The Witches of Garland
How a mother and daughter hired a hit man to kill their husband and father, and why they might just get away with it.
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Perhaps you read a brief item in your newspaper recently about two women in the working-class Dallas suburb of Garland—Tammie Lafawne Lewis, 31, and her mother, Shirley Bilbrey Hughes, 56—who had been arrested for solicitation to commit capital murder. According to police, the duo had tried to hire someone to kill Kenneth Hughes, a balding, soft-in-the-middle dispatcher for a waste management company. He also happened to be the father of Tammie and the husband of Shirley.
An odd story, you no doubt thought. A man pursued both by a murderous wife and murderous daughter. It seemed sort of sick, and well—oh, come on now—just a little bit comical.
You have no idea.
If the police department’s story is true, then what took place among the Hughes family of Garland was nothing less than a Texanized version of one of those English upper-class drawing room farces: a portrait of blue-collar domesticity, set in a three-bedroom brick home, that somehow goes insanely askew. The story, strangely enough, also contains echoes of the great John Updike novel, The Witches of Eastwick, which features a group of middle-class, small-town New England housewives who begin to hang out by a bubbling cauldron, devising various nefarious schemes in hopes of rediscovering their own sense of power. Only in this case, Tammie and Shirley reportedly hatched their plot at one of Garland’s Mexican restaurants over cheap margaritas—which, if you think about it, are boiling cauldrons in their own sweet-tasting way.
By all accounts, Kenneth was a 57-year-old Ralph Kramden-ish kind of guy who spent his days talking into a radio, sending trash trucks from one place to another, and who then came home to sit in his big lounge chair so he could watch television. Shirley, his thin wife of thirty-three years, worked at a day care center, taking care of infants. Tammie, a single mother who had a ten-year-old son, had come back to live with her parents last year after her divorce. Blonde and not bad-looking (her police mug shots don’t do her justice), she worked nights part-time on the loading dock at a UPS delivery facility, watching muscular guys pick up packages and carry them into the trucks.
The Hughes family was, at best, middle class. As Kenneth told one television reporter, they rarely traveled anywhere because they didn’t have the money. But, he insisted, they had no pressing financial problems. Nor, he said, was there any significant family turmoil. Regarding his wife, whom he married in 1975 when she was twenty-three and he was twenty-four, Hughes generously said during an interview with the Dallas Morning News, “She’s the best-natured woman you’d ever see. She gets along with everybody. We very seldom ever argue.” Hughes did admit that he and his daughter had had a few disputes since she had moved in nine months earlier, but said none of them were significant. He said he had gotten onto her about picking up after herself around the house. He also said the two of them had had a few “aggravating” conversations about Tammie not contributing much to the household financially with her part-time job. But, he maintained in another interview, “Everything was just fine.”
Which was why, to put it mildly, Kenneth was just a wee bit surprised when the police knocked on his door on the morning of February 22 and had him accompany them to the police station, where they told him that his wife and daughter had tried to hire a burly, bearded man named Chris Willingham, a 40-year-old unemployed plumber and truck driver who lived in the adjoining suburb of Mesquite, to kill him. When Tammie met with the would-be hit man, she offered him $25,000 of the $200,000 that she said she and her mom would be getting from Kenneth’s life insurance policy. After thinking about it for a little while, Willingham went to the police, who asked him to meet Tammie again with an undercover officer. When Willingham introduced the man to Tammie as his partner, Tammie didn’t seem to be the slightest bit suspicious. According to the police, she repeated her offer, telling them that she and her mother were behind it, and she gave them a pistol as a down payment. She even offered to accompany them on the hit. Police said that when they then arrested Tammie and Shirley, they both quickly made videotaped confessions.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the biggest surprise for good ol’ Kenneth. The police said that they believed Kenneth’s beloved wife allegedly had tried to knock him off ten years earlier. Incredibly, they said, she had gone to the very same would-be hit man, the aforementioned Mr. Willingham, asking him to carry out the dirty deed.
If you want to witness a classic moment of journalistic video, watch reporter Rebecca Lopez of Dallas television station WFAA show up at Hughes’s front door the day his wife and daughter were arrested. “I’m really sorry,” she says, her voice not exactly full of funeral mourning, which is completely understandable considering that she’s the first reporter to land an interview with him. “You must be devastated. Would you like to step outside for a few seconds?”
Without the slightest hesitation, Hughes does step outside with his other (apparently non-vengeful) daughter Tonya and her husband, who live nearby, at his side. He’s wearing the kind of sunglasses where you can still see his eyes—he clearly doesn’t buy Ray-Bans—and he sticks his hands in his front pockets as he says to Lopez with a dazed look on his face, “Ma’am, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.”
Lopez states the obvious. “When you hear of murder for hire, it’s people who have a lot of money,” she says.
Hughes nods. “Like I told the detective, people who do this [get murdered by a hit man] do have money or have a business,” he says. “It’s worth your while to do it.” He then sticks his hands deeper in his pockets and stares at the ground, shaking his head.
So, if the police are correct, why did the baby-loving Shirley harbor such resentment toward her husband that she wanted him dead as far back as a decade ago? And what happened that made Tammie, who only had been back in the house for less than a year, want to kill him, too? Why did the two of them—women, by the way, who had no felony records—presumably turn into the Witches of Garland?
People who know the family were completely baffled when the news broke. One friend blogged, “I used to work with Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Lewis . . . I know Mrs. Hughes loved her husband VERY much . . . Mrs. Hughes watched my child and hundreds of more, and she loved them all and she would NEVER harm anyone.” Debbie Bilbrey, who is married to Shirley Hughes’s brother, told the Morning News about Shirley’s relationship to Kenneth: “She worshipped that man. She used to make me so mad because she’d fix his plate and carry it to him every night for supper. I kept telling her you’re spoiling him rotten.” She added, “When we heard about this (the murder arrest), I told my husband, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. She was framed or something.’ Because Shirley wouldn’t do that.”
As for Tammie, a neighbor described her and her sister this way: “They were wonderful, loving girls. I was crazy about them.” And another friend said, “I know Tammie went through some hard times after her divorce, but I didn’t think it would make her crazy or anything like that.”
In fact, one neighbor, a middle-aged woman, told me that Tammie and Shirley never showed any signs of what the neighbor described as “basic evil behavior.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she sighed and said, “You know, I just think that girl and her mom got irritated living the life they had to live, if you know what I mean.” For a few seconds, neither she nor I said a word. We looked around at the other little homes up and down the block. We could hear the sound of traffic on the interstate not far away.
“Maybe they just said, ‘We got to have something better, no matter what it takes,’” the neighbor said.
“You mean, they were sort of a Thelma and Louise,” I said.
When the neighbor gave me a look, I added, “Those women in the movie, who took off and left their husbands.”
“Yeah, well, that’s a little different than wanting to kill them or whatever,” the neighbor said.
She does have a point. Lots of women go to happy hour at Mexican restaurants to drink margaritas. During happy hour, they do spend much of their time talking about their unhappiness with men. They tend to say to one another that the world would be much better off if certain men just weren’t around. One of them might, after a couple of drinks, say something about wanting to stab her no-good husband in the heart with a butcher knife or wrapping Saran Wrap around his face and watching him choke to death. Yes, there is always a sense of feminine longing at happy hour for something better.
But had Shirley Hughes’s longing turned into something much darker years earlier? That, at least, is what Chris Willingham says. He told the Morning News that he had met the Hughes family in 1995 when Tammie was dating one of his friends. Although Willingham wasn’t exactly a hardened criminal—his only felony conviction was for driving while intoxicated—he came across as a tough, overall-wearing son of a gun who knew how to get things done.
According to Willingham’s version of events, Shirley came to him in 1999 with an unusual request. He said she asked him to “get rid” of her husband. “I blew it off as something people say,” Willingham said. “A day or two later, she called and said to forget it. ‘He’s probably going to die soon enough anyway.’”
In the online comments section to one of the newspaper’s stories about the Hughes family, one friend, who said that the Hugheses used to watch “our house and dog when we traveled,” did acknowledge that “Kenneth was very ill at one time and they didn’t think he was going to make it.”
But Kenneth did not die. Indeed, as a new century dawned, Kenneth’s heart was still ticking. And the fact that he was still alive, year after year after year, allegedly got under Shirley’s skin. At least that’s the cops’ theory. (Mind you, Shirley’s attorney Robbie McClung, who happens to be a very respected former Dallas prosecutor turned defense lawyer, says Willingham’s story is grade-A fabricated and that he has, in McClung’s judicious words, “his own personal interest in playing both sides.” )
Willingham said he put the conversation with Shirley out of his mind. He went back to his life looking honky-tonk tough, even if he couldn’t find a job as a plumber.
Then, on February 22 of this year, said Willingham, here comes Tammie with the same request about sending Kenneth to his grave. Willingham said he was absolutely stunned: apparently, Shirley had passed on to her daughter her dark longing for something better. Willingham said she kept asking her why she wanted him dead. “She said, ‘I hate him. I’ve always hated him,’” said Willingham. “She said, ‘We’ll take care of you.’ I said, ‘Who’s we?’ She said, ‘Me and Mom.’” Willingham said that Tammie then told him that “she was going to do it herself a couple of days before this, but her mom talked her out of it.”
Willingham said he could not fathom why the Hughes women saw him as the great All American hit man. “I’ve had a run of bad luck. I’ve lost my house, my car, my job,” Willingham said. “I think that’s why she wanted me to do this—because she knew I was down and out.”
One cannot help but wonder if the two women might have had some sort of infatuation with Willingham, who, compared to the slow-drawling, waste-dispatching Kenneth, was certainly all man. (If you haven’t already, go look at that photo of him in the Morning News standing beside his pit bull gnawing at an automobile tire hanging from the tree.)
Maybe Willingham wielded some sort of seductive power over them. For those of you who saw the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick, remember the character Daryl Van Horne (played by Jack Nicholson) who had a charismatic effect on middle-class housewives turned witches? Remember how he encouraged them to further their witch-like powers? Will Robbie McClung be claiming in court that Chris Willingham was indeed a redneck Daryl Van Horne?
After talking to Tammie, Willingham said he became convinced that Kenneth was going to be killed “with or without me,” and he felt he had no other choice but to contact police. He and the undercover officer met Tammie on February 22 at around 9 p.m. The three of them drove around for more than an hour discussing the killing while the conversation was being secretly videotaped and audiotaped.
You have to admire Willingham for doing the right thing, right? Well, kind of. Willingham asked the police if there was any reward money for betraying one of his friends and foiling the alleged murder plan. Uh, no, the cops said, there was no reward.
So, what did happen out there in Garland? Did Tammie get mad at her dad after he told her she needed to keep her room clean and work more hours at the loading dock in order to help out with the finances around the house? Did Tammie know about her mother’s alleged attempt to do away with Kenneth a decade earlier? Did Tammie go to her mom and suggest they try it again? Did Shirley go along with the idea because she still wasn’t happy in the marriage and she had gotten tired of having to serve her husband a hot dinner every night? Did they agree to split his $200,000 life insurance policy (minus the $25,000 that they would have to give Willingham), so they could live happily ever after? Is any of that possible?
Sorry, we’re going to have to wait for the trial to learn all the facts. But it does appear that Kenneth and his relatives are, for now, summarily dismissing all the claims made by the police and Willingham about Shirley having a long-time hankering to kill off her husband. They are pinning the blame squarely on Tammie. Tonya King, Tammie’s sister, said she believes Tammie came up with the idea and that her mother went along with the plot because she was “talked into doing it.”
And why did Tammie want her dad dead and buried? “She’s just hard up for money,” said Tonya.
Kenneth did admit that he went down to the jail to visit Shirley. (Wow, can you imagine that scene? Kenneth: “Hey, honey.” Shirley: “Hey. You don’t look so good. Are you eating okay?”) Significantly, he did say his wife and daughter might have been “aggravated at me and came up with this.” But then he qualified exactly what the murder plot was. “[Shirley] said that they had joked around, kidding around about something like this. But as far as setting it up or anything like that, no. My wife said she never thought our daughter would go through with it.”
Here’s what is most amazing. Kenneth clearly has forgiven his wife. After a magistrate’s hearing, he told the assembled press that if Shirley “got out today, she’d be welcome to move back in. If it hadn’t been for my daughter, none of this ever would have happened.”
One of the little known facts about solicitation of murder cases is that if the would-be victim gets on the witness stand and says all is forgiven, then the would-be killer tends to get a light sentence, if any sentence at all. Jurors nod and say, “Oh, well, it was just a misunderstanding. They’ll get over it.”
It’s my bet that’s exactly what is going to happen in this case. Kenneth will testify to the jury that he wants leniency for his wife—that he’s more than happy to give her a second chance—and she’ll walk out of the courthouse a free woman. Kenneth is such a nice guy that he might end up asking the jury to give his daughter a second chance too.
Soon, they’ll once again be one big happy family. And the would-be hit man, Chris Willingham, will be happy too. No, he didn’t make any money from his adventures. But as he told one reporter, “Maybe what I did will get me a few merits with the good Lord up above.”