Hit and run

What kind of man would run over me and my dog and leave us both for dead? I decided to find out.

click to enlarge This selfie was taken July 31, 2021, two weeks before we were hit. It’s one of my last pictures of Rosie. - COURTESY DUSTY RHODES
Courtesy Dusty Rhodes
This selfie was taken July 31, 2021, two weeks before we were hit. It’s one of my last pictures of Rosie.

For April Poole and Paula Harris, Aug. 13 felt like any other Friday night. They attended Brothers & Sisters, a group of friends who gather for dinner each week at a different restaurant, and on this particular Friday, they dined somewhere on the west side. It was close to 9 when they headed home.

As Poole turned north on MacArthur Boulevard, she noticed a few cars weaving impatiently through the heavy traffic. One of those impatient drivers, in a light-colored SUV, was behind her as she crossed South Grand. Poole was in the left lane, and as they neared Washington Park, the SUV swung into the right lane, cut back in front of Poole and accelerated. "I'm looking to see if there's another car coming," she says, "because on Friday nights, I've seen it before where kids are chasing each other."

As the SUV sped ahead, she realized the driver was turning left on Fayette Street. "I wasn't sure he was really going to make it on four wheels," she says. "That's how fast he appeared to be going, to me."

With her window down, Poole heard a "chonk" – the heavy thud of the speeding vehicle crashing against "something soft" with a slightly metallic overtone.

"I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, he's hit a kid on a bike.' Because what I see come up in the air is reflections off of ... something," she says. "I couldn't even tell what he had hit."

What the SUV had hit was my dog Rosie and me. The flashes, Poole guesses, might have been my glasses, the necklace I was wearing and Rosie's reflective leash.

click to enlarge Blood spatter marks the spot where the SUV slowed, and Rosie dropped out of the wheel well. The stop sign visible in the distance is the intersection where we were hit. - COURTESY DUSTY RHODES
Courtesy Dusty Rhodes
Blood spatter marks the spot where the SUV slowed, and Rosie dropped out of the wheel well. The stop sign visible in the distance is the intersection where we were hit.

Poole followed the SUV and saw me lying in the gravel on the north side of Fayette. She parked close enough to shield me from other cars, stifling her urge to "just keep driving" in pursuit of that SUV. She watched it slow down about a block away, almost to a stop, before taking off again.

While Poole flagged down another motorist and told them to chase the SUV, Harris stood over me and dialed 911. "I had two fingers on your right shoulder, trying to get you to lay still, because you kept wiggling around, asking about your dog," she later told me. I remember asking – not very politely – for Harris to move those two fingers off my arm, which was suddenly painfully utterly nonfunctional. We later learned my humerus had been ripped off its fractured humeral head. "When I saw the pictures, I said to April: no wonder she told me to move my hand," Harris says.

After I was loaded into the ambulance, the EMTs informed me that Rosie had been killed. Strapped to a trauma board, all I could do was lie there and let the tears wash down my face.

***

Rosie had been my best friend for almost five years. She came to me through Epic Rescue – essentially a few women crazy in the best way – who picked up a pack of dogs that were wandering the streets of Tulsa. Epic founder Liz Luper remembers Rosie as the dog that could consume an entire rotisserie chicken without setting off the live trap. She also recalls that Rosie smelled "like a dumpster fire." Jill Egizii, who volunteers with WILD Canine Rescue, which collaborated with Epic, told me she personally picked more than 100 ticks off Rosie. Her body had scars, her ears had fly strikes, but she was a beautiful specimen of a bonemouth SharPei.

click to enlarge I spent six hours in the emergency room, and had surgery a week later. - COURTESY DUSTY RHODES
Courtesy Dusty Rhodes
I spent six hours in the emergency room, and had surgery a week later.

One Saturday morning, while we were out for a stroll, Rosie was attacked by a pitbull that jumped out of its fence and silently snuck up behind us. We three rolled around in the street, covered in dog piss and saliva, me hanging onto Rosie's leash and screaming till the pit's owner came out and grabbed his dog. Rosie suffered several puncture wounds, and we both sustained a deep wariness of other dogs. This terrifying encounter happened just a few months after I got Rosie. From then on, we tended to take walks early in the morning and after dark, when most other dogs were home in bed.

Family pets are family, and that was especially true of Rosie's relationship with my son Evan. On school days, if he slept through his alarm, I'd send Rosie into his room to sniff his toes and lick his face, so he would wake up laughing. When he had panic attacks, she calmed him down. When he ruptured his Achilles, she would lean her whole body against his orthopedic boot like she was trying to give his leg a hug.

On a few occasions, when I wasn't home, Rosie escaped. Each time, her first stop was the Washington Park duck pond. But one terrible summer, when I was spending up to 16 hours a day at the Capitol covering budget shenanigans, Rosie went missing for nearly two weeks. The angels at Sangamon County Lost & Found Pets plastered her picture on telephone poles all over town, and by the time she was found, Rosie had become a local celebrity.

click to enlarge Dr. David Tapscott reassembled my shoulder, and told me I’m facing a “multi-year” journey to full recovery. - COURTESY DUSTY RHODES
Courtesy Dusty Rhodes
Dr. David Tapscott reassembled my shoulder, and told me I’m facing a “multi-year” journey to full recovery.

But at the moment she died, Rosie wasn't heading for the duck pond. This time, she was headed home. Judging from the skid marks and blood spatter we found along Fayette the next morning, Rosie had apparently gotten jammed up in the wheel well of that light-colored SUV. The momentary stop April Poole saw when the SUV driver slowed down was where Rosie dropped to the ground. My precious somehow made it about half a block east toward home – I cannot imagine and don't want to know what kind of shape she must've been in – before she laid down in the grass and died.

In the eight months since that night, I've found solace in two facts: First, that Rosie didn't die alone. Several people were there to comfort her, and a passing motorist even stopped and donated her own dog's blanket to Rosie. The second may be more important. That's the knowledge that with her death, Rosie would help take an armed habitual criminal off the streets of Springfield.

***

We knew who hit Rosie and me a few days after it happened. A high-quality security system caught the crash on video, and I shared that footage on social media. Car buffs instantly identified the SUV as a Porsche Cayenne circa 2010 to 2014 (it was a 2012). No license plate was visible, but the extra-dark tint on the windows set it apart. Some people in my DMs provided information on businesses that distinctive Porsche frequented; one or more mentioned the driver by name. I asked all messengers to call Crimestoppers, and told them WILD had put up a $1,000 reward on Rosie's behalf. By Tuesday morning, when Springfield Police officers came to my house, we realized we had been hearing the same name.

Detective Dan Weiss sounded appropriately skeptical. "Just because somebody's got a vehicle that matches the video doesn't mean that's who did it," he said. Immediately, I liked his style. Weiss wasn't trying to solve this case fast; he was trying to solve it right. And even though all tips pointed to one man – Dexter Darnell Hughes – Weiss wasn't going to jump to any conclusions.

It would be almost too easy to believe it was Hughes. As one tipster told me: "He was already on parole for a hit-and-run. That's what he does. Because he almost always has drugs on him, so he can't stop."

Weiss wouldn't tell me much about Hughes except that he was well-known to SPD, typically refused to stop when they would try to pull him over, was usually armed, and should be considered dangerous. "He has a very extensive criminal history, and a lot of the crimes he's been involved in are very serious crimes," Weiss said.

click to enlarge My brain erased the moment of impact, so I have no memory of the crash other than the video captured by a nearby high-quality security camera. This footage was crucial to identifying the vehicle.
My brain erased the moment of impact, so I have no memory of the crash other than the video captured by a nearby high-quality security camera. This footage was crucial to identifying the vehicle.

But as an old reporter, I couldn't resist the urge to dig into Dexter Hughes' history myself. With the help of a former colleague, I acquired enough court records and police reports to recognize that – for a guy who's only 28 years old – Hughes is a fairly prodigious small-town outlaw. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, and unlawful use of a weapon – all before he turned 18. As an adult, his charges include more of the same, plus DUIs, resisting arrest, and weapons violations. He has pleaded guilty to felony manufacture/delivery of a controlled substance (crack cocaine).

He has so many incidents of reckless driving that I feel offended when anyone refers to our traumatic encounter as an "accident." I'm not saying he intentionally ran over Rosie and me, but driving recklessly was standard operating procedure for Hughes, and he didn't seem to care if he happened to hit inanimate objects or living creatures.

The tipster who told me Hughes had committed a previous hit-and-run was right. In 2016, Hughes blew through a stop sign and collided with two vehicles, injuring five people. He had been fleeing police at the time. He pled guilty and was ordered to pay nearly $25,000 in restitution to one of his victims, but never did. He was sentenced to three years in prison to run consecutively with a subsequent four-year sentence for a drug conviction (both at 50 percent), and had recently gotten off parole when he hit us.

Our FOIA requests included not only charges but also incident reports that mention Hughes. Most of the documents were heavily redacted, making it tricky to determine exactly which part he played in each incident. Still, it was clear he's no stranger to violence. He is listed as either a witness or "person with knowledge" in three homicides, at least two of which are ongoing investigations. Several incidents are drive-by shootings that left up to a dozen bullet holes in someone's residence or car. In a couple of incidents, Hughes is the victim.

One, in 2015, looks like a close call. Hughes and a young woman were parked in the driveway of a home in Grandview when three men in a tan sedan drove by and shot at their car. I found two versions of this incident – one in reports written by Sangamon County Sheriff's deputies and another on a social media account that purports to document gang activity in Springfield (on social media, Hughes is known as "Dolla Boy," "Dolla Dex," or "Dolla Boy Dex"). The SCSO version tallies 10 to 12 shots; the gang version says the shooters fired 24 rounds. Whatever it was, they all missed "Dolla."

What I notice about the SCSO report is that the woman who was with Hughes (described in the gang report as "his girl") was hit in the hip and the elbow and was found lying on a nearby front porch, bleeding. The resident who found her told SCSO that Hughes was walking around in the street, yelling into his phone, and "never once came on the porch" to check on the young woman.

What jumps out at me in the gang report is that it describes Hughes as a "hothead" and credits him with having "a big part in starting the New War" between the gang he belongs to and a rival group.

I would occasionally mention my research to Detective Weiss, and at one point I told him that the more I found out, the more I felt lucky that Hughes didn't put his Porsche in R, back up and finish me. Weiss responded: "You are."

***

click to enlarge Dexter Hughes shows off his $20,000 diamond grill on social media.
Dexter Hughes shows off his $20,000 diamond grill on social media.

Hughes' violent reputation made this case harder to solve. People who know him are legitimately and understandably reluctant to rat him out. But Weiss had other ways of investigating.

He started by canvassing the area, collecting as much video as he could. He got an unexpected assist when he encountered a Secretary of State Police officer cruising the same area looking for the SUV. The SOS officer was able to add the Porsche's registration to the statewide License Plate Reader alert system, which turned up Hughes making frequent stops on North MacArthur and led to a witness who placed him there on the night of Aug. 13. Using other security cam video and some fancy geo-location technology, Weiss was able to see that Hughes was driving the Porsche, alone, in the relevant area at the relevant time.

The big break came in November, when Hughes was spotted driving a new Dodge Challenger – bearing the license plates from the Porsche. When SPD officers tried to pull him over, he fled. So they assigned a detail to watch for Hughes at one of his regular locations and, a few days later, spotted him again. Hughes again fled, collided with a squad car, and stopped only when he got the Challenger hung up on some railroad ties that were part of the landscaping in the front yard he was driving across. Even then, Hughes was revving his engine, trying to rock the car off the obstacle. SPD officers extricated Hughes through the car window. Weiss credits Officer Colton Redding and his Street Crimes Unit for this crucial arrest.

According to SPD's press release, a search of Hughes' car turned up 19 grams of crack cocaine, a digital scale and more than $1,100 in currency. A subsequent search of Hughes' residence yielded another 204 grams of crack, more than $3,600 in cash, and two 9mm pistols, one of which was loaded. But that's not all SPD found in Hughes' apartment. Weiss found documents showing that Hughes had obtained the Dodge Challenger at a St. Louis dealership by trading in the Porsche Cayenne, after having it repaired at an auto body shop in Missouri.

Going out of state for a car repair was out of character for Hughes. He had a close relationship with a shop in Springfield that always handled mechanical and body work on his vehicles. Hughes even has his own auto dealership, V-8 Motors, at least on paper. Why would he have gone to St. Louis?

The morning after that arrest, Weiss went to the jail to meet with Hughes. "I went over there for the sole purpose of talking to him about the hit-and-run case. I told him I wanted to talk to him about the case with the lady and her dog," Weiss says. "I read him his Miranda rights, and he didn't wanna talk to me. He wanted an attorney. So OK, I just told him we knew about the Porsche in St. Louis, and we were getting ready to go down there right now."

Later that day, in a jail phone call he knew was being taped, Hughes told his girlfriend, "They know about the Lou."

In St. Louis, the body shop manager told Weiss they had repaired the Porsche's front bumper, a dent in the hood on the driver's side and scratches on the front passenger door, then repainted the entire vehicle. Although Hughes had insurance on the Porsche, he paid $4,000 for these repairs in cash.

At the car dealership, Weiss got the Porsche put up on a lift so he could see if the wheel wells had any traces of Rosie, like dog hair or dried blood. They didn't. But on the front passenger side, the wheel well had distinct stripes, as though someone had held a pressure-washer extra close to the surface.

It wasn't the slam-dunk evidence Weiss was hoping to find, but it added to a mosaic that had created a pretty clear picture of the crime.

"In a nutshell, this was not an easy case starting off. We had very limited information," Weiss says. "It's puzzle pieces we've been able to put together."

****

I've also been trying to put puzzle pieces together, trying to get a clearer picture of who "Dolla Dex" is. I was hoping to find some humanity in the man who left Rosie and me for dead.

After his arrest in November, I went to court and sat in the front row so I could get a good look at him on the TV screen. You know that face that basketball players make when the ref calls a foul and they try to look like "What? I didn't even touch that guy!"? That's the face Hughes made when he heard the charges against him, like it was crazy to say he collided with a squad car or had dope in his vehicle or a loaded gun in his apartment. The judge set his bond at $500,000, with the stipulation that anyone bailing him out would have to prove their money had been legitimately acquired. He's been sitting in jail ever since.

In a recent bond reduction hearing, a public defender told the judge that Hughes had "sold his home to buy his freedom" and that if released, he would return to work at the barber shop where he had been employed for six years. But the barber shop he named doesn't appear to exist, and when Detective Weiss checked property records after the hearing, it turned out Hughes had not "sold" a "home" but rather quit-claimed a small rental valued at $11,600 to a relative for one dollar.

When I scroll through his social media accounts, I can see that Hughes has friends and family members who love him and would do anything in the world to defend him. I can see that he has an adorable little daughter, and I can see that he is still mourning associates lost to gun violence.

When I run his dad's name through the Sangamon County Court database, I get a sad litany of fairly petty crimes, 10 pages long, that make me wonder if Hughes ever had a fair shot at life.

But then there's this: A few weeks after our crash, Hughes treated himself to an iced-out grill – genuine diamonds permanently affixed to all his teeth. According to his posts, the grill cost $20,000. I'm thinking that amount would've almost covered the restitution he owes his 2016 hit-and-run victim.

I'm not looking for restitution. No amount of money can restore full mobility to my reassembled shoulder, or pay for the persistent ache of having an oversized plate in my arm. What's the going rate for the scar from my right eye down my cheek, that friends assure me just "looks like you slept on a wrinkled pillowcase"? What would compensate my son for the loss of our beloved Rosie?

I'm not looking for revenge; I'm not even expecting remorse. At this point, I am just grateful that Dexter Hughes may be held responsible. On April 19, a little more than eight months after the crash, he was arraigned and charged with all the spaghetti the prosecutor could throw at the wall – eight counts ranging from driving while license is revoked or suspended all the way up to aggravated battery. Two of those counts are for leaving the scene of an accident; two are specifically related to killing Rosie. This time, as the judge read the charges, Hughes just nodded, said "Yes sir," and "Thank you," to the court.

Maybe he was relieved to finally get it over with, having known since Weiss's visit to the jail in November that this day would eventually come. Or maybe he was calculating how these new charges could work to his advantage in any potential plea deal on his dope case. After all, thanks to our justice system's tradition of targeting drug dealers above everything else, Hughes is facing a sentence of up to 80 years for the crack cocaine, 30 for the guns, and a max of only 14 years for running over Rosie and me. The drugs and weapons penalties are "enhanced" due to his previous convictions on similar charges. There is no enhancement for repeated hit-and-runs.

Springfield being Springfield, it turns out that Dexter Hughes and I have a mutual friend, someone who has known him and his family forever. Last night, I asked her to tell me something good about Dexter. Instead, we had a long conversation about why my question was so hard. She remembers him as "the cutest little thing" with braids and a great smile, who, in his teenage years, took a sharp turn.

"There's a little kid in there that was OK at one time," she says. "I don't know what happened to him."

Dusty Rhodes is a former staff writer at Illinois Times and a former reporter for NPRIllinois. Rachel Otwell contributed to this report.

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