Accused murderer bound over to Grand Jury

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Murder charges against a woman arrested in connection with the death of her landlord were bound over to a Carter County Grand Jury at a preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon in Carter County General Sessions Court.
   Connie Ruth Hughes, 44, of 369 Garrison Hollow Rd., was originally charged with first degree murder, abuse of a corpse, filing a false report, possession of stolen property and the fraudulent use of a credit card. At the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hill amended the charge of fraudulent use of a credit card to two counts of forgery. The charges were then bound over as they stood by General Sessions Judge John Walton.
   Hughes was charged in connection with the disappearance and death of Roberta Woods. The body of Woods, who was 59 at the time of her disappearance in January of 2003, was discovered by Woods' son on Dec. 12, 2003, nearly 11 months to the day after she disappeared. The body was discovered underneath a water bed in the residence at 381 Bear Branch Rd., Roan Mountain, which Hughes had rented from Woods for a number of years.
   "She was wrapped in a carpet, two coats of plastic and duct tape," Henson said at the time the body was discovered. Investigators believe her body had been in the Roan Mountain residence since the time of her disappearance on Jan. 14, 2003.
   At Hughes' hearing on Wednesday, members of Woods' family testified as well as investigators and people who knew the two women.
   Roger Woods, one of Roberta Woods' sons, testified at the hearing about the search for his mother and some of the events that happened during the investigation into her disappearance. He said that, sometime shortly after his mother's disappearance, he was advised to document the contents of the residence she had rented to Hughes, because the residence had been rented as furnished, so that records could be kept for his mother's estate as to what property and items she owned.
   According to Roger Woods, he went to the residence on Bear Branch Road with a video camera to document his mother's possessions, and he said Hughes refused to let him go into the bedroom in the residence where his mother's body was later discovered. "She said, 'There ain't nothing in there but James' (Hughes' son) stuff. I've got it kind of set up like a shrine. There ain't nothing in there of your momma's; it's all James' stuff,'" he said.
   "And she stepped in front of the door and wouldn't let me in, and I wasn't going to force my way in." Hughes' son, James Davis, died of a gunshot wound in April 1998 when he was 18-years-old. His death was ruled a suicide.
   Investigators from the Carter County Sheriff's Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation testified at the hearing about their interviews with Hughes after Roberta Woods' disappearance and also about statements she made to investigators after the discovery of the woman's body in the residence she had rented from her.
   According to Special Agent Shannon Morton of the TBI, who was assigned as the TBI investigator on the case, Hughes had consistently denied any knowledge of Woods' disappearance. "Her story changed on the 12th of December, after the body of Roberta Woods was found," Morton said, adding that after the woman's body was found, Hughes told investigators that Woods had died of a gunshot wound.
   CCSD Lt. Randy Bowers, of the Criminal Investigations Division, testified that, after Woods' body was found, Hughes told investigators first that Woods had shot herself, and, then, in a subsequent interview, changed her story and said that a man named Richard Winters who had lived in the residence on Bear Branch Road with Hughes when Hughes first moved in, had shot Woods.
   Hughes' story about how Roberta Woods' body ended up under the bed inside the residence also changed, according to Bowers. At first Hughes said she placed the body underneath the bed, according to Bowers, and then she later said Winters had placed the body under the bed. She also had two stories about the murder weapon, according to the investigator.
   At first she told police that the gun had been underneath the bed with Roberta Woods' body, and then she said that Winters had the firearm, which she described as a handgun, according to Bowers.
   Under cross examination by Hughes' attorney, Stacy Street, Bowers said investigators considered the possibility of Winters as a suspect but said that Winters was seen at a dentist's office and then went to work at the Highway Department on the day and during the time Hughes said he killed Roberta Woods. Bowers also said that records at both locations show him as having been at those places.
   During closing arguments, Street said he did not feel that the state had met the burden of proof to justify a charge of first degree murder. "Though they may have met the burden of proof for a homicide, they have not met it for the premeditated and intentional killing of a first degree murder," Street said.
   Street also said that no cause of death was ever established for Roberta Woods. According to testimony by Morton, Woods' body was transported to the Quillen College of Medicine for an autopsy, and, after forensic pathologists there could not reach a conclusion or positively identify the body, Roberta Woods' remains were transported to the University of Tennessee's Department of Anthropology in Knoxville. Forensic pathologists there were able to positively identify the body, but due to the extreme decomposition of the body, also were unable to determine the cause of death.
   Hill rebutted that one of the reasons no cause of death could be determined was because of Hughes' actions. "We have no cause of death but that is due in part to Mrs. Hughes and her misleading of investigators for 10 or 11 months," Hill said.
   After hearing arguments from both the defense and the prosecution, Walton decided to bind the charges against Hughes over to the Grand Jury as they were presented, saying that he felt the state had met the burden of proof required of them.
   Hughes is scheduled to appear in Carter County Criminal Court on May 14. She is currently free on a $125,000 corporate bond which was set by Walton in January.