The Del Hughes story

Trying to understand a popular teacher’s fall from grace—and to forgive

Photo By Karen O’Neill

About the author: Jaime O’Neill writes frequently for the CN&R, as well as other publications. A semi-retired college English teacher, he lives in Paradise with his wife, Karen, who took the photos seen here.

Del Hughes doesn’t look like a man who’s been through hell. He’s a boyish 47 years old, married for 26 years, the father of five kids. If you were to see him without knowing the recent history attached to him, you might guess he makes his living as an accountant or an insurance broker.

His hair is closely cropped, and he smiles readily. Put him in a lineup of people accused of felonies and it would be a slow day on the dark side that you’d pick him out as likely to have done anything criminal. He’s mild-mannered in the extreme, a somewhat pudgy man with a kindly demeanor. He taught English at Paradise High School for a dozen years before he ran into the trouble that cost him a career he loved.

Here’s the scenario: After a series of burglaries at his school, a much-loved teacher gets caught on surveillance video fiddling with an office safe in the wee hours of the morning of Nov. 28, 2008. More than $5,000 is missing.

Under questioning, that teacher, Del Hughes, tells a couple of easily detected lies to police, denying that he’d been in that office, or that he even knew of the existence of a safe. The surveillance video alone would have been enough to convict a choir boy, and it probably didn’t help matters much that Hughes had pissed off a couple of his administrative superiors.

In an incident several months before the burglaries, Hughes had complained about the vice principal addressing him in a way he found offensive, unprofessional, inappropriate and sexist. That complaint seemed to harden the woman’s heart against him, and she was, Hughes said, the first to cast suspicion on him.

He’s charged, goes to jail, makes bail, awaits trial, and is finally convicted on one of the four counts brought against him.

How he endured it all—the ignominy, the stress, the disgrace—is a mystery to many. In the darkest moments of those long months, those close to him feared he might take his own life.

But there is hardly a student who doesn’t have a good word for him. Some sing his praises as a man who’d given them valuable lessons to take with them into their futures, or who’d showed them the attention they needed at a particularly crucial moment.

If what I’ve written sounds too sympathetic to a convicted felon, that may be because Hughes was a student of mine going on two decades ago, one of the few who took up residency in memory, a guy who had returned to community college in his 30s, looking for a new line of work, and a new way to think of himself. That late return to higher education made him earnest and enthusiastic, the kind of student teachers relish.

I ran into him once at Lowe’s, a year or two before his arrest. I hadn’t kept track of him, but I was gratified to learn that his return to school had culminated in a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential from Chico State, had brought him to a position as an English teacher who gushed over his love of the work he’d found.

So I was saddened to learn of the charges against him, and to follow his story as it unfolded over the ensuing years.

The French have a saying: “To understand all is to forgive all.” Perhaps one way to understand this story would be to tell it in second person, to put readers in Hughes’ place so they might experience, as far as imagination can allow, just what it feels like to go through what he has been through.

Suppose for a moment that the twists and turns on life’s pathway lead you to your early 30s. You’re a Navy vet with a passel of kids and a dead-end job. Let’s further suppose you decide that it’s time to go back to college to seek more interesting work and a better income. So you do that, going through the expense and hassle of enrolling in classes at the local community college, where, to your surprise, you discover a love of language and of literature. And a talent for it, too.

“Way leads on to way,” as the poet taught you, and in due time you are finishing up a bachelor’s degree and acquiring a teaching credential. You are intent on teaching, preferably in the town where you’d made your home, and where your kids went to school. Teaching jobs were notoriously scarce, however, and the odds were against you.

But patience and perseverance paid off. You were hired, and so you began teaching in that town on a ridge ascending toward the higher mountains, a mostly poor town in one of the state’s poorest counties, where unemployment was high and wages were generally low. Given the array of social problems created by weaknesses in the local economy, the name of that town—Paradise—carried an unintended and sometimes bitter irony.

The demographic is skewed toward the elderly, a population of retirees from elsewhere, but there’s a growing number of young parents attracted by cheaper rents and home prices available on that ridge. There’s also more than a little dysfunction, with meth labs and single-parent households and lots of people struggling to get by.

Some of that dysfunction turns up in your classes—the kids who seem troubled by troubles at home, the drug use that haunts the periphery of the campus, and the benighted attitudes some students exhibit toward other students who aren’t quite like themselves, and so are targeted for taunting and bullying.

With all its challenges, you love teaching, love the students, or most of them, anyway. Every day brings new problems—a surly kid, an angry parent, a boring and unproductive committee meeting that saps your energy, or a condescending tone from an administrator that temporarily saps your will. But there are rewards, too, those little glimmers of understanding you see on the faces of students who are reading for the first time a poem you discovered years ago, or an essay that once gave you a new way of seeing the world. There are student papers that provide reminders of what it felt like to be young, confused and vulnerable, papers that give you the incentive you need to keep on keepin’ on even as the mound of paper keeps on replenishing itself no matter how much time you devote to it.

You take on the extra work that comes with the job, all the extracurricular stuff expected of teachers in the hours after classes—the student clubs, the chaperoning of dances, the production work on the school yearbook, and dozens of other tasks large and small, work that seeps into your evenings and weekends. The reward you get for all that is the nearly unanimous love and respect of your students.

The people in town, however, don’t always seem to respect the work you do, and there is no end of complaint in the local papers about “overpaid” teachers who get summers off and have it pretty cushy, what with the union protecting the slothful and the incompetent. Every time the idea of a tax increase gets raised to provide for an increasing number of students and student needs, the aging population rebels, so it’s hard to maintain the sense that the work you do is valued by your community.

You and your colleagues supplement those hard-to-come-by tax revenues by taxing your own personal resourcefulness, raising money for special projects and field trips, making do with less, or paying for supplies out of your own pockets.

But, for all the headaches, the pay’s not bad, at least not in comparison to lots of other people who live and work in your town, including the parents of the kids you teach. Teacher pay may not have increased much over the years, but nearly everyone else’s has gone down, so teachers seem comparatively well off, especially with the benefits that are so often denied people in other lines of work.

As a consequence, there are those in town who constantly bitch about public employees, people who don’t think you’re worth the nearly $4,000 in pre-tax salary you earn each month.

Photo By Karen O’Neill

The stress is constant. Even with four of your five kids now out of the house, your average monthly living expenses exceed what you take home—housing, food, car payments, and the often unanticipated needs that come with being a middle-aged mortgage holder. In that particular misery you have lots of company, though you don’t always feel any sense of shared struggle because teaching is an oddly isolated endeavor, with every instructor waging a lonely battle to keep classroom order, maintain standards, deal with the record keeping, and devise lesson plans that will engage often desultory students.

Sometimes your work on the annual yearbook takes you back to the campus in the evening hours. You have a key, and a code that allows you to disable the security system, and you have access to a safe in one of the offices, a safe that is sometimes used to lock away money taken in on the sale of tickets for football games. It will be revealed in due time that lots of other people have keys, too, and that the security at your school has been haphazard for a long time.

None of that will explain how it was you came to be caught on videotape, after midnight, on a holiday weekend, illuminated by a cigarette lighter at the door to that safe.

Suppose that after all that struggle— to get a degree while your kids were still at home, to find a job, and to perform well at that job once you’ve found it—you come to yet another fork in the path on your journey, a temptation presented by that safe, and the money it holds, cash that could ease your burden, drive that damned wolf from your door. If you knew the money was there, and that you might be able to get away with taking it, would such a prospect tempt you? And if you were thus tempted, might you succumb to the temptation?

You’re middle-aged now. Time is slipping away, and the bonds of your life often seem constricting. The recent death of your father has given you a heightened sense of your own mortality, and the hours you spent comforting him provided a keen reminder of your own fleeting passage through this world.

And so it might come down to a night when you are caught on that surveillance video, looking furtive in front of that safe, then scurrying away.

Though the missing money would never be found, or traced to you, and though the video doesn’t show you actually opening the safe, or taking anything from it, it would still be difficult for anyone to imagine a more incriminating circumstance, especially when you find yourself being interrogated by the police, panicking, and then flat out lying that you even knew of a safe in that office.

When you are locked up, your greatest fear is that you’ll see someone you know. You’re taken to a four-man cell. The first voice you hear as the cell door slams behind you says your name in a tone of astonished surprise. “What are you doing here?”

It’s a pretty good question, especially coming from a former student. Your worst fear realized. A mortification. But the kid is happy to show you the ropes, to be your teacher in this situation, introducing you to others in the lockup, and making sure you have what you need.

And you meet another cellmate there, a guy who initially terrifies you, all tattooed and menacing, a walking stereotype. But he turns out to be the brother of a former student, a guy who tells you that your class was just about the only one his brother didn’t routinely cut. This cellmate, too, becomes your instructor in the ways of the county jail.

And you need teaching here. This world of courts and lawyers and jails is all foreign. Perhaps you haven’t watched enough crime dramas on TV, but when the jargon starts being bandied about, you don’t even know that O.R. stands for being released on your own recognizance, a request you are denied.

You’re assigned a public defender, a man who shows little apparent interest in defending you. Your calls to him are not returned, and a brief corridor conversation with him gives you little hope you’ll beat these charges.

Your wife of more than two decades thinks you should just plead guilty, even though she is a fierce believer in your innocence. The system encourages those who are accused to admit guilt, offering lighter sentences in exchange for simplifying the work of the prosecutor’s office, saving time and money on cases that seem like slam dunks for conviction.

So, reluctantly, you decide to plead guilty. But, on the day you’re to enter your plea, you swerve to miss hitting a deer in the road, an accident that lands you in the hospital, allowing time to reconsider your course of action. And so, when you’re sufficiently recovered from your injuries, you engage the services of a lawyer more interested in defending you than your assigned public defender seemed to be, and you enter a not-guilty plea on all counts.

The trial goes on for months, from Dec. 17, 2008, when the D.A.’s office files a felony complaint against you, until June 23, 2010, the day you are sentenced.

You are buoyed by the many acts of kindness and support, but dashed, too, by the mean-spiritedness of those who gloat over your downfall. Meanwhile, you worry about your kids, one of whom still attends the high school where you taught. Your wife is beside herself with worry, though she manages to maintain enough composure to keep her own job.

You, on the other hand, find your way to an almost inexplicable island of calm. After initial deep bouts of depression, you come to a kind of peace. Something happened in the moments you spent with your dying father that gave you a perspective on your troubles, making your ordeal manageable.

You will need that spiritual strength when you are, at long last, convicted of one count of burglary and sentenced to a year of public service in lieu of further jail time.

At your sentencing, the judge says it is a good thing you will never teach again. You are thought by the probation officer to be insufficiently remorseful. The principal of your school reads a victim’s statement that excoriates you.

And so you must find a way to live with your redefinition, from teacher to convicted felon. But you know the judge was wrong when he said you will never teach again. You are a teacher in everything you do. It is who you are. Cheerfully, you take up the work the court has assigned, serving the needs of the elderly at the local senior center, finding resources you didn’t know you had.

What will you do once your term of community service has been rendered? That remains to be seen.

Every year, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office reviews and/or prosecutes some 10,000 cases. Every case is a human drama. Every one of those stories feels like a tragedy to the family with a loved one in trouble.

They don’t call them “trials” for nothing, and spouses of those who are accused of crimes are surely among those “tried” when the people they love go on trial. Hughes’ wife, Lillian, was tried, and she proved true. Anyone planning to take a major fall in mid-life would be wise to line up a wife like her.

I asked her to speak with me after I’d interviewed her husband a couple of times. Somewhat reluctantly, she agreed to meet for coffee and talk about what she and her family had experienced. As we spoke, the lines of that old Tammy Wynette song kept recycling through my mind. Stand by your man.

Photo By Karen O’Neill

And she has, unwaveringly.

What kept you from being really angry with him? I asked her.

“I just know he didn’t take the money,” she told me. “If I thought he did, I surely would have been angry. But I know my husband. He’s just curious. That’s how he thinks; he wants to know how things work, and he would have wanted to check that safe. Throughout the trial, the prosecutor kept making it all sound sinister, Del being at the school so late on a weekend, as though the only reason for him being there was to steal that money, especially since it was a holiday weekend.”

She shakes her head in exasperation.

“But we’re not the kind of people who head to Aspen for a ski vacation over holiday weekends. Besides, Del was there just about every weekend. If there was work left to be done on that yearbook, Del was there, giving freely of his time because that yearbook just wasn’t going to get done on school hours.”

But her belief in her husband’s innocence hasn’t shielded her from the tumult of emotions that came with finding herself married to a man who, in some people’s eyes, had become a pariah. To say that it’s been hard on her, hard on the family, hard on finances, morale, and faith in her fellow man would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. And there are people whose names can still make her angry.

One of those people is PHS Principal Mike Lerch. Lillian Hughes still resents the fact that he seemed awfully eager to pass judgment on her husband. According to students present on the day Hughes was taken away for questioning, Lerch and a counselor spoke to his classes, assuring them that Mr. Hughes would no longer be teaching at Paradise High.

Some of those students found that to be a precipitous judgment. “What about innocent until proven guilty?” one of them asked. And another said, “Do you even think Mr. Hughes is a good teacher?”

“Well,” Principal Lerch answered, “he used to be.”

(Lerch declined a request for an interview, as did the vice principal with whom Hughes said he had “a weird relationship,” a woman he claimed “had it out” for him.)

Lillian Hughes is grateful for the support from lots of her fellow Paradise residents. She’s also grateful for the kindnesses shown by the people at McMains Bail Bonds, who not only got her husband out of jail, but also treated them both with sensitivity and decency. But she remains shaken by those people who posted anonymous comments on the websites of newspapers every time anything was reported about her husband’s case.

One man wrote: “The individuals teaching our children are liberals who don’t believe in taking responsibility. Here we have teachers who describe Hughes as ‘honest,’ yet he lied to the police and got into a school safe. It is very sad that the children have to be educated by these people.”

The town of Paradise surely isn’t paradisical, even after factoring in some of the grand vistas to be viewed from its canyon rims. And there isn’t an oversupply of angels who inhabit this earthly Paradise. Some exhibit a disturbing sense of schadenfreude toward other people that can be viciously mean-spirited.

“He was overdrawn 1000 dollars in his checking account,” an anonymous Paradise resident wrote. “Why? The man went out and rented furniture, had far too many children, gambled, went sneaking into a school on a holiday evening in the middle of the night, turned off the light and used a lighter to attempt to open a safe. Every time he is or was around money it disappeared … even his paycheck. His poor family and children have suffered and been put through that place way below us, because Mr. Hughes, a teacher, is one of the most irresponsible adults I have ever met.”

When he first applied for the job of teaching English at Paradise High, however, one of his Chico State professors wrote a letter of recommendation that included the line: “I’d move in order for my children to have a teacher like Del Hughes.” Students agreed with that assessment. On the “Rate My Teacher” website, comments from his students were like this one: “Mr. Hughes is really awesome and anyone who doesn’t like him surely doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Still, most people don’t think he should be in front of students anymore. The judge who pronounced his sentence didn’t think so, nor did District Attorney Mike Ramsey. Speaking from memory about the case, Ramsey said he thought the verdict was fair.

“Money was missing on two different occasions from football receipts,” Ramsey said. “Because money was missing previously, that led the Paradise police to set up a surveillance camera. We thought he [Hughes] took the money, and we still think so.

“According to everyone, he was a popular teacher. Well-liked. But, to everyone’s shocking dismay, he breached the trust they had in him. He was convicted because of the lies he told the police, the flicking of the Bic, the twisting of the dial on the safe, and his own rather confused statement that he just wanted to see if he could open the safe. His story of being at the school after midnight on Thanksgiving night just didn’t ring true. A jury that heard everything found beyond a reasonable doubt that his true intent was to go in there and steal.”

Should he be banished from teaching forever?

“That’s a collateral consequence here,” Ramsey said. “There are also consequences for those to whom he was a role model. It would send the wrong message if he got the proverbial slap on the wrist.”

After the last of our three interviews at a Paradise coffee shop, Hughes pulls out of the parking lot ahead of me. On his bumper there’s a sticker that reads: “Freedom isn’t free.” If there was ever a guy who knew the truth of that sentiment from a personal perspective, Hughes would be that guy. He’s free now, sort of, though that relative degree of freedom has cost him plenty, as did the legal fees and other associated costs of being accused and convicted of a felony.

He says he’s come to terms with everything that’s happened, that he’s accepted the verdict, which he thinks was fair, given the circumstances. Perhaps he’s in denial about all he’s lost, or maybe he’s simply doing what must be done to accept things as they are, not as he wished they were.

The piece I wanted to write about Hughes would have presented indisputable proof of his innocence, would have shown that he did not enter an office at Paradise High School with the intent to steal money, and that even the single felony count that came in against him was a miscarriage of justice.

I would have liked to clear his name with a brilliant exposition of his innocence because I like the guy, and because I teach English, too, and so I see the world through a literary prism. Through that prism, there were lots of ways to see his story.

Hughes is, or was, a teacher of rare gifts, so I’m inclined to see his story as a tragedy, albeit a relatively small one. It’s not King Lear, or Death of a Salesman, but it is a fall from the heights of good repute to the sewers of scorn directed Hughes’ way by some of his fellow citizens.

“It’s sad,” said Rick Silva, editor of the Paradise Post. I guess that’s as good a word as any to sum up this story.

Will he ever teach again? Not likely. Should he ever be allowed to teach again? That is a matter for debate. But so ends a brilliant career.