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