Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Shandra's Final Hour

Fifteen-year-old Shandra Charles and her 3-year-old cousin Marcell Taylor were murdered late at night in a vacant lot 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.

As I find time here and there to work on this case, I become increasingly doubtful of Preston Hughes' guilt. My thoughts, however, are ahead of my writing. I'll try to close the gap somewhat with this sad post about the terrible treatment of victim Shandra Charles at the hands of the those sworn to protect her. 

First I offer my references. Guest Blogger Al's original report begins here. My follow up posts on the Geography of the crime scene, on the events of Shandra's Last Day, and on the possible role of Weed in the case are at the links. All excerpts from police reports in this post were taken from here.

That's it for the references, so prepare yourself. Here we go.

Officers J. L. Cook and D. J. Becker were the first officers on the scene, arriving sometime after 11:30 PM. They found Shandra unconscious but alive. They found Marcell dead. From their report:
Officers walked east along the path ... approx 30 yards when observing a black female laying face down in the path. ... There was blood along the neckline and she was breathing deep but was unconscious. Officers notified the west side dispatcher of the find. The blood appeared to be fresh so officers looked ... for possible susp(s).
Make a mental note: the officers found a victim, alive but unconscious. They notified the dispatcher, but did not initiate any first aid. Instead, the felt it important that both of them look for possible suspects. At this point, I do not offer that as a criticism, merely as an observation. Their report continues:
Approx 40 to 50 feet east of the female's location officers found a small boy laying in the brush face down approx 2 to 3 feet north of the path. ... The boy did not appear to be breathing nor have a pulse. ... Officers notified the dispatcher of the find and began emergency first aid. Officer cook observed the boy's left shoulder area still bleeding and turned him over to check for any sign of life. Both eyes, pupils were dilated and there was still no pulse or breathing. ... The boy did not respond to any resusitation [sic] attempts.
I find it strange that Marcell's left shoulder area would still be bleeding, much less upwards and obviously so. Marcell was apparently dead and his heart had apparently stopped beating. There was no pump to pressure the blood upwards, much less at a rate that would be obvious.

Even more curious is the officers' reported response to finding Marcell compared to their reported response to finding Shandra. Upon finding Marcell, they notified the dispatcher, as they did after finding Shandra. However, after notifying the dispatcher, they began emergency first aid.

They applied first aid to Marcell, though he appeared dead. They did not apply first aid to Shandra, though she was still alive and could more clearly have benefited from it. They made note of blood still being pumped from the Marcell's shoulder wound. They made no note of blood that must have still be coming from Shandra's neck wound.

They delayed providing first aid to Shandra, though she was alive, so that they could search for suspects. They did not delay providing first aid to Marcell, though he was apparently dead. While the need to search for suspects (or secure the area) was paramount upon finding Shandra, who was clinging to life, the need to search for subjects (or secure the area) became secondary after finding Marcell, though he was already dead. 

Their report continues:
Officer Becker continued to look in the immediate area for any susp(s) or evidence. Cook stayed at the scene and observed numerous officers attending the black female. Paramedics from HFD Unit 69 arrived on the scene, assessed the situation, and pronounced the boy dead. Cook maintained the situation, and scene until homicide sgt's arrived.
Several more curiosities here. Cook observed numerous officers attending Shandra. Sgt. Hamilton, as you will soon learn, described only himself as the person who tended Shandra. Within the entirety of the police reports, only one other officer (also a sergeant) is identified who might have tended Shandra. Why would Cook use the term numerous to describe one or two?

Cook also mentions the arrival and behavior of Houston Fire Department Unit 69, but only as it pertained to Marcell. He notes that they confirmed Marcell was dead, but does not note any efforts to aid Shandra or transport her to the hospital.

Shandra is somehow off limits, except to Patrol Sergeant D. Hamilton, who happened to hear Shandra accuse Preston of her murder. According to his report, Hamilton was the first person to respond to Cook and Becker's calls. For now, I'll excerpt from his excerpt only those portions relating to the emergency care (or lack thereof) for Shandra.
Sgt D. Hamilton ... heard Officers V. L. Cook and C. J. Becker ... call out on an assault victim ... Around 2340 hrs Sgt Hamilton checked by with Unit 20G40 and arrived on the scene at approx 2343 hrs. Upon arriving at the scene, Sgt Hamilton found the crime scene to be an open field. Sgt Hamilton noticed Officer Becker and Cook standing near a b/m juvenile in the field. While approaching officer Cook, Sgt Hamilton noticed a second compl a b/f, laying face down on the ground in a small pool of blood. ...
Marcell on the trail before he saw Shandra on the trail. When Cook and Becker entered the trail from the Fuddrucker's parking lot, they found Shandra first and Marcell second. That makes sense. Shandra was located west of Marcell by approximately 30 yards.

Perhaps Hamilton was engaging in some poetic license when he reported he could see Marcell's body from from a distance but couldn't see Shandra though she was 30 yards closer. Such poetic license would be inappropriate in what is supposed to be a factual police report.

Perhaps Hamilton instead entered the path from the east side, from the apartment complex rather than from the Fuddruker's parking lot. That would explain why he saw Marcell first and Shandra second. It would leave unexplained why he entered the path from the apartments.

Note also that Hamilton confirms Cook and Becker were tending to the already dead Marcell while ignoring the still living Shandra. His report continues:
Sgt Hamilton spoke with the compl [complainant] while she was laying face down on the ground. It appeared to Sgt. Hamilton that the compl was having a difficult time trying to breathe. At this point, Sgt. Hamilton asked the compl if she wanted to roll over on her back, the compl stated that she did. Sgt Hamilton rolled the compl over to her back.
I interrupt Sgt. Hamilton's report at this point since this is where he told of his two-way conversation with Shandra. I'll discuss that conversation in substantially greater detail in a later post. For now, note that Officers Cook and Becker claimed Shandra was unconscious. Given that neither of them provided any first aid, and given that Shandra had surely lost more blood by the time Hamilton arrived, I'm a bit surprised she recovered enough to speak. Completing Hamilton's report:
Sgt. sat by the compl until amb arrived. Compl was transported to West Houston Hospital. Sgt along with unit 20G40 and 20G51 secured the scene and held it until it as released to homicide Sgt's.
Unit 20G40 consisted of Officers Becker and Cook. Unit 20G51 seemed to consist of Sgt. J.H. Parham. Parham was described as being on the scene when the homicide sergeants arrived. He is mentioned only once in the reports. No other person is mentioned who might have been at the scene before Shandra was transported therefrom.

No one reports to providing or witnessing any first aid applied to Shandra Charles. Let's see what has to say about what the Houston Police might have done to treat Shandra's neck wound.
Severe bleeding of an open wound can usually be controlled by pressing with the palm of one hand on a compress of cloth over the entire area of the wound. A thick pad of sterile gauze is preferable, but any soft, clean cloth can be used in an emergency. Even unclean material can be used, but only if nothing better is immediately available. 
In an emergency, in the absence of compresses, the bare hand or fingers may be used, but only until a compress can he applied. ... The objective is to control the hemorrhage by compressing the bleeding vessels against something more solid, such as underlying bone or uninjured tissues. 
The reason for applying hand pressure directly is to prevent loss of blood from the body without interfering with normal blood circulation. ... Unless there is evidence of a fracture, a severely bleeding open wound of the head, neck, arm, or leg should be elevated -- that is, raised above the level of the victim's heart. Elevation uses the force of gravity to help reduce the blood pressure in the injured area and thus aids in slowing down the loss of blood through the wound opening. However, direct pressure on a thick pad over the wound must be continued.
Now let's see what has to say about how the Houston Police might have done to treat Shandra's penetrating chest wound.
A hole in the chest (gunshot wound, stabbing or other puncture wound) makes a new pathway for air to travel into the chest when it expands. That hole pulling air into the chest cavity is called a sucking chest wound. Sucking chest wounds are dangerous because they lead to collapsed lungs (pneumothorax). Treating a sucking chest wound requires two things: keeping air from going in while letting extra air out. 
It can be difficult to identify when a penetrating wound to the chest is sucking air or not, so it's best to assume any penetrating wound to the chest is a sucking chest wound. ... Seal the sucking chest wound. Put something plastic (preferably sterile or at least clean) over the hole and tape it down.
Apply pressure to a bleeding wound. Cover a chest wound to prevent a collapsed lung. These are not recently discovered life-saving procedures or technically demanding medical care. These are long known, widely recognized, basic first aid techniques. None of the responding officers attempted any such minimal first aid to save Shandra's life.

Cook and Becker applied CPR to Marcell's lifeless body. That's reasonable and professional if they thought there was some hope of reviving him. Perhaps one of them, however, should have applied pressure to Shandra's neck wound, or covered the hole in her chest.

It's possible, I suppose, that police procedures do not allow police officers to act as paramedics. That would not explain, however, Cook and Becker's efforts to save Marcell. Perhaps Houston Police can only give you first aid if they believe you are already dead.

Unlike Cook and Becker, Hamilton did not ignore Shandra. He interviewed her. At least he claimed he interviewed her. Perhaps the Houston PD allows its sergeants to interview victims of knife wounds, but does not allow them to cover chest wound or apply pressure to neck wounds.

We learn more disturbing information about Shandra's emergency care from the report of Sergeant J. L. Waltmon.
Sgt. J. L. Waltmon was requested by Lt. Neely to go to West Houston Hospital located at 12111 Richmond to check comps. condition and see if any other information could be obtained.
While driving to the hospital Sgt. was advised by Lt. Neely that the comp. had been transported out to Ben Taub Hospital. Sgt. then went to Ben Taub hospital to check on comp. Just as Sgt. arrived at the hospital HFD #69 arrived with the female comp. and was giving her CPR as they were taking her into the emergency room. 
A short time later Sgt. talked with HFD ambulance driver M. S. Miller and HFD parametic [sic] M. Atkinson on Unit #69 who stated that they had received the call 2347 and arrived on the scene at 2355. Atkinson stated that the small child [Marcell] was DOA from stab wounds and that the female as alive at that time. ... Atkinson stated that they had first taken the female by the West Houston Hospital and then transported her to Ben Taub. He stated that HPD officers were at the scene when they arrived. Atkinson stated he had no information on the comp. 
While talking to Adkinson it was learned that the female comp. [Shandra] was DOA and had been pronounced dead at 0054 hrs by Doctor Mark Bailey from what appeared to be two stab wounds.
The timing here is disturbing. Consider first that the paramedics received their call at 11:47 PM. The Houston Police are conveniently ambiguous about when the call for emergency services came in. The call was apparently before 11:40 PM. That's when Sgt. Hamilton claimed he contacted Officers Cook and Becker after overhearing their call.

There was, therefore, at least a seven-minute delay between the time the dispatcher received the emergency call from the s and the time the paramedics learned of it. That's seven minutes of Shandra bleeding needlessly from her neck and chest wounds. That's seven minutes of Shandra sucking air through her open chest wound. That's seven minutes of Cook and Becker ignoring her; seven minutes while Hamilton sat beside her waiting for an ambulance that had not been been promptly informed.

The ambulance delay, unfortunately, is not even the most disturbing part of this sad story. Not by a long shot. Shandra Charles was declared DOA at 12:54 AM. That's more than 1 hour and 14 minutes after the first officer's call for emergency medical assistance. Shandra was alive when they belatedly placed her in the ambulance. She was dead when she arrived at the hospital. She died somewhere along the way when she should have instead been in a trauma unit receiving professional medical care.

Let's try to account for that 1 hour and 14 minutes.

The doctors must have spent some time trying to revive her before declaring her dead at 12:54 AM. I don't know how long they spent, but I'll assume 15 minutes. I think that's generous. That leaves 59 minutes to account for.

We know already that there was at least 7 minutes wasted dispatching the ambulance. That leaves 52 minutes.

We know the ambulance took 8 minutes to respond. That leaves 44 minutes.

The paramedics must have spent some time on the scene checking Marcell, performing the most basic emergency procedures on Shandra, and getting her into the ambulance. I don't know how long they spent, but I'll again assume 15 minutes. Once again I think that's generous, particularly for someone in such imminent danger. That leaves 29 minutes to drive to the hospital.

So where the hell was the hospital? Why did it take 29 minutes, probably longer?

Sgt. Waltmon and Sgt. Hamilton both report that she was transported (at least initially) to West Houston Hospital. Sgt. Waltmon gave the address as 12111 Richmond. Below, I present a Bing bird's eye view of the West Houston Medical Center.

I don't know what it looked like in 1988, but today it certainly seems to be a substantial medical center. That circle with a white cross in it (just southwest of center) is a helipad. That indicates the medical center has an emergency trauma unit. That red vehicle in the curved driveway is a fire truck. The paramedics must have believed that medical services were available at West Houston Medical Center, even in 1988, since that's where they initially rushed Shandra Charles as they tried to save her life.

The distance from the Fuddrucker's parking lot to the emergency room door is 1.1 miles. If the ambulance averaged a mere 30 miles per hour, the trip would have taken but 2 minutes. They could have been at that door at 11:55 PM if they had been notified promptly (which they were not), if they responded in 8 minutes (as they did), if they had transported her within 5 minutes of their arrival (as they might have), and if they drove to the hospital at a leisurely 30 miles per hour (which I doubt they did).

We know that Shandra was still alive at 11:55 when she could have been at that emergency room door. Recall that the paramedics belatedly arrived at the crime scene at 11:55 PM, they spent some time on the scene before transporting her, and she was alive when they left.

But Shandra did not begin receiving professional medical care at West Houston Medical Center at 11:55 PM. She was instead pronounced DOA at Ben Taub hospital at 12:54 AM. What happened? How did it come to be that she died in the back of an ambulance when she should have been on an operating room table with some unknown but some chance of survival.

This sucks.

For some reason, the ambulance was redirected from West Houston Medical Center to Ben Taub Hospital. The map below shows what a disaster this was. Click to enlarge.

West Houston Medical Center is the green dot at the left. Ben Taub is the green dot on the right. Shandra's nearly lifeless body was found near the red dot, barely north and east of West Houston. I literally could have carried Shandra Charles from that empty field to West Houston in the time it took to get her to Ben Taub, and I could have done so with time to spare.

Let's continue our effort to account for the time. When I last digressed from the accounting, there was 29 minutes left to drive Shandra to the hospital. The distance between West Houston Medical Center and Ben Taub Hospital is 15.5 miles. If the ambulance averaged 70 mph, that's 13 minutes. We're still missing 16 minutes, at least. Where did that precious quarter hour go?

It seems that time was spent somewhere within the walls of West Houston Medical Center, but not within the confines of an operating room. It's not clear Shandra Charles made it past admittance. It seems that West Houston declined to treat Shandra. Shandra was presumably alive when she was dispatched from West Houston. She would have otherwise been transferred to the morgue. Shandra was certainly dead when she arrived at Ben Taub.

We know that Shandra was actually inside West Houston Medical Center from the report of Crime Scene Unit (CSU) Officer F.L. Hale. For what it's worth, I trust Officer Hale's reporting more than I trust the reporting of any other officer involved in this case. Officer Hale provided the most specific, most thorough report in the otherwise sorry collection of reports. Let's see what Officer Hale had to say about West Houston Medical Center. As usual, he refers to himself in the third person.
While at the scene Officer Hale learned that the female complainant had died. She had first been transported to the West Houston Hospital at 12111 Richmond. Then transported to Ben Taub. While the female was at West Houston Hospital her short [sic] and shoes were removed. Officer Hale was requested by Sergeant Gafford to go to the hospital and recover the clothing.
At this time I cleared the scene and went to West Houston Hospital. Inside the emergency Officer Hale met with the attanding [sic] nurse. She handed be [sic] a white plastic hospital bag. On the outside of the bag was written, Personal Belongings Name; Jane Doe, 5290857, with the date 9/27/88. Inside the plastic bag was [sic] the following items; 
(1) pair white shoes.
(1) pair of white shorts. Inside the front left pocket was a piece of torn paper with the name "Dog" and telephone number 884-1217.
(1) gold neck chain, with safety pin.
(5) one dollar bills. F 71495177 E, K 24739558 F, B 07807654 N,  C 10472969 D, L 72137012.
(1) five dollar bill, L 58976848 C. 
These articles were recovered and kept in officer's care, control, and custody until tagged in the police property room.
By comparison, Sgt. Waltmon (who saw Sandra as she arrived at Ben Taub hospital) described her clothing and personal effects as follows:
The comp. when brought in had a blue and white striped long sleve [sic] shirt and white braw [sic]. She had one silver ear ring on her left ear which was in the shape of a fan. She had a gold colored ring on the little finer of the left hand and silver ring on the ring finger of the lefet [sic] hand.
Sgt. Waltmon must have had a pretty good look at Shandra given his detailed description of her one ear ring and her to rings. He mentioned neither shorts nor shoes, however. He thereby reinforced Officer Hale's report that Shandra's shorts and shoes were handed to him in a plastic bag by the emergency room personnel at West Houston Medical Center.

Sgt. Waltmon did not mention the condition of Shandra's shirt and bra. He did mention details such as the color and the length of the shirt sleeves, but he did not note that either the shirt or bra were torn, or unfastened, or pulled away to expose the victim's chest. I presume he made no such note because the shirt and bra were being worn pretty much as expected.

Neither Hale nor Waltmon mentioned her panties. Elsewhere in the compilation of police reports, we learn that Sandra's green panties, her bra, and her shorts [?] were recovered from the morgue more than 8 months later.

We have a situation in which the people at West Houston removed Shandra's shorts and shoes, but did not remove her panties, shirt, or bra. It seems as if they did not even unfasten her shirt and bra. In other words, it doesn't seem as if they attempted to provide any serious emergency care for Shandra's penetrating chest wound. It sounds more as if they were searching only for identification, and perhaps insurance information or a lead thereto.

It's distressing that West Houston Medical Center may have, and I repeat, may have declined to treat Shandra Charles because she had no apparent means of paying them.

I consider it possible, as an alternative, that the emergency personnel at West Houston believed the surgeons at Ben Taub were better qualified to save her. I guess it is possible also that no surgeons were available to anywhere at West Houston to operate on Shandra, though that seems unlikely.

It had to be clear to everyone, though, that Shandra Charles was barely clinging to life. Even the most inexperienced nurse or doctor must have recognized that Shandra was in dire need of immediate, invasive care.

For what ever reason, Shandra did not receive the medical treatment she needed while she was within the emergency room at West Houston Medical Center. Instead, she died somewhere along the road running between WHMC and Ben Taub hospital.

I fear I have found the missing 13 minutes in my accounting of Shandra's final hour. She spent those 13 minutes lying on a gurney inside the West Houston Medical Center emergency room as those around her tried to decide what to do with her.

I don't know if Shandra could have been saved by a rapid, professional emergency response. I do know she fought hard enough for her life that she survived the lack of first aid by the Houston PD, the lethargic response of the emergency dispatching system, and the indecisiveness of the emergency personnel at West Houston Medical Center. She had too little life left in her, though, to survive all that plus the 15 mile journey to Ben Taub.

There is nothing about this case that is not heartbreaking sad.

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