Never cry wolf

Tamara Hughes is insulted that she should be sitting here in her parents' living room defending herself. She shouldn't have to be second-guessed or mocked. What happened to her was traumatic, almost deadly, but to police it may as well be fiction.M MX"I just want to know from them why. Why are they doing this to me?" Hughes takes a drag from her cigarette, her brown eyes blinking back tears. "Why are they saying this didn't happen to me when I know that it did? Is it because I wasn't marred or stabbed or shot or had blood running off me? Is that what it would take?"

She pauses and leans back into the couch. Around her is the cozy, wood-paneled comfort of her childhood home in Garland. She moved back here because she was afraid to be alone any longer. She says she has gone from being an independent 31-year-old with a career she loved to a quaking child, a little girl seeking protection. While she now feels physically safe, her family home has provided little protection against a daily cavalcade of emotions--fear, self-loathing, distrust.

Today she is angry. She can't understand how it has come to this. Five months ago, she lost the job she loved as a 911 emergency operator for the Garland Police Department. She's lost the friends she made there and a sense of community. She feels betrayed that the very police she'd dispatched to help people night after night for nearly three years shunned her and called her a liar when she most desperately needed protection.

"They always tell you when you work there that they protect their own, you're one of us," Hughes says. "They didn't protect me."

It was in the early morning hours of February 9 that Hughes says her life began to disintegrate. Hughes had placed her own emergency call to Garland police. In a wailing, hysterical voice, she told how a masked man had just forced his way into her home and tried to strangle her.

The night had begun in an ordinary, if melancholy, manner for Hughes. She was alone in her house on Joyce Drive in Garland; she'd just climbed out of the bathtub and was walking to the living room to get her cigarettes. Then she says she heard a knock on the door just after midnight. The knock didn't surprise her. Hughes worked the graveyard shift for 911, and this was her day off. She was used to people coming over to her house late at night.

So she opened the door.
With the benefit of hindsight, Hughes sees now that it was stupid to open the door at such a late hour. Her training as a 911 operator had taught her safety; she'd seen a victim's mistakes played out time after time on the emergency calls she herself had handled. She also possessed common sense. But that night, it all seemed suspended.

"There were a lot of things I did that night that were stupid," she says. "But they were like normal reactions for me to an abnormal situation. That is something that me and my psychologist go over a lot. When you're at your house, you just don't think something like that is going to happen to you. I certainly wasn't expecting it."

When Hughes opened the door, she saw a man standing on her front porch. The light was off, and she wasn't wearing her glasses, but Hughes says she could make out that the man's lips were moving. That's when she made a second colossal mistake.

"I opened my screen door and said, 'what?'"
Hughes says the man immediately forced his way inside the house. He grabbed her shirt, and when she turned to run away, the fabric ripped. She tried to run to the phone but tripped and went sprawling across the floor. She scrambled on her hands and knees to get to the phone.

Suddenly, she saw something that looked like a jump rope coming over her head. Later on, she says, she learned it was an extension cord. Her attacker wrapped the cord around her neck and yanked back. Hughes says she managed to grab the cord with one of her hands, preventing it from tightening around her throat.

Her attacker spoke to her:
"You like fucking cops, but there is no cop here to protect you now, you fucking whore!"

Hughes pauses after she repeats the words. She gulps. She looks down to hide her eyes, which are welling with tears. "When he called me those words, I got really, really mad, because that is exactly what I felt like anyway."

But, she reckons, her anger saved her. She yanked hard at the cord. It must have slipped through her attacker's gloves, because it pulled away easily. Hughes says she then turned toward her attacker and kicked him in the thigh. He turned and ran out her front door.  

"Get out of my goddamn house!" Hughes yelled after him. Then she slammed her door. It didn't quite shut. The whole attack took between five and six minutes, she figures.

Somehow, Hughes says, she ended up on the floor by a couch. She dialed the seven-digit number to the 911 dispatch room. It was the number she always called--to talk to friends, check on work. It was an automatic response. By luck, she was able to get a friend on the phone. That conversation, captured on tape, seems almost surreal today. Hughes made a few pleasantries, but the strain in her voice is obvious. It took only seconds for her hard-fought cool to snap. She wailed into the phone about the attack, barely able to get words out at first.

Garland police came to her house just minutes later. They dispatched K-9, which tracked a scent from her house to another three doors away. Police questioned the men who lived inside.

They also surveyed the environs of Hughes' living room, where the attack took place. Detectives and a police crisis counselor arrived a little later, questioning her about the attack. She told them she thought her attacker was Hispanic because of his accent, and that he would have had to know something about her to say what he'd said.

Two of Hughes' friends from dispatch also came by to comfort her.
But as the police investigation carried on into the morning, it took a mysterious turn. Hughes says the officers' questions began to revolve around her and her private life more than the attacker.

A note of doubt seemed to creep into the detectives' questioning. Hughes picked it up after she told them about her affair with Lucas Shupe, a 23-year-old rookie Garland police officer who happens to be married.

"To me, because it was one of their own, they were going to do everything to protect him," she says. "They seemed to be more interested in my affair and details of my sex life than they were about this man that attacked me."

Hughes says she'd been upset that night because she and Shupe had broken off their relationship over the telephone just hours before the attack. She'd been playing old love songs they listened to, feeling melancholy. She'd stared at his picture, growing more and more angry. She finally punched the photo, shattering the glass. After that, she slowly calmed down.

Garland police, however, say the affair had nothing to do with their decision to focus the rest of the investigation on the veracity of Hughes' story. They say that when they scrutinized her tale, they determined it couldn't possibly have happened.

"We believe that she was not attacked," Garland police chief Larry Wilson says today. "There was absolutely no physical evidence to support the claim."

As a result of having filed an allegedly false police report, which is a crime, Hughes was fired from her job at the close of the investigation, leaving a blot that makes it impossible for her to get dispatcher work ever again.

But it did happen, Hughes insists today. To prove her innocence, she took and paid for a lie detector test, which was administered by a former Dallas police officer. It showed that she wasn't being deceptive about the attack and hadn't lied to police about anything.

That doesn't impress Lt. Rod Gregg, one of the Garland detectives who worked on the case. "Frankly, it would depend on the questions and how they were phrased," he says.

While police could have disposed of Hughes' unusual case by simply leaving it open--yet declining to search for a suspect--they instead took a drastic step. They called her a liar.

Chief Wilson says they had no other choice.
"We could have opened ourselves up to considerable liability if we had left it open-ended," he says. "There was no physical evidence of any kind to support what she was telling us. In fact, all the evidence was just the opposite."

Hughes, however, says that Garland police never gave her a chance to take a polygraph during the course of the investigation or to defend herself against the charge of filing a false police report. She has since hired an attorney, Luther Jones, a certified labor and employment attorney from Dallas, to pursue a claim against the City of Garland.

Jones sees the city's actions against Hughes as a violation of her civil rights. She was accused and, in effect, convicted of a crime--filing a false report. But she was never given a chance to face her accusers, see the evidence against her, and defend herself. All of this is a violation of her right to due process, Jones says.  

"It makes no difference whether she is innocent or not--the point was that she wasn't given the opportunity to defend herself," Jones says. "You call her in, you say to her, 'Tell us why you shouldn't be fired. We're not going to tell you why we believe your story is a fabrication.' It's a travesty of justice."

Jones says that while his client's innocence shouldn't be necessary for Garland police to grant her the Constitutional right to due process, he firmly believes that Hughes is telling the truth.

Hughes, for her part, says she has always told the truth about what happened that night.

"I shouldn't have to prove anything," she says. "That's what makes me so angry. This is not a lie. I did not make this up. It upsets me greatly that they can even say that. They even say in their own report that it is possible that this could happen, they just don't believe that it did. Well, I know it's possible--because it happened."

Tamara Hughes loved being a 911 dispatcher--she believed it was her true calling in life. "I loved this work," she says. "It makes you really feel like you're helping someone."

Hughes became a dispatcher after trying her hand in several other vocations, including being a hairdresser and a bookkeeper. She enjoyed the rigorous training, where she learned the codes for police and fire and techniques for keeping people calm.

In Garland, she worked the night shift--7 p.m. to 7 a.m. She got used to it, developing a routine where nights were as days to her. She handled hundreds of emergency calls, learning to extract information from people in stressful situations. But Hughes never handled a call like the one she made herself that night.

Police records show that Hughes' call came into the non-emergency line at 12:13 that February morning. The phone rang at the desk of a friend of hers, April Faulkenberry. Like all dispatch phone calls, the four-minute conversation was recorded. What follows is a partial transcript.

"Dispatch," Faulkenberry says.
"April?" says Hughes. Her voice is quavering. "What are you doing?"
"Oh, I'm just sitting here trying to get this computer to work. It's moving way slow...I cannot keep up with this. How are you?"

"Fine," she says, tension evident in her voice.
"No you're not. How are you?" Faulkenberry asks. There is a long pause.
"He didn't come by there, did he?" Faulkenberry asks, referring to Hughes' former lover, Shupe.

"No," says Hughes. Then her voice crescendos: "But someone else did!"
"Who?" said Faulkenberry.
"I don't know!" and on that last word, Hughes begins to cry uncontrollably. Words come out in a hysterical jumble. "I was taking a bath, and I got out of the bathtub and put my clothes back on and heard somebody knock at the door, and I went to the door," Hughes wails into the phone, her words barely discernible. "I don't know who he was. He came in, he...he tore my shirt. I don't know who he was, April!"

With Hughes crying, Faulkenberry stays on the line a few more minutes, trying to get some description of the attacker. All Hughes can say is that he was "little" and had a mask over his head.

"How long ago did he come into the house?" Faulkenberry asks.
"About five minutes," Hughes says. "I started screaming and I kicked him as hard as I could. He choke me with the cord!"

Faulkenberry eventually passes the call to another dispatcher, who tries to pump more information from Hughes. She's able to get from Hughes that the man was Hispanic because of the way he called her a "whore."

Eventually, the police can be heard arriving at Hughes' door. It is 12:17 a.m. Only then does she hang up. Two of her friends from dispatch arrive at the scene shortly afterward. (At no time was Lucas Shupe called to the scene.)

Hughes explains now that it was natural for her to call Faulkenberry that night. She'd been over at Hughes' home three hours earlier comforting her on her breakup with Shupe. Hughes says she didn't even think when she dialed the number, she just dialed.

When the officers arrived, Hughes had calmed down enough to provide more information about her attacker. She said he was about 5 feet 5 inches, 140 pounds, and his face had been covered with a ski mask with no nose hole. He also wore mittens, blue jeans, and a denim jacket.  

The police brought a dog, which immediately picked up a scent and tracked it three houses away. That house was occupied by three Hispanic men who readily allowed the officers to search it. None of the men, however, fit Hughes' description of her attacker, and they are not considered suspects by the police.

Soon afterward, detectives and a crisis counselor were summoned to Hughes' home. Each spoke with her about the attack. Hughes appeared shaken, wrote Leslie Kuerbitz, the counselor. The officers asked Hughes if she wanted an ambulance. She said no.

"I can't explain it," she says today. "I felt OK. My friends were here. I felt safe."

Police reports show that officers quickly became suspicious of Hughes' story.

Detective C.G. VanCleave states in police reports that the first officers on the scene noticed Hughes do something strange. As soon as she saw police through her slightly-ajar front door, she reached toward her coffee table and turned over two photographs. Later on, officers couldn't find those photographs.

Hughes explains it this way: "They were of an officer that I had an affair with." She pauses. "I'm not proud of this. I flipped the pictures over because I didn't want to embarrass him. I didn't want to embarrass me."

Hughes says she only brought up the affair because police questioned her about it.

"They sat right there on my coffee table and said, 'Tami, you've got to tell us everything,'" she says. So she did.

That's not how police say the subject of the affair came up, however, according to VanCleave.

Only later, when VanCleave took Hughes to the police safe house--a place where victims of violent crimes can answer questions in a relaxed atmosphere--did Hughes reveal that her boyfriend was Shupe, VanCleave says. She told them that she and Shupe had had a brief relationship last year in November. Hughes became ill soon after their breakup and was admitted to the hospital with kidney problems.

(Shupe did not return phone calls from the Dallas Observer.)
Shupe started the affair anew in the beginning of February, Hughes told VanCleave. This time it only lasted a few days. The evening before her attack, on February 8, Shupe supposedly called Hughes and told her he could no longer see her. He was filled with guilt for cheating on his wife.

Hughes, by her own account, was extremely angry. Shupe had promised not to hurt her again, but here he was, breaking it off abruptly. Afterward, she called some friends in an attempt to calm down. Later that night, she punched a framed picture of Shupe--an enlargement she'd made from a wallet photo--and cut her hand. That was when she called Faulkenberry to come over. This picture--and another photo just like it--were the ones she'd turned over when police walked in, she says.

Not surprisingly, Shupe's version of the affair is markedly different. In police reports, Shupe says Hughes initiated the affair in November and pursued him relentlessly, sending cards and gifts. When Shupe told her that he and his wife were having problems, Hughes offered that they move in together. He declined, however, and eventually broke off the relationship.

He told police that it was Hughes who renewed the affair in February. But Shupe, overcome with guilt, quickly backed off.

The night of her attack, Hughes paged Shupe 10 times, according to police reports. When he finally called back, she begged him to come to her house after work. He refused. Instead, he went home to his wife.

The affair added fuel to the officers' suspicions about Hughes the night of the attack.

VanCleave says that when he went outside to check the yard for footprints (a rain earlier that evening had left the area wet and muddy), he was approached by the officers who had arrived at the scene first. They indicated that things weren't quite adding up.

For one thing, Hughes' house was too neat for a place where a five- to six-minute struggle had supposedly taken place. Nothing had been upset--not the coffee table, not a chair, not any of the glass knickknacks on her etagere.

"The only thing I saw that was out of place and out of the ordinary was the extension cord," VanCleave told the Observer. "Nothing else was disturbed."

VanCleave also noted in the file that Hughes' demeanor had puzzled him. She seemed overly concerned with minor details, like what she was doing before the attack and what she'd done afterward. But details of the attack itself were hazy. In Hughes' handwritten statement, she even neglected to describe her attacker.

But the biggest problem in the eyes of police was that Hughes' account of the attack kept changing.  

On the night of the crime, Hughes wrote that when she opened the front door, she saw a person standing on her dark front porch. "I noticed the person had on a toboggan and was saying something," she said. "I opened the screen door."

However, a day after the attack, Hughes offered another typewritten statement of what happened to her that night. In this version, when Hughes sees the man on the front porch, she can see his lips moving. She doesn't notice he's wearing a mask until he's pushed his way into her home. She also mentions that she wasn't wearing her glasses.

Hughes says the unsolicited statement was actually an excerpt from her diary, which VanCleave had asked to see.

"I gave it to him as a courtesy," she says.
Police have their own theory about Hughes' "helpfulness." Says Lt. Gregg, another officer assigned to the case: "She just kept changing her story to suit whatever inconsistencies we found. It was kind of the never-ending story."

That suggestion enrages Hughes. "That's not true!" she yells. "He told me that if I remembered anything, because it is very common to remember a detail, to let him know."

Hughes also wrote in her sworn statement on the night of the attack that she "called April at work" and then slammed the front door after her attacker. On the tape of the call, however, there's no sound of a slamming door, although the sound of officers tramping into her house is clearly audible.

Police say that even if you're willing to grant Hughes the benefit of the doubt concerning her changing accounts of the attack, you can't overlook that there's no physical evidence of a struggle.

Three days after the attack, in fact, police re-enacted Hughes' attack with her help. In his case file, VanCleave says that Hughes "spent more time explaining where her clothes were and what she did in the bathroom than she did explaining the incident."

The were able to coax out of her what happened with detectives playing the attacker as well as her part. In the reenactment, police were unable to rip Hughes' shirt the way she says it happened. Police were also unable to get the extension cord up and around her neck before Hughes made it to the phone. VanCleave also was able to close the front door without any problems.

Hughes explains that, too.
"I didn't like the reenactment, you have to understand," she says. "They did the reenactment themselves, and the only thing I did was push and show them how I was pushed. And I don't want to reenact it again. I've gone through enough."

Hughes also lacked any injuries, officers say, except for the cuts she'd sustained after punching Shupe's picture. Hughes claims she struggled with a cord around her neck, which left red marks. Police saw none.

Hughes, however, insists there were marks on her neck. The day after the attack, she saw her family doctor, who treated her for abrasions to her neck (her doctor did not return repeated phone calls from the Observer). The doctor found swelling around her throat, Hughes later told Kuerbitz.

"I had marks around my neck when they got there," she told the Observer. "The ambulance report should show that." Police, however, reiterate that Hughes refused an ambulance that night.

In the days following the attack, Hughes and the investigators were increasingly at odds. She called them daily, trying to get information on the case and to add things she'd remembered. But she began to feel frustrated at their seeming inattention. There wasn't any urgency to find her violent attacker, Hughes says. The investigators seemed far more interested in her sex life.

The day after the reenactment, VanCleave says, police had more questions than answers. It was time to get Hughes to come clean.

Hughes arrived at the police safe house for an interview, driven by her father. Hughes couldn't drive herself because of the stress medication she was taking. The grueling interview lasted nearly six hours.

Hughes says she came ready to cooperate and answer any questions about the case. Instead, she says, the officers mostly wanted to talk about her sex life with Shupe. Their questions were highly explicit.

"Lt. Gregg came in and asked me about specific details on every kind of sex we had," she says. "...I must say that he was as courteous and professional as he possibly could be."

It seemed odd to her that police were fixated on the affair. "I kept asking all the time--why were we doing this? Why are we worried about my affair? Why aren't we worried about the attack? They said we have to cover all our bases. We've got to make sure he isn't the person who attacked you."  

Hughes says she told them it couldn't possibly have been Shupe. He wouldn't do something so terrible. Besides, her attacker was Hispanic. Shupe is not.

Police recall the interview differently. Hughes was the one who kept bringing up the affair, VanCleave says. And she brought up their sex life while obliquely accusing Shupe of committing the attack, he says.

"She offered to us that a friend had suggested that Shupe could have done this or had someone else do it," VanCleave says in his report.

"Any discussion of their relationship was initiated by her," he adds.
Because of Hughes' confession that she was seeing Shupe and broke up with him the night of the attack, chief Larry Wilson ordered an internal investigation of Shupe. "We considered that police officer to be a possible suspect," Wilson says. Shupe was ultimately cleared.

During the lengthy interview, four detectives interviewed and observed Hughes at different times. They tried to get her to confess to having made the whole thing up. But Hughes didn't break. At the end, she did say she'd had enough. She finally realized that the officers didn't believe her.

"I told Daddy, 'They think I'm an idiot. They basically called me a liar without saying the words. That is what I am hearing.'"

She was right. In police reports, a theory emerges: Hughes made up the attack to get sympathy from Shupe.

Shupe even suggested as much during a police interview two days after Hughes' marathon session.

Among the papers in the investigative file are some pages copied from a psychology text concerning personality disorders. Two are mentioned: the narcissistic personality disorder, in which the sufferer exhibits a pervasive pattern of grandiosity and need for attention; and the histrionic personality disorder, in which a person tends to exhibit excessive attention-seeking behavior.

A week after the long interview, Hughes claims, VanCleave would no longer return her calls. No one from the department, she says, was talking to her.

Hughes had returned to work a week after the attack. At first, she did regular dispatch duty, but was later moved to a day shift in which she filed papers and organized the communications office. She couldn't forget the attack. The stress of it, the nightmares every night, the fear of being alone, all got to her. Toward the end of March, while she was getting ready for work at her parents' home, she suffered a seizure--the only one she's ever had.

Because of that, her doctor advised her to seek temporary disability leave. Hughes turned in her request to the city nurse on March 28, she says.

A few days later, on April 2, she was called at home and asked to come see Wilson. The chief and an internal affairs officer greeted her and her father. While seated in the chief's office, Hughes says, Wilson pushed a paper toward her.

"Sign it," she recalls him saying.
Hughes read the paper: It was a letter confirming that she'd received another letter stating that she'd been fired for filing a false police report. Hughes says she asked what she'd falsified and received no answer.

"I repeatedly asked, and they would not tell me," she says. "They just ignored me. So I decided to appeal it because I did not lie. I did not falsify."

Wilson remembers the meeting differently.
"We sat there in my office with her for an hour and a half explaining how we reached that conclusion," he says. "We told her she could appeal her termination to the city manager."

Chief Wilson made the decision to fire her. Filing a false police report is class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. He said he'd decided not to charge her with a crime and simply fire her instead.

"There is a significant difference in concluding that someone has made a false report and then actually proving it beyond a reasonable doubt in the court room," he says. "In this case, we felt like this lady has been through enough. It is within our discretion not to [file charges]. We didn't."

Hughes signed the papers, then filed her appeal.

The first thing she did was hire Luther Jones to represent her during her appeal hearing. Jones, a certified labor and employment law specialist, decided first that he needed to reassure himself that Hughes was telling the truth. He asked her to take a polygraph test and pay for it herself. She did.

"I told her that if we are going to fight this, there are always those people who are going to say that she is lying," Jones says.  

Jim Lauderdale, a 15-year veteran of polygraph work, gave the test, which Hughes took twice. The first time, results were inconclusive--possibly because of Hughes' stress medication, Lauderdale says. The second time she took it, however, she passed. When she answered questions about being attacked in her home or whether she lied to the police, the polygraph indicated she wasn't being deceptive. As a result, Lauderdale says he's convinced the attack occurred.

With polygraph results in hand, Hughes and Jones then set about trying to build a defense.

The May 13 hearing ended up being a raucous disappointment for Hughes and Jones. The police officers involved in the investigation were present for the meeting at City Hall, as well as Chief Wilson, City Attorney Charlie Hinton, and City Manager Jeffrey Muzzy.

Muzzy told Jones and Hughes that he was only there to listen to why she shouldn't be fired. Jones replied that it was impossible for Hughes to state her case since the city had refused to give her any information about why she was fired. The meeting grew ugly, degenerating into a shouting match between Jones and Hinton. Chief Wilson eventually ordered his officers to leave the meeting, which lasted only 15 minutes.

Muzzy says he was finally able to get Jones and Hinton to stop screaming at each other long enough for Hughes to make a statement. Hughes says she doesn't remember what she said. Whatever it was, it didn't change anyone's mind. A month after the meeting, Muzzy upheld her firing.

The overall picture that emerges from police reports is that Hughes is a jilted lover who made a last grasp for attention from her former beau.

"We tried as hard as we could to determine that this did happen," says Gregg. "But no way could we find that it did. Everywhere we looked, everything told us that this did not happen."

Hughes still insists that her story is true. Her psychologist, Dr. Michael Cunningham, who has been treating Hughes since February 18, says she is suffering from traumatic stress disorder as a result of the attack. He says it is a moderate case.

It is possible to fake the symptoms--which include depression, an inability to concentrate, sleep disturbances, and anxiety--if you know them, he says.

"If [Hughes] had looked it up, I suppose she could" fake the disorder, Cunningham says. "But I doubt she is. I don't believe she is making this up."

These days, Hughes insists she just wants to clear her name and get on with life. Since the attack, she has lost her job and her friends. She can't return to her home for fear of being attacked again.

"You can't tell me I wasn't attacked in my home," she says, her voice resolute. "Why in the world would a person do something false like this? Why would someone make something like this up? I'm not that sort of person."

She pauses and fiddles with her pack of cigarettes. She got something that night from her attacker that she's never had before: Fear.

"That's what that man gave me," she says. "He took a lot away from me, but he sure gave me some fear.

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