A Violent Death, a Haunted Life
The killing of Mickey Hughes seemed like a simple case of murder to the police of Ingham County, Mich. On March 9, 1977, Francine Hughes poured gasoline around the bed where her former husband lay in a drunken stupor. Then she lit a match and sent him to the hereafter in a furious burst of flames. By the time fire fighters reached the blaze that engulfed the couple’s home, Francine had climbed into her blue Ford Granada, driven to the county jail and announced hysterically, “I did it!”
At her trial later that year, a jury of 10 women and two men heard how Mickey Hughes had battered his wife mercilessly for 14 years and had threatened her with death if she tried to leave him. Their surprising verdict—not guilty by reason of temporary insanity—transformed the mother of four into a figure of national notoriety. Feminist groups, arguing that at least one in 10 women nationwide suffer abuse at the hands of a husband or lover, lauded the decision as an affirmation of a woman’s right to self-defense against violence in the home. Bitter relatives of Mickey Hughes, meanwhile, charged that his wife had gotten away with murder.
The celebrated case later became grist for a well-received biography, The Burning Bed, by author Faith McNulty. Next week the story will be dramatized in a chilling TV production starring Farrah Fawcett as the much-battered but vindicated wife. For Farrah, the TV docudrama provides the most challenging role of her career (see p. 9). For Francine, now 37, it tells only half the story.
Now, seven years after her trial, Francine lives in a sparsely furnished three-bedroom tract house in Jackson, Mich. The home is neatly kept, and a certificate earned last January for completion of practical nurses training is displayed prominently in the living room. Francine’s voice is girlish and tentative, but her cold eyes betray a deep-seated distrust of strangers. “People still look at me like they are trying to figure me out,” she says defensively. “I don’t feel like I have to explain myself to anybody, and I don’t need pity or sympathy. I’m just an ordinary person.”
One of six children, she was born to a Michigan farmworker with a penchant for drinking, poker and abusing his wife. “My mother stayed because of the children,” says Francine, who left school and married Mickey Hughes, an aloof 18-year-old dropout. “I thought he was so sophisticated. He had his own car and most people I knew didn’t.”
Her own physical abuse began just weeks after the wedding. “I bought some new clothes and he ripped them off me. I don’t know whether I looked too pretty or what, but he didn’t want me to look that way,” Francine says. “I was shocked, because I had never been treated like that before. But what do you do when you are 16 years old and you had to beg your parents to let you get married? Of course he said, ‘I’m sorry. Forgive me, it will never happen again,’ and I believed him. But it did happen again, and by that time I was pregnant and felt like I had to make the best of it.”
And so she did, devoting herself to their first daughter, Christy. A second child, Jimmy, was born in 1966, and a third, Dana, in 1969. Meanwhile, Mickey drifted from job to job, doing construction work and day labor, but often squandered his meager earnings on drinking binges.
Left with no money for food or rent when she was pregnant with her fourth child, Nicole, Francine reached a point of desperation. On the advice of a local social worker, she filed a divorce decree and applied for welfare. But even after the divorce was granted in April 1971, Mickey refused to honor it. When Francine tried to keep him out of the house, he beat her. “Things were no different than before,” she said. “Mickey came and went as he pleased.”
Several weeks later Mickey had a near-fatal automobile accident which left him with multiple fractures and a head injury. After waking from a coma, the first person he asked for was ex-wife Francine. Stricken by feelings of guilt, she continued to visit Mickey during his 40-day hospital stay and eventually took him home to nurse him back to recovery. “I really felt trapped after his accident,” Francine recounts. “I don’t know why I felt so obligated to that man, but I did. Then the real hell began.”
Refusing to look for work, Mickey started drinking more heavily and beating Francine every few days. “Sometimes it would last for hours, or sometimes for just a few minutes and he would leave and go to the bar. Then he would come back and start again,” Francine says. “Sometimes a few days would go by, peaceful, but I would go to bed at night thinking that I might wake up being slugged.
“I learned that if I fought back, it only made him more angry,” Francine adds. “I thought, well, maybe I could kill myself. But then I thought, if I kill myself, who is going to take care of the kids? Nobody could love them like me. I would conjure up schemes about how I would sneak off to the airport with the kids and leave. But I would picture us sitting on a park bench with nowhere to go. Then I would get scared thinking about what he would do if he found me.”
On the day of his death, Mickey flew into a rage and started beating Fran-cine. “He was pulling my hair and he was hitting me with his fist,” Francine testified. Then Mickey made her burn her books from secretarial courses she was taking and threatened to take a sledgehammer to her car so that she wouldn’t be able to drive to school. He complained about dinner, dumping food and dishes on the kitchen floor and smearing garbage in Francine’s hair when she tried to clean up the mess. After ordering her to cook another meal, Mickey then insisted she have sex with him. As he lay sleeping, Francine took stock of her life. “I was thinking about all the things that had happened to me…all the times he had hurt me…how he had hurt the kids,” she said. “I stood still for a moment, hesitating, and a voice urged me on. It whispered, ‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’ ”
When Francine was acquitted of murder, an anonymous admirer sent her a dozen roses with an attached note that read: “To a battered rose which blooms again.” But despite regaining her freedom, Francine was soon paralyzed by a renewed fear. “While I was in jail, Mickey’s brothers sent me a card saying, ‘You are next,’ ” she says. The threat of retaliation made her leery of going out of the house alone, and one day, while grocery shopping, she panicked when her mother momentarily disappeared from sight. “I just had to tell myself, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” she remembers.
Her nine months in prison had also created a new set of family problems. “I thought I was going to have to stay in prison so I blocked off a lot of emotions toward my children,” she says. “It was really hard for me to get close to them again.” The situation was made even more difficult because all the children were traumatized by the grisly circumstances of their father’s death, even though none of them now professes sadness at his passing. “I spit on his grave,” says Christy, who was 12 at the time of the killing. “He was a rotten son-of-a-bitch.”
With an $11,000 advance for her help in the preparation of McNulty’s book, Francine made a down payment on a house in the Jackson suburbs. She worked briefly as a secretary in a real estate office before taking a job in a factory as a forklift operator. “Everybody wondered why I was working there,” Francine says. “They thought I was rich because of the book.” Two years later Francine was laid off; by that time, private demons were beginning to catch up with her. “I went a little crazy,” she admits. “I was partying almost every night trying to escape from something. I drank a lot and was taking speed. It was like I was trying to self-destruct. Then I woke up one day and said, ‘I’ve got to quit this or my family is going to fall apart.’ ”
Shortly afterward, Francine was swept off her feet by Robert Wilson, a sometime country musician, who just six months earlier was released on parole from the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson. He had served 10 years of a maximum 30-year sentence for armed robbery. Wilson, also known as Fuston R. Thomas, asked Francine to dance and then mounted the bandstand to serenade her. Recalls Wilson: “Francine had no more than left the bar when two or three people said, ‘Man, you don’t want to get involved with her. She killed her husband.’ I told them, ‘So what? There is probably something else to it because she is walking around free.’ ” Within two weeks Wilson moved in with Francine, and a month later he insisted they get married.
Wilson, who earned a degree in psychology in prison, quickly applied himself to disciplining Francine’s children. “The kids were in dire need of help,” he says. “They were used to doing whatever they wanted to do, and then all of sudden here comes this 6’5″ Taurus bull who says ‘no,’ and can back it up. At 15, Christy was running around and into smoking pot. Jimmy was a pale little 13-year-old who sat around all day in a house robe smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. I had to take a hold of him because he would knock Dana down or smack Nicole. I said, ‘Hey, I’m bigger, tougher and meaner than you. You can’t whip me.’ So I controlled him with fear.”
“He tried to straighten us up right away, and I guess Christy and I rebelled at him,” says Jimmy, now a shy 18-year-old who just completed basic training for the National Guard. “I haven’t liked him much since.” Christy, a sassy and provocative 19-year-old, adds, “He really just came into the picture too fast and gave us all a bad rap.”
At age 16, Christy moved out of the house after a series of angry confrontations with her stepfather and refused to accompany the family when they moved to Tennessee, Wilson’s home state. Some weeks later she called her mother from Florida, where she had travelled with a boyfriend and was working at a Taco Bell. “Mom blew a fuse, saying, ‘What are you doing down there?’ So she and my stepfather came to get me.” Christy stayed in Tennessee for a year, got a job at a chicken factory and lived apart from her family in a two-bedroom trailer. Then she moved back to Michigan, where she attended school sporadically and lived with various friends and relatives.
In Tennessee, meanwhile, Wilson and Francine bought a 15-acre plot of land in Shelbyville and began building a mammoth three-bedroom house in which Francine invested the $8,000 payment she received from the television rights for The Burning Bed. Wilson sold insurance and started a chain-link fence business, while Francine went to school and became a licensed practical nurse. She took a job in the surgery ward of a local hospital, but abruptly resigned in June of this year.
That same month, the Bedford County department of social services received an anonymous referral asking it to investigate allegations of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old child at the Wilson residence. The caseworkers who went to the home were greeted by two Doberman pinschers and could not get out of the car, so they left a note in the mailbox. Francine called an hour later and said she was taking the child to Jackson, Mich. “That was a pretty quick departure,” says Wesley Parker, the county director of social services. “Apparently they didn’t want us to investigate.”
“My sister Nicole told me my stepfather got her alone and tried to touch her in a personal way,” claims Christy. “My mom said it was like she knew my stepfather was doing it, but she didn’t want to accept it.” Asked point-blank whether Wilson made sexual advances toward her daughter, Francine gives a curt reply: “I don’t know. That’s what she said.”
Wilson, who stayed behind in Tennessee with Dana and Jimmy, vehemently denies abusing his stepdaughter sexually. “Francine knows I’m not guilty of any garbage like that,” he says. “Nicole simply wanted to separate herself from us so she could go to Michigan and run the streets freely with Christy.”
Rejoining Christy in Michigan, Francine found a job at a nursing home and took a long-term lease on a house not far from where she was raised as a child. She has been back to Tennessee once during the past three months, and Wilson has been to Michigan twice. On his last trip, he took Dana and Jimmy to see Francine. Dana, now 15, received a motorcycle recently from his stepfather for helping with a fence job, and wants to continue living with him in Tennessee. “Bob is the only father I’ve had,” he says. Jimmy, on the other hand, will stay in Michigan. “I came up here to get away from my stepfather,” he says.
During her husband’s brief weekend visit, Francine’s mood was mercurial, shifting from cheerfulness in his presence to stone-faced depression listening to whining complaints from her two teenage daughters. “I’m trying to help Francine keep her sanity,” says Wilson. “But those girls are about to push her over the edge.”
According to Wilson, Francine “had to beat the tar out of Nicole” a few weeks ago because she was misbehaving. Francine also got hysterical when she returned home one day and found her daughter Christy alone with her boyfriend. Furious, Francine struck Christy, blackening both of her eyes. “She started going off the wall,” says Christy. “She was telling me, ‘You’re crazy’ and ‘You need help,’ and I said, ‘Mom, you’ve got a lot of room to talk. I didn’t commit murder.’ ”
More than a week after the argument, Christy was still sporting slight bruises under her eyes. The fading shiners seemed frighteningly symbolic of other family wounds—wounds grown deeper, darker and more terrible with each passing year. “Mom said, ‘Someday you kids are going to be gone, and then what am I going to do?’ ” Christy says. “I looked at her and said, ‘With all due respect, ma’am, what are you going to do?’ ”