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A Pay Stub, An Informant And An Exhumation Reveal The Shocking Truth Of Texas Mom’s Murder
A medical examiner initially determined Melba Lott's death wasn't a homicide. Disturbed by crime scene evidence, investigators didn't buy it.
On the morning of March 8, 2006, Melba Lott, 42, was found dead in her Victoria, Texas apartment by housekeepers who’d been dispatched to clean the residence.
Lott, known by loved ones as “Pebbles,” hadn’t been seen in two weeks and the rent was unpaid, so management believed she had moved. Tragically, she was on the floor of her bedroom deceased.
“It did appear that there was some sort of struggle,” Kevin Kroos, a retired detective with the Victoria Police Department, told “Exhumed: Killer Revealed,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
There was “blood splatter all over the place,” he added. That included the kitchen, bathroom, and the bedroom, as well as outside the apartment leading to an upstairs landing.
Lott was in “heavy decomposition stages,” according to investigators. Signs of trauma to her face and head were still visible, and police observed signs suggesting someone tried to clean up the scene.
In the bedroom a knife with a bent blade was found beneath the mattress. Because it was bloody and appeared to have fingerprints on it, police believed it may be linked to Lott’s death. The knife was collected as evidence, along with a pay stub that belonged to someone named Bruce Hughes. Police needed to find out who he was and how he could be involved.
But although the bloody physical evidence at the apartment and trauma to Lott’s face led police to suspect foul play, the medical examiner came to a different conclusion.
“The medical examiner ruled those cuts as skin slippage from the decomposition of the body,” said Kroos, adding that signs of trauma were deemed to possibly be from a fall. “It was indeterminable if [her death] was accidental or if it was caused intentionally.”
A toxicology analysis was ordered to help make a determination. While awaiting those results, police learned through Lott’s family that she and Hughes had dated.
The pay stub that was found led detectives to Hughes’ employer. Hughes had stopped showing up for work in late February and never collected his final paycheck, they said. Police believed that Lott was most likely murdered in late February — which was the same time that Hughes fell off the grid.
Two days into the investigation, the case took a turn. Lott’s brother told police that he’d gotten a call from his sister’s phone a week before her death. The call wasn’t from her but from Albert Williams, a friend of Melba’s. He said he had found the phone on the street.
Detectives found Williams and interviewed him. Even though they still had questions about his story they had no evidence linking him to Lott’s death and released him.
Instead, police refocused their efforts on finding Hughes and spoke with his mother in Houston. She said she hadn’t seen him since the beginning of March and offered no help beyond that.
On April 6, the toxicology report came back. Lott was found to have cocaine in her system.
“The medical examiner believes the cause of death was cocaine toxicity but she also put a contributing factor of blunt force injuries of the face from a fall,” said Dr. Kendall von Crowns, Travis County Deputy Medical Examiner. “She made the manner of death an accident.”
Lott’s loving family acknowledged that she grappled with substance abuse. But relatives, like local investigators, were unconvinced that she died of a drug overdose.
On April 10, Lott’s upstairs neighbor Stanford Harvey reached out to police. He explained that he wasn’t home when they interviewed witnesses and would like to help.
In the interview, Harvey said he was longtime friends with Lott, and claimed he knew Hughes only in passing.
But police had looked for leads to Hughes’ whereabouts through street informants and motel desk clerks. Witnesses soon told Det. Jason Turner of the Victoria Police Department that Hughes and Harvey were the “closest of friends.”
Investigators reinterviewed Harvey, who said that he was “dope sick” during their first round of questioning. He confirmed that he knew Hughes, who would come to Victoria to drop off drugs and return to Houston.
Then, on May 5, a call came that broke the case wide open. An informant at the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office told police that Amanda Jo Walters, an inmate, knew how Lott died.
When questioned by detectives, Walters said that she was with Hughes and Harvey when they hatched a plan. They baited Lott with the promise of doing drugs but their real intention was to steal her tax refund money. A fight broke out and Lott ended up being killed.
But because Lott’s death was deemed a drug overdose, detectives were unable to get arrest warrants for Walters, Hughes, and Harvey. That put the case in jeopardy. They needed to do something to move their investigation forward.
In August 2006, Det. Amanda Clemons, of the Victoria Police Department, joined the case. Crime scene photos convinced her Lott’s death was no accident, she told producers.
“At this time there was a new medical examiner but when we talked about him changing the death certificate he said that he wanted more evidence in the case,” explained Clemons.
Detectives learned that no crime scene evidence had been submitted for any kind of testing because the medical examiner had ruled Lott’s death a cocaine overdose. Clemons signed the paperwork to test the evidence, including the fingerprint on the bloody knife. Bruce Hughes was a match for the thumbprint.
However, they soon realized that an exhumation would be needed to determine exactly how Lott died. Luckily, the victim’s family supported the detectives’ efforts.
In January 2008, Lott was exhumed.The medical examiner found wounds around her face and eye sockets consistent with the use of a penetrating weapon, such as a knife. The cause of death was changed to homicide.
Police secured arrest warrants for Lott’s murder, and in February 2008, Harvey and Walters were rounded up and charged. Hughes was arrested on March 17, 2008. Each faced a separate trial.
The trial for Hughes, then 40, began in February 2009. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. In September, Harvey, then 45, was convicted of aggravated assault and received a 45-year sentence. In February 2010, Walters, then 22, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.