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No Second Chance

A 4-year-old full of love and kisses dies in a puzzling car crash. What remains are memories, a custody battle and many regrets.

By JIM ROSS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

Map: Tragic timeline
The old red Pontiac flashed by, heading in the opposite direction. Brooksville police Officer Chad Walker figured it was the same car he had stopped before and wheeled around to check it again.

What was it doing back on the road, Walker wondered. Four hours earlier, he had ordered the driver, William "Billy" Hughes, to park it and take a cab home along with his passenger, a 4-year-old boy.

Now it was between 4 and 4:30 Sunday morning and the 1990 Sunbird stood out on an otherwise deserted Jefferson Street, which runs through the heart of town. Walker couldn't tell whether Hughes was driving, or if he still had the boy with him. The officer would have to catch up to find out.

But the car dashed north on U.S. 41 and disappeared. Walker didn't chase.

A short while later, for reasons still unknown, the car drifted off U.S. 41 near Floral City. It hit a concrete culvert, went airborne, struck a parked vehicle, overturned, hit a tree, and finally came to rest on its roof.

Hughes, 31, died immediately. So did the boy, Nicholas Osborne, who was the son of Hughes' fiancee. Nicholas was just five days shy of his fifth birthday.

Three weeks later, relatives and authorities have assembled a timeline that explains the strange sequence of events that preceded the fatal wreck.

The tragedy has fueled an already bitter battle between the boy's mother and father. And it might figure prominently in a courtroom later this year, when a judge decides which parent will get custody of the other child they had together: Brittany, age 6.

Nicholas' mother, Natisha "Tish" Pierson, 22, said anger meant for her fiance is being directed toward her.

"I feel like I'm the one who's being blamed for everything," she said.

She should feel bad, the boy's father said. She's at fault.

"Oh yeah, without a doubt," said Jason Osborne, 26. "She put my son in the car with him."

'He would wake me up with a kiss'

His family called the boy Nick, sometimes Bubba. He sported a mullet-style haircut when he was younger, but his blond locks were cropped close by the time he sat for his picture at Westside Elementary School in Spring Hill, where he attended prekindergarten.

He loved pizza and McDonald's chicken nuggets and ice cream, especially chocolate. Nicholas was a master playing Super Mario on Super Nintendo.

"He would wake me up with a kiss," his mother recalled. Then he would tell her, over and over, how much he loved her.

He was "very, very lovable," Miss Pierson said.

She met Osborne when she was still in middle school. Miss Pierson was 15 when Brittany was born, 17 when Nicholas came.

The couple planned to marry some day, but the relationship soured and Osborne moved out in February 1999, court records showed. He works in construction; she is a pest control technician.

Earlier this year, Circuit Judge Curtis Neal granted the father temporary custody. He allowed the mother liberal visitation rights and required her to pay $315 per month in child support. A full custody hearing is scheduled in November.

About 10:30 p.m. Aug. 3, Miss Pierson and her fiance picked up the children at their father's house in Spring Hill. They were getting a late start on a weekend visit.

In hindsight, Osborne wishes he had never opened the door.

Just a short drive

"I saw him swaying," Osborne said.

"He" was Hughes, a commercial painter by trade. Osborne said he believed Hughes was drunk or on drugs. He couldn't even stand straight, Osborne said.

Miss Pierson said her fiance took Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, but said he had a prescription and took the medicine responsibly. She denies he was impaired that night.

Osborne said he allowed the children to leave his home, despite the late hour and his misgivings about Hughes, because he didn't want to disappoint them.

"The kids were waiting all day," he recalled. Besides, their mother's house was just a few minutes away.

Miss Pierson said she and her fiance had purchased engagement rings earlier that day at a Brooksville discount store. Somehow, she had lost an envelope containing $50 she owed Osborne for child support.

After they arrived home with the children, Miss Pierson sent Hughes to the Wal-Mart on State Road 50 to buy stereo speaker wires. She also asked him to search parking lots of the stores they had visited that day in hopes he might find the money-stuffed envelope.

"It was just like a spur of the moment thing," she said.

Nicholas went along, she said, because the boy enjoyed being with Hughes and because they hoped the ride might soothe the boy and put him to sleep.

"I would have never let my son in the car if he (Hughes) had been impaired in any way," Miss Pierson said.

Hughes and the boy set off between 11 and 11:30 p.m. By 12:30 a.m., they had made their way to downtown Brooksville.

A cab ride cut short

Walker, the Brooksville patrolman, found Hughes driving the wrong way on Jefferson, which is a one-way street through downtown. He stopped the car at Jefferson and Alabama Avenue, a court record showed.

A routine records check showed Hughes' license had been suspended for failure to pay a traffic fine.

Walker wrote the ticket for the license violation. Hughes said he didn't know about the suspension; in cases like that, the officer issues a citation instead of arresting the driver, according to Brooksville police Lt. Rick Shew.

Hughes wasn't allowed to drive without a license. So police called Steve Conrad's Taxi service.

"He (the officer) stayed there until the cab arrived and watched him get in the cab," Shew said. The officer detected no sign that Hughes was intoxicated or that the child was in danger.

"I wish the cop would have called me," Miss Pierson said. "I could have come and picked him up."

The cab was supposed to take Hughes and the boy home. But the ride lasted only a few miles -- to a Hess station on State Road 50 west of Brooksville.

"The guy got belligerent and he had a kid with him and he didn't want a ride anywhere," Conrad said. He got his information from the driver who handled the fare; that driver declined to comment to the Times.

What happened after Hughes and the boy left the cab is unclear. But somehow, Hughes and Nicholas made their way back to the car and drove off.

The officer saw the Pontiac again between 4 and 4:30 a.m. at Jefferson and Early Street.

But "by the time he (Walker) got up to the intersection, he just kind of disappeared," Shew said. "That's the last we saw of him."

Why would Hughes get back behind the wheel?

"He probably didn't want anything to happen to my car. That's the only thing I can think of," Miss Pierson said.

Why would he head north toward Floral City instead of west toward Spring Hill and home?

"I don't understand that. It wouldn't make sense," Miss Pierson said.

She said her fiance was unfamiliar with Brooksville. He had moved to Hernando County only recently and had spent most of his time in west Hernando. He might have been trying to find a friend -- she doesn't remember his name -- who lives downtown.

Miss Pierson said she and Hughes were attacked in Brooksville about two months ago. Two men stole her purse and later used an ATM card they found inside to drain $700 from her grandmother's bank account.

Miss Pierson has heard people speculate her fiance was out looking for drugs. She looks forward to the Medical Examiner's Office finishing the toxicology report.

"They're going to be proven wrong," she said of the speculators.

Grief turns to fury

Miss Pierson still wears her engagement ring. She and Hughes, who met a year ago at a billiards tournament, were supposed to plan their wedding the weekend he died.

But her grief turns to fury when she talks of Osborne. She said he's using their son's death to prove she's a bad mom and unworthy of caring for their daughter, who has been staying with Osborne since the judge granted him temporary custody. Miss Pierson said she can't afford a lawyer and hopes one will volunteer to represent her for free in the custody battle.

"She (Brittany) is the only thing I've got left in this world," she said.

Osborne said he's confident the judge will grant him custody. He criticizes Miss Pierson because she acted irresponsibly with their son.

"He (Hughes) probably just wanted to go out and do something," he speculated. "She sent him (Nicholas) with him as a leash, so he wouldn't do anything he's not supposed to," such as visit a bar.

Missed opportunities

Walker, the Brooksville officer, declined to comment for this story. "He feels bad about it," Shew said. "But he did what he needed to do. He took the steps that he felt were necessary at the time."

Nicholas' parents don't have that measure of peace.

Osborne still thinks about that Saturday night, when he might have called off the weekend visit because of the late hour and his concerns about Hughes.

Miss Pierson has nightmares and sleeps on the couch, constantly looking at the back door in the vain hope that somehow her fiance and son will walk through it.

"I'm mad at Jason for blaming me," Miss Pierson said. "I'm mad at the cop for not calling me."

But "I can't be mad at Billy," she said, "because he's gone."

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