Fugitive kept past a secret in Boston

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON - On Christmas Eve three decades ago, Michael Hughes walked into his family's West Baltimore home and told his younger brother that he was leaving forever.

"As of this day, I'm dead to you all," Larry Hughes recalled his older brother saying.

And with that, Michael Hughes dropped out of sight - disappearing from a Baltimore Police Department that sought him in the shooting death of one of its civilian employees.

Hughes came here to Boston, where he abandoned first his name and, friends said, later his lifestyle, becoming a counselor at a city-run homeless shelter and learning to play bass. A fight last Sunday unraveled that life, enabling the capture of Baltimore's longest-sought fugitive.

"I've been on the run for far too long," he told the Boston transit police officer who confronted him with the old Baltimore warrant, according to a police affidavit.

In recent years, he called himself Johnnie Floyd - John to his friends. He is 57 but looks at least a decade younger, and his chiseled face is framed with short dreadlocks.

Michael Shores and his wife, Angela Mark, met him about eight years ago in a park in southwest Boston where the couple and Hughes regularly walked their dogs.

They made mostly small talk in the first few years but eventually discovered a shared passion: music.

"Once he found out we loved jazz, he opened up more," Shores said. They would have long conversations in the park and began going to concerts together.

Shores, a guitarist, and Mark, a flutist, persuaded Hughes to learn to play an instrument. About three years ago, he began to play bass, taking weekly lessons at a studio in Cambridge and jamming with the couple in their Jamaica Plain apartment.

"You guys have really opened something for me," Shores remembered Hughes saying two Fridays ago. "This is the first time I've ever been so disciplined."

Those in Boston who knew Hughes sensed something weighed on him. But they said they never imagined a murder charge.

Shooting in 1974

On Christmas Eve 1974, McKinley Johnson had been assembling charity baskets when someone swiped a can of meat and ran. The 40-year-old Johnson chased the man outside, and after a confrontation the man pulled a gun and shot him, according to Baltimore police.

Johnson picked Hughes - a man with a record of shoplifting and drug arrests - out of a photo lineup hours before he died.

But Hughes had already fled. Baltimore detectives figured him for a con who traveled from city to city, perhaps even to Jamaica, without being detected.

In reality, Hughes led a much less meticulously scripted existence.

After arriving in Boston, the wanted man spent another decade using heroin and getting into trouble, according to friends and court records. He was arrested five times in Boston in the 1980s on stolen property, shoplifting, weapons and disorderly conduct charges.

In 1988, Hughes was arrested near Dallas on a shoplifting charge. Also, he has an outstanding court warrant in Georgia, though police in Baltimore and Boston aren't sure what it is for.

With each arrest, Hughes, who used at least nine aliases over the years, managed to duck the murder warrant. In the early years, it was the lack of technology - fingerprints were recorded on paper, not computer - that was on his side. In later years it was pure luck; he was released after his Dallas arrest because the national computer database that tracks arrest warrants was not working.

That was the last clue Baltimore police could find as to his whereabouts.

For at least 15 years, Hughes lived in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, his friends said. He became certified as a piano tuner and studied tai chi and karate.

Shores and Mark said Hughes wore his sobriety like a badge. He never smoked, never drank alcohol and carefully watched what he put into his body, preferring green tea to coffee, the couple said.

The year 1997 appears to have been a turning point for Hughes. That year, he rented an apartment in a three-story, cream-yellow building on a road near the park where he met Shores and Mark.

Lee Haller and her husband, Jeremy Epworth, who live in and own the building, called Hughes a responsible tenant. They gave him a key to their upstairs apartment so he could check on their cats when they were away .

Also that year, Hughes got a job with the city Health Commission. He worked as a counselor at the Woods Mullen homeless shelter, near the Boston Medical Center on Massachusetts Avenue.

Employees there declined to discuss Hughes. A department spokesman would only confirm his employment.

It's not clear whether Hughes had any contact with his family in Baltimore. Shores said Hughes spoke occasionally of a son, but he said he didn't press him for details because "it seemed like something he didn't want to talk about."

Larry Hughes said he had "no idea" his older brother was living in Boston. He said he knows of no relatives or friends who lived there.

'He's God knows where'

But Baltimore Police Sgt. Roger W. Nolan, supervisor of the department's cold case unit, said he suspects Michael Hughes has been in and out of Baltimore. The family house in the 1600 block of McKean Ave. still has his name on the utilities.

Nolan said, "It frustrates you that he's wanted for murder, he's God knows where and somebody's paying the electric bill - and it's in his name."

The sergeant also said he believes Hughes relied on local support to remain a fugitive.

Baltimore police have been keeping close tabs on Larry Hughes and his wife ever since the murder, Larry Hughes said. If Michael Hughes' sister-in-law traveled to Oregon or South Carolina, investigators would follow and question the people with whom she had stayed, according to Larry Hughes.

Police also came every Christmas Eve and every time a new detective took over the case, the brother said.

"As the case got older, the visits were less frequent," he said.

Michael Hughes' undoing came last Sunday, when he got into a fight on a bus with a man he thought to be gay. Police documents said Hughes first yelled at the man, then slashed him on the arm with a pocketknife.

At the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Police station, Hughes gave the name Johnnie Floyd. No photo identification, only a health care card that bore the name Johnnie Floyd. Officers immediately suspected he was using an alias, and when they checked a database, they came up with two other names: Jerome Dante and Jeffrey Howard.

Hughes said he had used the name Jerome Dante "back in the 80s when he had a different lifestyle," according to the police affidavit. "He stopped using that name after he cleaned up and stopped using drugs."

Believing something was amiss, MBTA Officer Brian Burt ran a second identity check, and another FBI number came up with the more serious charge from Baltimore. Burt approached Hughes with the new information, and Hughes made little effort to deny it.

"Yes, that's my real name. I have been hiding in Boston since I left Baltimore 30 years ago. The warrant is now for murder," Hughes told the officer, according to the police affidavit. "It's been on my mind a lot the past six months. I've been thinking of turning myself in.

"I've been on the run for far too long. Do you think they will let me waive extradition so I can go back and take care of it?" Hughes asked the officer.

History revealed

Hughes sits in a Boston jail facing charges related to the fight. On Friday, Baltimore prosecutors filed a request for his extradition to Maryland.

The day after the arrest, Hughes called his friends Shores and Mark to tell them about his past. He also asked them to take care of his dog, Sparks.

The couple said they have talked to Hughes by phone several times since his arrest and plan to visit him in jail.

"He said, 'I don't understand why you'd want to be my friend,'" Shores said.

"We know what he did was wrong," Mark said. "But we didn't know him as that person."

His landlords also said they don't know what to make of the case.

"It's complicated," Haller said. "He's been a good guy for seven years. ... There are many facets to a person and to life."

In Baltimore, Johnson's girlfriend - and the mother of his now-grown son - expressed relief to learn of Hughes' arrest.

Nolan, the Baltimore police sergeant, was particularly struck by the way Hughes was captured.

After 30 years of hunting this elusive fugitive, Nolan and other detectives had come to believe he was smooth and intelligent, someone who went out of his way to escape notice.

"It just doesn't seem like the person who would be a fugitive for 30 years," Nolan said, "not someone who would lose his cool on a bus.

"In the end," he said, "it looks like after all this, he didn't learn anything."

Ryan Davis reported from Baltimore.

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