Monday, April 2, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Shandra's Trail

Fifteen-year-old Shandra Charles and her 3-year-old cousin Marcell Taylor were brutally murdered at night in an overgrown field in Houston, Texas. The police claim Shandra lived long enough to identify her attacker as "Preston." The police located Preston Hughes in a nearby apartment complex. Hughes confessed not just once, but twice. He was convicted and sentenced to death. He has been on death row for more than two decades. Nonetheless, I have little doubt he is innocent.

For  complete listing of all previous posts for this case, see the Table of Contents I have created for this lengthy series.

In this post, I will walk with you along the trail taken by Shandra and Marcell the night they were killed. This geographic and temporal transport is made possible by the photographs recently provided by Barbara Lunsford. Once again, I thank her.

Two voices will narrate the walk. The first, of course, will be mine. That's a given since there is no way I could remain silent for so long as this walk will take. The second voice will be the one in your head, that of a Jack Webb like character reading from the police reports of Homicide Sergeant D.J. Gafford and Crime Scene Unit Officer F.L. Hale.

I'll begin. Jack can wait a bit. Using the police reports and Google maps, I previously reconstructed the overhead view of the crime scene in my post Geography.  Here's the image I presented when I knew no better.

I cautioned in my post that I had the most confidence in constructing the trail with the two white dots, representing the approximate location of the bodies. I had less confidence in the trail to the south, and no particular confidence whatsoever in the other trails. Here's what I had to go on. Take it away, Jack.
There are numerous trails through these tall weeds but there are two main footpaths that run generally east-west. The main trail, the one with the most traffic, appears to be the one on the south side of the large burned out building in the center of the lot, directly behind the restaurant. There is another well used trail to the north of the burned out building that lead from the back of the restaurant to the rear of two apartment complexes on east side of the vacant lot. The complex to the south is called the Lakewood Village apts and they carry an address of 11770 Westheimer. The complex on the north is the Lakehurst Apartments. ... There were numerous side trails leading off the two main trails in the lot.
I knew also that Drew Hartley and his wife had been walking through the field to get to the Stop N' Go and that they apparently entered and/or exited the field at the car wash.

Now I offer the first of several overhead photographs of the area taken sometime before the murder. It's clear they were taken well before the murder because the car wash has yet to be constructed. Here's the first overhead, and an enlargement of the trail area.

You're in a helicopter. You're looking down and west. Fuddrucker's is near the top of the image. The Lakehurst Apartments, where Preston lived, are at the lower right. The Lakewood Village Apartments are at the lower left.

The obvious feature of the photograph, particularly in the enlargement, is the "large burned out building in the center of the lot." The south trail is to the left. It is clearly larger than the north trail, barely visible at the lower right of the burned out building. There's a big difference between those two trails. The northern trail, the one less traveled, the one taken by Shandra and Marcell that night, is clearly going to be more obscured and darker than the southern trail.

I don't see any trails heading north or south (left or right) in this photo or in any of the nine other overhead shots. I don't see any other east-west trails either. The only two trails that I can see are those shown in the picture, and one of them is barely visible.

Now if you will just have the helicopter pilot swing around to the south of that area, you will see this shot, looking north. My previous recreation should match this photo. It doesn't.

What I find interesting, very interesting in fact, is that the wide south trail forks. One branch continues nearly straight and must serve the fine folks of the Lakewood Village apartment complex. There must be a hole in the fence just north of that red car. The other branch veers north, and seemingly serves the fine folks of the Lakehurst Apartments. If so, it would join the narrow northern trail and empty at the hole in the fence by the power pole.

In either case, I find the northern fork interesting indeed. If it does not lead to the Lakehurst Apartment complex, why is it as well traveled as the southern fork? If it does lead to the Lakehurst Apartment complex, why would Shandra have elected to take the more narrow, the more heavily covered, the darker northern trail? In either case, there is mystery here.

Now back to Jack.
There is a wooden fence that runs east and west that separates the two complexes. This fence ends at the vacant lot and there is a utility pole at that location. ... There is a hole in the fence that provides free access to the apartment complex.
Here's a picture showing the hole in the fence looking from within the Lakehurst Apartment complex.

That is one world-class hole in a fence. The scofflaws didn't just tear out five-foot worth of fence. They built a privacy wall. Possibly the people in the apartment complex didn't want those people at the fence opening to see into the complex. More likely, the people transacting business at the fence opening did not care to be viewed by the security guards at the apartment complex. Either way, all parties seem to have agreed on the value of the privacy wall. It had been there for a while. It's visible in the overhead shots already presented, and those shots were taken before construction had even begun on the nearby car wash.

Notice that it's dark out there past that hole in the fence. It's pretty dark on this side of the fence as well, when not being illuminated for photography. Let's step through the opening and take a peek back into the apartment complex. You'll see how dark it was in there that night.

What did I tell you?  Now let's swing around and take a look into the field we're going to walk through.

Whoa! It must have been really dark out there. In fact, it was even darker out there than suggested by these pictures. These pictures were taken sometime past midnight, when the moon was high in the sky. When Shandra and Marcell were attacked, the moon was much lower in the sky. Check out the image below to understand my point.

I obtained the moon path data from WolframAlpha, the mathematical search engine. If you wish to do so yourself, go to, enter Moon Houston September 26 1988 in the search field, and click the equal sign.

When the police investigators were out there past midnight, the moon was higher than 60 degrees above the horizon. Given that the moon was nearly full and the night was clear, the moon would have provided a reasonable amount of light, assuming you were standing in the open. Let's hear what the police had to say about the lighting that night. Take it away, Jack.
The weather was clear and warm. ... In the vacant lot, there were no lights but there was still enough light to be able to see where one was going. Visibility was assisted by officers flashlights and a video flood light.
That raises an interesting issue. No flashlight was found on or near Shandra or Marcell. Nor was a video flood light found nearby. Shandra apparently picked the darkest path possible even though she had no flashlight to help her find her way.

Compared to the police, Shandra and Marcell were at a further, substantial disadvantage in seeing. Not only did they have neither flashlight nor flood light, the moon was lower in the sky when they entered the trail.

The attack occurred no later than 11:30 PM. At that point, the moon would have been 45 degrees above the horizon, in the east, behind us as we walk to Fuddrucker's. If you look again at the first overhead shot, which was taken from the east, you will see that there is but a short segment of this path that might have been lit by the moon. If that helicopter dropped lower such that it was looking from a 45 degree angle, it seems as if none of the path may have been directly illuminated by the moon.

Some readers have suggested Shandra might have been attacked soon after 9:30 PM. They argue she could have left the Lakehurst Apartments soon after Evelyn left, sometime after 9:30, and walked to Fuddrucker's for the last fifteen minutes of its opening. At 9:30, the moon was but a little more than 20 degrees above the horizon. There's no way it would have illuminated the northern trail.

I still wonder what Shandra was doing there with Marcell that night. Whatever it was, it cost her own life and that of her young cousin.

As we continue to walk from east to west, from the apartments to Fuddrucker's, we come across Marcell's body. That's Marcell out there, to our right.


Preston Hughes did not kill that young man. To convince others of that, I'll be writing about this case for a while. I intend to proceed carefully and deliberately. I want this young man's killer to be identified. I want Preston Hughes to walk free. I suspect I'll be found wanting. At this point I'll simply take it a step at a time.

And so must we, as we continue to walk that trail on which Shandra and Marcell were murdered that night. Up ahead is another point of interest. It's the Busch beer can the killer may have left in the weeds. There it is, just ahead, again on our right.

I turn it over to Jack for a description.
Between ... where the [victims] were was an empty Busch beer can, which appeared to be fresh. The beer can was clean and had a small amount of condensation on the outside. This beer can was resting in the tall grass.
That beer can is one of the few pieces of evidence retained to this day. It has not been tested for DNA. I repeat, it has not yet been tested for DNA. For now, I'll leave it at that.

Up ahead is where they found Shandra. If it seems suddenly light outside, it's because we don't have a nighttime photograph of this shot. You wouldn't have been able to see the items of interest in any case. You'll just have to pretend it's dark, and the moonlight can't penetrate the trees behind you, and you have no flashlight.

Those items on the trail just ahead indicate where the paramedics treated Shandra as she lay bleeding out on the trail. You can see that she was attacked at a point just before the trail once again disappeared under the trees. That assumes, of course, that she was walking east to west.

Just a few steps more, and we'll have a better view of the scene, assuming we have a flashlight.

That appears to be medical waste laying on the trail. That appears to be Shandra's blood soaking into the earth. That appears to be a lot of blood.

There's more blood just to the right of the trail, lower in the photo, and that's interesting. If Sgt. Hamilton merely rolled Shandra over to speak with her, how did Shandra spill so much blood in two regions so remote, but not much in between?

Also disturbing is the large drink cup beyond and to the right of the medical waste. It's there, neatly tucked into the weeds.

What the hell is that doing there? Is it evidence? Should it have been bagged and tested for prints? Should it have been preserved? Could we have found DNA on the straw today if it had been preserved?

Perhaps it's not evidence. Perhaps instead it was left there by a police officer who sipped a nice cool beverage as he watched the life flow from Shandra. Perhaps that officer was more concerned about quenching his thirst than he was about applying first aid or preserving the crime scene. Instead of helping, he stood by sipping. Instead of preserving the crime scene, he contaminated it.

As I said before, there is little about this case that is not heartbreaking sad.

Let's continue. Not too much further.

As soon as we enter the trees, we come across the northern side of that large burned out building.

I don't know about you, but it seems creepy to me. Especially if it's late at night. And I don't have a flashlight. And there is no way the moon is going to illuminate it very well. Just enough to make it eerie.

Perhaps my imagination is getting away from me when I think that such a place might be occupied by drug addicts, or cut-rate prostitutes, or their clients, or zombies, or orks, or other ne'er do wells. In any case, I don't believe I would like my 15 year old daughter or my 3 year old son walking along this trail, so late at night, alone, without a flashlight. Even if there was an off chance for a nice, juicy burger at the end.

Let's get the hell out of here. There's the end of the trail now.

I know that the parking lot was described as well lit in the police report, but I'm tempted to disagree. Sure looks dark to me. The overhead shots show precious few lamp posts in the area. The few lights that are there seem to be towards the street.

Finally, we're at Fuddrucker's. Unfortunately, it's closed.

So much for the burger.

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Anonymous said...

Two questions.

If you take a really close look at the "side-angle" birds-eye view of the overgrown lot, it looks as though the South trail appears to almost branch off again just past the original fork in the road. One footpath keeps heading to the North trail, but it almost seems like one heads to the parking lot there too. Could there have been another trail exit between the one by the telephone pole and the red truck? I do not think this really affects the case at all but just wondering if it was mentioned at all.

Also, in the longer-distance daytime shot of the place where Shandra's body was presumably found, there appears to be something white in the area just past the drink cup. Am I seeing things?

tsj said...

I went back to my original and enlarged it until it started to lose too much resolution. I think I see what you are talking about, but it looks to me like a shadow pattern on the trees. It seems to follow the curvature of the leaf cover rather than follow the ground.

Good eye, though. I had missed that.

I don't know what the white object is in the field. Keep in mind that the overheads were taken well before the crime, and the white object is probably of no significance to us. The police did mention in their report that there were rusted farm implements in the field, but I don't think the white object is one of them.

Once again, good on you for questioning everything.

Anonymous said...

Is there a profile on Shandra, that would give us any insight into her character? What type of person was she? Did any of her friends, classmates or family mention that she dabbled in drugs (whether as a user or dealer)? Did she offer companionship for money? When she left her friends at the Lakehusrt apartments, where did they say she was going? I'm a grown man and wouldn't enter the northern trail alone at night, so I have my doubts Shandra would either. One witness said she entered the trail with Douglas Swanson and that he was drinking busch beer.

If not forced to enter the northern trail, there are only two scenarios that I believe would put her there, as far as being a pedestrian. #1 She was with another person, other than Marcell. #2 She saw a friend enter the trail and entered shortly thereafter, knowing she would catch-up with that person and walk with them. Which brings me back to the only way I think Preston would have committed the crime. If Shandra saw him enter the trail and ran up behind him so that she could walk with him. As she approached Preston from the rear, she touched his shoulder and said "Preston!". Out of fear, he turned and stabbed without being aware that it was Shandra. Preston panics and begins to stage a rape scene. Marcell stands and watch as Shandra fall to ground. It is only when Marcell sees Preston begin to remove her shorts and underwear that he runs. If Preston thought Marcell could identify him, because Shandra said his name, maybe he would kill Marcell. Maybe as Preston is chasing Marcell, Drew Hartley and his wife hear this running and become spooked. In turn, Preston may have heard Drew Hartley and his wife. This would have hastened his decision to kill Marcell, because now he doesn't have time to think. He may believe that he is about to be discovered, and can not take a chance on being seen with Marcell. He doesn't have time to talk to Marcell to discover if Marcell can identify him or not. With Marcell trying to run away and the knowledge that someone is coming, he strikes out at Marcell quickly and mercilessly. This is the only way I can see Preston being guilty of murdering Shandra and Marcell.

The police's action from start to finish tears my heart apart, starting with the lack of emergency aid for Shandra. side note: The fuddrucker employee had his manager call the police, he should definitely be commended. Some people would have turned and walked away without taking any action. I just wonder if he could have gone back and rendered aid? I don't know his age or background and can't really fault him. I just ponder, 'what if'.

Everyone failed miserablely and a young precious life that could have been saved, was not. A young man was imprisoned and sentence to death while so many questions go unanswered. Did the hospital answer for turning this victim away? Where are Preston's bloody clothes and shoes? While a knife is easily disposed of, bloody clothes and shoes are not. Why not question Douglas and get DNA evidence from the beer can? Can it still be done? Why did Shandra say, "Preston"? Was she coherent enough to know she was identifying him as the attacker? Are there two Preston's? I now find it hard to believe that Preston Hughes III is guilty of this crime.

tsj said...

I assure you that there is plenty more to come that will make you doubt Preston's guilt. Plenty more.

Here's a thought about what she might have been doing in that field. She was forced there at knife point. I'm not saying that is so, I'm just entertaining possibilities.

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