Edward Hughes enjoyed a reputation as one of the best software engineers in the United States. He established his reputation building high-end, complex computer systems for the Department of Defense in the 1980s and later left the government to form Ocean Systems, an elite software company with two friends. In the early computer boom of the late 1980s, the three men sold the company, staying on as executives. In 1987, the company was reshaped yet again and after the death of one of Hughes’s founding partners, the board of directors began a search for a new president. Hughes and Brian McCarthy were the two top candidates, and eventually McCarthy, whose background was sales and marketing, won out.
Upset that the board would chose a neophyte with little computer expertise over him, Hughes clashed with his new boss. McCarthy wanted the company to grow, while Hughes saw ASI, as the firm was now known, as an elite organization of designers who would produce only high-end applications.
The relationship soured and in 1992, Hughes resigned as vice-president and negotiated an independent contractor agreement where he would consult for the company at two-thirds his annual salary.
He was assigned a territory in Mexico, installing and maintaining software for ASI’s customers who had plants there. When he wasn’t South of the Border, Hughes lived in Rhode Island. Over time, he started to spend more and more time in Mexico, purchased a home there and planned to permanently relocate there.
Despite the arrangement he had with ASI, Hughes continued to chafe under McCarthy’s leadership of ASI. He frequently bad-mouthed the company, its president and its products, going so far as to criticize the software in front of clients.
By 1994, McCarthy had had enough. He convened a meeting of the board of directors and got the board’s approval to buy out the rest of Hughes’s contract. In January 1994, he planned to visit Mexico to meet with a customer there in San Luis Potosi; he made arrangements to meet a sales manager and told both the manager and the board that while in Mexico, he would terminate the company’s relationship with Hughes.
It was a fateful decision.
A week later, on February 6, 1994, McCarthy celebrated his daughter’s 10th birthday and late that night caught a flight from Detroit to Mexico City where Hughes would be waiting to take him to San Luis Potosi, a city about four hours north.
Prior to agreeing to meet McCarthy’s plane, Hughes made ill-advised and unusual arrangements to avoid having any other ASI employees accompany the two men on the drive through isolated and dangerous Mexican territory.
According to company officials and those who knew him, Hughes hated to drive, but prior to McCarthy’s trip refused suggestions from ASI sales rep Martin Marquez not to make the trip at night because of the threat of kidnappers or bandits. Marquez also volunteered to drive with the two men.
Hughes, who had rented a car in Laredo, Texas, declined the advice of Marquez, saying he needed to talk to McCarthy alone.
McCarthy arrived in Mexico City on February 6, 1994 at about 10:30 p.m. local time and he and Hughes started out toward Queretaro, a city about halfway between Mexico City and San Luis Potosi.
McCarthy was never seen alive again.
The next day, Hughes boarded a flight leaving Mexico City at 5:15 p.m. and headed non-stop to New York City. He arrived there at 11 p.m.
The next morning, February 8, while still in New York, Hughes placed a call to the controller of ASI announcing that McCarthy had been kidnapped February 6 by bandits between the airport and San Luis Potosi when they stopped by the side of the road to relieve themselves.
Three men, Hughes said, attacked them, took McCarthy with them and then drove him back to Mexico City, returned his passport and visa, and put him on a flight to New York to collect a $325,000 (one million peso) ransom.
According to Hughes, when he left Mexico, he was told that McCarthy was still alive.
Hughes’s limp excuse for waiting more than 12 hours to report the kidnapping to ASI was that he didn’t have a phone card (a billing method used by long distance providers prior to cell phones).
ASI, which at that time did high-tech work around the globe, covered its executives with kidnapping insurance, contacted its insurer, who immediately hired the Ackerman Group, whose principal, Emanuel Ackerman, helped the company formulate a plan to meet the kidnappers’ demands and rescue McCarthy.
Unbeknownst to anyone in the United States, Mexican authorities had already discovered McCarthy’s bullet-riddled body half-buried in a shallow grave outside Queretaro. They had not yet identified the body, however.
With Ackerman’s advice, the ASI leadership decided that Hughes and another ASI employee should return to Mexico where the company would wire both of them the money. Hughes would then meet with the kidnappers to make the payment.
Hughes objected to the plan and proposed that the money, in cash, should be given to him and that he would then return to Mexico to complete the exchange.
He refused to say where the exchange would occur, saying only that he had been told to contact the kidnappers “in a public place.”
In the end, the company decided against Hughes’s plan and opted to follow Ackerman’s advice. One of the primary reasons for doing so was because customs laws prohibit Americans from carrying such large sums of cash across international borders.
Upset with the decision, Hughes left the company property, and headed back to his home where he said he wanted to shower and change clothes. While he was there, he called ASI and said he had no intention of returning to Mexico.
The company persuaded him to reconsider and he later agreed to carry out the Ackerman plan.
Mexican authorities, however, had not been sitting still with their find. Los Federales had traced a bloody parking ticket found in McCarthy’s pocket to his company car at Detroit’s Metro airport and from there identified his body.
When Hughes met the other ASI employee at T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., he was informed that McCarthy’s remains had been found.
He became visibly ill and refused to travel. The next day, he contacted ASI and resigned from the company.
Despite Hughes’s odd behavior, authorities still were operating from the perspective that McCarthy had been kidnapped.
The plot unraveled rather quickly, however, when statements by Hughes failed to be borne out by the facts.
First, he stated that McCarthy was taken because he was wearing a business suit. However, when he left Detroit and when he was found, he was wearing the same clothes: a casual shirt, jeans and boots.
Second, Hughes said McCarthy had to stop along the way because of an intestinal complaint. His wife told authorities he was quite healthy when he left the United States, the flight crew said no one indicated they were ill on the flight to Mexico City and the autopsy revealed no signs of intestinal problems.
In late 1994, Hughes was tried for murder in Mexico, but acquitted. Unlike the United States, Mexican prosecutors can appeal such verdicts and shortly afterward, an appeals court found him guilty and sentenced him to 17 years in prison.
By that time, however, Hughes had been indicted for attempted extortion. After a 10-day trial, he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. After he serves his sentence in the United States, Hughes will be returned to Mexico, which considers him a fugitive. Because of his fugitive status, he will not get credit for the time served in an American prison.