City's slipperiest fugitive slips up

Cold case: A fight on a bus in Boston lands murder suspect Michael Hughes in jail after 30 years of eluding police.

September 10, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Michael Hughes had been on the run for 30 years when a knife fight on a Boston bus put him behind bars.

He might have made bail and slipped away, as Baltimore's longest-missing fugitive had done time and again since he was accused of killing a civilian Police Department employee in 1974.

But even in jail, a place where nobody wants in, Hughes seemed especially desperate to get out.

As soon as he was booked Sunday, Hughes used his one phone call to try to come up with $10,000 cash to quickly make bail. And that made booking Officer Brian Burt of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Police suspicious.

"Not too many people put up $10,000 bail when they can just wait 24 hours" for their arraignment before a judge, who often reduces the bail initially set by a court clerk, he said.

And so it was that Baltimore's slipperiest fugitive finally slipped up, giving police reason to take a second look at a man, now 57, who had eluded capture since the Ford administration.

Baltimore police have been on the hunt since Christmas Day 1974, when a dying McKinley Johnson identified Hughes as the man who had shot him after swiping a can of lunch meat from a holiday basket for the poor.

"I thought they would never find him, but I kept praying that they would," said Helen Fogg, 62, Johnson's girlfriend and the mother of his son, now 35. "That's a long time."

Investigators with the city's cold case and warrant apprehension squads have been frustrated in their search by bad luck, decades of poor record-sharing between law enforcement agencies and - according to Hughes' brother - the fugitive's considerable cunning.

"He was highly intelligent. He was bright," said Larry Hughes, who lives in a West Baltimore home where the gas and electric are still under the his brother's name. "Do you think he could stay out for 27, 28 years, 30 years, without being intelligent?"

The passage of time could complicate the case against Hughes, Baltimore police and prosecutors acknowledged yesterday, even as detectives were dispatched to Boston and began pursuing his extradition. Many witnesses are dead.

Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said he is not sure if the case is viable but that he believes detectives have enough evidence to take the case to a grand jury.

"This department will not rest until its part in justice is served - no matter how long it takes," Clark said.

The case began with a shooting outside a city tavern on Christmas Eve 1974. Johnson, 40, who worked in police headquarters signing out motor pool cars, was assembling charity food baskets when someone stole a can of lunch meat from one of them.

Johnson chased the man outside the New Fulton Tavern in the 1700 block of W. Baker St., confronted him and was shot. A day later, he picked Hughes - who had a record of shoplifting and drug arrests - out of a photo lineup. Johnson died a few hours later.

Police had been looking for Hughes ever since.

The search was hampered at first by the lack of national fingerprint databases and computerized criminal records, officials said. Hughes was arrested in Boston five times in the early and mid-1980s on stolen property, disorderly conduct, weapons and shoplifting charges. But he used aliases. His fingerprints, recorded then on paper rather than computer, could not have been easily matched, said Burt, the Massachusetts transit officer.

The search continued to be stymied even after more sophisticated tools came into use. Hughes was arrested near Dallas on a shoplifting charge in 1988. A national computer database that tracks arrest warrants was not working at the time, and he was released.

That was the last clue police had to his whereabouts until Sunday, when he was arrested in a stabbing on a Boston bus.

Hughes was riding the bus in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston when he got into an argument with a fellow passenger he believed to be gay, transit police said. After using anti-gay slurs, Hughes pulled out a small yellow pocket knife and slashed the man in the arms and legs, police said.

Hughes fled the bus but was caught a few blocks away, police said. The 23-year-old victim was treated at the scene.

Hughes was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Because the attack appeared to have been related to the victim's perceived sexual orientation, he also was charged with a civil rights violation.

He gave police the name Johnny Floyd, said he lived in Jamaica Plain and that he worked at a homeless shelter.

Along with his desperate attempt to raise $10,000 for bail, Hughes raised suspicions because said he was born in Fayetteville, N.C., but gave a Social Security number that began with "015" - a code applied to people born in Massachusetts, Burt said.

The officer ran Hughes' prints through the FBI's fingerprint database and came up with several aliases and his real name. Burt found that he was wanted under the name Hughes on an old Baltimore warrant - not for murder, but for aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon by means of a gun.

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