with the MCSO at the time of Hughes death. All the investigators who initially worked the case has retired, or passed away.
As well the decomposition of the body, another factor that gave little for investigators to work on was Hurricane Erin. The storm hit between the time Hughes disappeared and the time his body was discovered.
“Things you would normally look for on a scene, that would have been washed away,” said Burch.
James Hughes was laid August 7, 1995, in a covered wagon, black hat funeral befitting a man who went by the name “Jesse James.”
At the funeral, his family pleaded for any information to crack the case.
“Somebody out there has a heart and a conscience and is it’s going to hurt enough that eventually they going come forward and give these officers the information they need to solve this,” said Jerry Hughes.
Almost 22 years later, he still believes that
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here today to try to bring this case back up,” said Hughes on Friday.
Jerry and his two other sons say they only wish the case could have been solved before James’ mother passed away last year.
“She was definitely hoping it would happen before she left this earth, because she wanted to see the people who killed her baby boy, punished for the deed they done,” said Jerry Hughes.
In the summer of 1995, James Hughes was training well, but many believe he had fallen back into some old, troubling, habits. The autopsy showed cocaine in his system, and evidence in Hughes’ truck showed sign of crack cocaine use. And then there was Hughes’ other habit , strong-arm robbing drug dealers. He served nearly three years in prison for that, between 1990 and 1992.
“He was a real nice guy who did a lot of bad things and there’s no telling what he did in his past that might have come back to haunt him,” said Press Register reporter Joe Guy Collier in 1995. He covered the Hughes case for the newspaper.
Initially the tip poured in about the case, mostly surrounding Hughes’ known drug associates.
“Yeah, over the first couple years I would literally say thousands (of tips),” said Burch.
But after two decades, the stream of tips has dwindled to a trickle.
The person the Hughes family suspects is responsible, a drug associate of Hughes, is now dead. But family members believe there are other still alive who know what happened.
Investigators say a cold case is usually cracked by new technology, but without DNA, the Hughes case might be colder than most unsolved crimes.
“I never say never,” said Burch. “There are a lot of theories out there and I’m hoping in the near future one of those may bubble up.”
The Hughes family still has a $5,000 reward waiting for the person who can step forward and break the case.