Los Angeles prosecutors say Michael Hughes is a predator who sexually assaulted and choked his victims before creepily posing them for shock value. After he killed his victims, it is alleged, the former sailor left their bodies near where he lived and worked in South Los Angeles.
At the time, the killings of mostly young, poor black women hardly stood out. The murders took place between 1986 and 1993, a low point in Los Angeles urban history, when the crack epidemic of the '80s gave rise to drive-by shootings, and drug-related murders skyrocketed.
It was a time when Hughes, a native of Michigan, was one of at least five active serial killers who used South Los Angeles as their sick playground.
“We were asked to regularly patrol schools and parks because women were being assaulted there,” said Los Angeles Police Department cold-case detective Cliff Shepard. “It was a frightening time. There was a lot of violence, especially after dark.”
Hughes was eventually caught in 1993 after he was spotted pushing a shopping cart containing the body of one of his victims. He was convicted in 1998 of four slayings and was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole when investigators linked him to four additional murders.
Hughes, now 54, is currently on trial in Los Angeles for the strangulation murders of three women and a 15-year-old high-school student who was assaulted on her way home from visiting her boyfriend on Jan. 22, 1986.
The trial, expected to last about a month, is being heard in Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Curtis Rappe’s courtroom (just down the hall from the packed courtroom where Dr. Conrad Murray is standing trial for manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson).
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Hughes. For his part, Hughes has denied murdering anyone, and admitted only to having sexual encounters with a number of women.
During opening arguments this week, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman told the jury that they would hear “a story of a serial killer.” Silverman said DNA evidence “conclusively” linked Hughes to the murders of Yvonne Coleman, Verna Williams, Deanna Wilson, and Deborah Jackson.
According to police, Hughes moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, and in 1974 joined the Navy as a machinist and was stationed in San Diego. After he left the Navy, police say, he spent some time in jail for theft and perjury, was married briefly, and then bounced around from job to job.
“He couldn’t hold a job,” said Shepard. “Any money he made, he spent it on dope.”
Shepard said Hughes was employed in the aerospace industry in Long Beach and living with his mother and sister when he raped and murdered 15-year-old Yvonne Coleman in January 1986. On the day of her death, she had skipped school to hang out with her boyfriend and was on her way home when the assault occurred. A water-treatment-plant inspector found her body near a barbecue pit, just a few blocks from where Hughes lived. Grass was found in her mouth and throat.
Five months later, the partially nude body of Verna Williams was discovered on the grounds of 68th Street Elementary School. She had been strangled. In August 1990, police allege, Hughes, who had since remarried, strangled and raped Deanna Wilson inside her garage while her young son was asleep in a nearby bedroom. Hughes was known to frequent the King’s Castle Motel, about half a mile from the murder scene.
Then, in June 1993, just over a year after the Los Angeles riots devastated the city and left 53 people dead, the partially nude body of Deborah Jackson was discovered in a trash-storage container. At the time, Hughes was working for a moving company called Starving Students, located within two blocks of where Jackson was found.
Later that year, Hughes, then employed selling Christmas trees near LAX, was arrested for the murder of another woman whose body was found tied to a shopping cart. He was trying to dispose of the body when he was discovered.
During Hughes’s alleged killing spree, the bodies of more than 50 poor young black women were discovered wrapped in filthy rugs, under piles of junk, or in garbage bins in alleyways. Many had been strangled or shot. Others were stabbed. Police suspected a serial killer was afoot and dubbed him the Southside Slayer. Investigators later discovered that at least five serial killers were at work, including Grim Sleeper suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr., a car mechanic currently awaiting trial for the slayings of 10 women and the attempted murder of another.
But Hughes’s signature stood out. After he killed some of the victims, he left them with their legs spread apart, most likely in an attempt to shock the passersby who found them. In at least one instance, he placed one of his victim’s hands on her pubic area so it looked as if she was masturbating.
“He is trying to shock whoever finds the body,” said Shepard, who said that Hughes was trying also to demean his victims. “We suspect there was some incident in his life that set his actions in motion, and he later decided to take it out on a number of women.”
The four slayings attributed to Hughes remained unsolved for almost two decades. In 2003, Shepard began the laborious task of searching through hundreds of cold cases as part of the LAPD’s newly formed cold-case squad. His job was to sift through the rape/murder files of the ’80s to see if any forensic evidence still existed for DNA analysis. In 2007, Shepard found DNA evidence that linked Hughes to the four slayings.