Becoming head of the Fort Wayne Police Department's homicide unit wasn't necessarily Detective Sgt. Timothy Hughes' goal, but when the job opened in late 2018, he went for it.
In two years, the homicide clearance rate went from the 40% to 50% range to the 80th percentile.
In 2019, 25 out of 29 homicides city police investigated were cleared for an 86% solvability rate. This year, 33 of 41 city homicides were cleared for a clearance rate of about 81%, but that number could improve in January when more arrests are expected.
Fort Wayne clearance rates from 2015 through 2018 ran between 40% to 55%, according to FWPD numbers. The 2019 national average is about 61%, according to Department of Justice statistics.
Hughes spent most of his career investigating gang activity and many homicides, and was “no stranger to crime scenes and people and dealing with survivors and victims' families.” He saw an opportunity to try a different way of solving homicides, an approach based on what he learned from being a SWAT team member since 2012.
“We have members with rank on the SWAT team, but we all consider ourselves equal in ability and skill. We also consider ourselves equal when it comes to criticism as long as it's righteous criticism and not an attempt to be insulting,” he said.
At first, city police command was reluctant to go along with Hughes' proposed changes to the homicide unit's structure, he said. But that changed. “People really started to take notice of what we were doing in 2019,” he said.
Hughes introduced the idea of working as a team with the entire homicide unit exhausting every lead and working the crime until the leads ran dry. Then, he wanted more detectives.
The department now has 10 detectives, with additional help from Hughes and Lt. John Bowers from Vice and Narcotics. The officers range in age from their 30s to their 50s.
“He's a little rough around the edges,” said Deputy Chief James Feasel, who took over the investigative support unit about the same time Hughes took over homicide. “But it's probably something of an advantage, too.
“He leads his people and, one thing I always believe, you've got to lead by example and he's right out there with them,” Feasel said.
'Great to work for'
While Hughes says he worries detectives will burn out, eight homicide detectives interviewed for this story praised his tactical skills and willingness to listen.
“He's probably one of the most intelligent people I know,” homicide detective Luke MacDonald said. “He sees things from a lot of different angles. Very rarely does he miss certain aspects.”
Detective Donald Lewis said the unit is on the job for 24 hours at times.
“Tim's great to work for,” Lewis said. “He's right there with us. I'm grateful he's right there with us.”
Like others on the team, Detective Roy “R.J.” Sutphin appreciates Hughes' organization.
“He's definitely a motivator,” Sutphin said. “He'll say 'c'mon guys, let's go. This is what we're going to do and we're going to go do it right now.'”
Matt Cline, Sutphin's partner, said Hughes' support is crucial to the department's success.
“He's phenomenal. He supports us 100%. He's got a lot of good ideas himself and he makes sure we have all the resources we need. Overall, he's one of the best supervisors I've ever had,” Cline said.
Scott Tegtmeyer, with 10 years on homicide, said the biggest change has been the team concept and more detectives on homicide. “Everybody loves working for Tim. We also have built a better relationship with the prosecutor,” Tegtmeyer said.
Feasel said the unit's supervisor is key.
“You got to have someone like Sgt. Hughes to take the lead role, and he's out there with them quite a bit,” said Feasel, who oversees the detective bureau, homicide, vice and narcotics and the gang and violent crimes units.
Feasel said he asked Hughes for a proposal when Hughes applied for the position in homicide and got a “lengthy one” that looked good.
For someone who said he wasn't into academics when he was young, Hughes keeps detailed records. Hughes tracks the year's homicides on color-coded Excel sheets that go beyond naming the victim and date.
While life can get messy on the streets, things are calm and orderly inside Hughes' office. A lightly scented candle in glass is lit near his desk, close to a 1½-foot high model of a UFO on a stand. A homage poster to the “X-Files” is mounted on the wall.
His favorite inspiration is probably a poster of the movie “Heat,” a film with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, that Hughes believes comes close to accurately portraying police work.
“It shows how the biggest cases can get the biggest breaks from the tiniest, smallest detail or piece of information,” Hughes said during an interview in his office.
“The movie shows you how sometimes the bad guys get away and sometimes they get caught. It shows you how the good guys and bad guys, there's more going on, they have lives and problems in those.”
Hughes always wanted to be a cop, he said. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, where his father, also named Timothy Hughes, was a uniformed officer with the Warren Police Department for 42 years, retiring as a lieutenant.
“I would spend every chance I could riding along in his squad car,” said Hughes, the youngest of three children.
Hughes graduated from Warren G. Harding High School in 1995 and joined the Navy for three years, a family tradition, he said, shared with his father, grandfather and his older brother, Todd, a Fort Wayne police officer on the bomb squad.
He joined the Fort Wayne Police Department in 2004 as a lateral hire from the Howland Police Department in Ohio after his brother transferred here in 2001.
“I came over to visit, checked out the city, did a couple of ride-alongs, really liked the department and really liked the city,” Hughes said. He saw a better future with more opportunity, including the possibility of joining a SWAT team.
The SWAT team, called the Emergency Services Team here, “is used for some of the highest risks and challenging situations, where officers put ego aside and take advice and guidance from people who would normally be a subordinate,” Hughes said.
Falling in love on job
Hughes fell in love with fellow officer Shannon Hughes. They've been married 13 years. Hughes has two grown stepchildren. For many years, he and Shannon worked the C-shift or overnight shift on the city's southeast side.
“They both love the job and they're very good at the job,” said Hughes' brother, Todd.
There have been quite a few times when the couple has tried to socialize with friends when the job interrupted.
“I cannot tell you how many times we've had to cancel plans because of a call-out,” Shannon Hughes wrote in an email. “We've had to leave restaurants, children's events, family gatherings, etc. I've had to find an alternate ride home because Tim was called out.”
Hughes jokingly compares their life to the movie, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
“To us, it's normal. To other people, it blows their mind. Around a normal couple Shannon and I will have a conversation and they'll overhear it and they're like, 'whoa,'” Hughes says as he turns his head, mimicking the others' reactions.
While the couple share a passion for police work, they escape its gritty and exhausting toll by working out and keeping fit, vacationing by the ocean or at the Outer Banks, and enjoying the company of friends and their four dogs: Rupert, a Chihuahua; Zeti, a fox terrier; Kelso, a Lab Pit mix and Athena, an English mastiff.
Hughes has a penchant for horror and apocalyptic movies. If he had to choose a radio station, it would be FM 102.3 alternative rock.
Lately, some of his detectives air Hughes' favorite music when an apprehension is made – “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” by Moby, a song he listens to at least once a day.
But really, it's the police scanner he listens to more than anything.
Picking up the scanner, he says “This is all I've ever known.”
Pros, cons of police couple
Sgt. Shannon Hughes, wife of Detective Sgt. Tim Hughes, on the pros and cons of being a law enforcement couple.
“I have a better understanding of what Tim is going through; Throughout our careers we have been involved in investigations that nightmares are made from, complete with sounds, sights, and smells. I know of at least a handful of different things that have stuck with Tim and me that we had a difficult time getting over, if you will.
“Although, I can tell you, most officers never get over things, they just pack them away mentally to be dealt with later. This is what changes an officer in so many ways, and I get that. A lot of what an officer sees, sometimes on a daily basis, cannot be fully shared with a civilian spouse or significant other because it involves thinking about it all over again, and discussing something that can be indescribable, or so horrible, you don't want your loved ones to know there are such things in the world. You want to protect them.
“I was part of an on-call team, the Fatal Crash Team, so I understand the desire to do more, and to serve the public in an extra capacity.
“I understand that call-outs will, and do, happen at the most inconvenient times. Tim is on call 24/7/365 for the Emergency Services Team and for Homicide. He, and his homicide teams, have been known to work extremely long days (24 hours) in order to chase leads on homicide suspects. I see and understand the sense of relief, satisfaction, and pride when they take a suspect into custody, giving the victim's family a sense of justice and making the city that much safer.”
“There's no such thing as Holidays, Weekends, or 'normal' work hours! Call-outs, although necessary, always happen at the worst time. I cannot tell you how many times we've had to cancel plans because of a call-out. We've had to leave restaurants, children's events, family gatherings, etc. Your family starts to think of you as a ghost, or worse, they plan around you almost expecting you not to show up.
“I've had to find an alternate ride home because Tim was called out. So, although I understand it on one hand, on the other, I can't help but feel like the job becomes more important sometimes.
One last thing ...
“I can tell you, Tim is never truly off-duty. To my great annoyance, he is constantly fielding phone calls, texts, and e-mails at all times of day and night. He doesn't just turn work off when he leaves the office. He loses sleep over cases, thinking about what needs to be done, or what hasn't been done. I'm seeing this negatively affect his health. This isn't just a job to him, he treats all cases as if they are personal; he and his team work them until they are solved, or all leads are dried up.”
'I know I talked to him'
There have been times when Detective Sgt. Tim Hughes was the last one leaning over a victim, telling them everything's going to be all right.
"In my years as a police officer, I have knelt with or sat on the ground with them and comforted them as they passed," he said. Faith is personal, but Hughes says Psalm 91 is the one he leans on.
Hughes was the first officer to find Terrance Miles after responding to shots fired on May 19, 2017, at 12:18 a.m. at Francis Street and East Washington Boulevard.
"I was right down the street and found him lying in the grass," Hughes said. "There was nothing I could do. He was shot to pieces. He wasn't talking. He wasn't really breathing. I watched the life leave his eyes. You can see the life leave somebody's eyes."
Miles, 36, a popular coach, "was a really good person who just happened to take the trash out at the wrong time," Hughes said.
Miles was an assistant football coach at North Side High School who also was an administrative assistant at Forest Park Elementary School.
"I know I talked to him, but I don't remember exactly what I said to him," Hughes said, but often he will tell victims "to start calling out for Jesus. I tell them to, if they can hear me. But they can't really hear me."