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Webster Thailand faculty member’s mysterious death questioned by family
When David Hughes learned that his brother, Webster University Thailand professor James Hughes, had died in a hotel room in Hua Hin, he thought Webster was better equipped to handle the funeral arrangements than he was.
David lives in New York and decided to allow a friend of his brother’s to handle the cremation. Webster Thailand hosted a small funeral ceremony attended by students and faculty, and David struggled to understand how his brother had died from what he was told was circulatory failure.
“I was trying to get to a place of peace with this,” David said.
That all changed when he saw the autopsy report.
Far from circulatory failure, the autopsy report, which has been published online by the Bangkok Post, showed a series of severe contusion wounds and tears all over James’ body, including internal bruises on his head and injuries to his eye sockets, forehead, and nasal bridge. The autopsy lists 12 separate injuries.
For David, the autopsy, and the photos he later saw, were proof that James was beaten to death. David now believes that his brother was murdered, and that Thailand’s police chose to ignore the obvious signs.
“They ruled out foul play without ever investigating,” David said.
After Sept. 11, 2001, David said, James wanted to get out of the country. He spent the intervening years mostly abroad, eventually landing at Webster Thailand. According to David, though, James was ready to leave Thailand shortly before his death and was hoping to come back to the United States or transfer to Webster Vienna.
“He was very trapped there,” David said. “He didn’t want to be teaching there anymore.”
James disappeared Aug. 6, when he stopped teaching his classes at Webster Thailand and left the apartment he had been renting without informing his landlord. He had canceled a planned flight out of Hua Hin the previous day, according to the Bangkok Post’s story about his death. Friends realized he wasn’t answering their phone calls, and a student posted on Facebook that he was missing.
When David attempted to contact James, he got no response. He said he now believes that is because he was already concerned for his safety.
“He must have been just miserably reeling from something that was going to happen,” David said.
James was found dead in a hotel room Sept. 6. He was 58 years old.
David later learned that his brother had been seen alive ten days previously, on a bank’s security footage. That, he said, should have been disclosed to him before James was cremated as well, and should have been a sign that further investigation was needed.
If he had known the true circumstances of his brother’s death at the time, David said, he would have gotten on an airplane to Thailand to push for a serious police inquiry.
“I was probably the only one who could have done it,” David said. “It’s left me with a lifetime of regrets.”
David said he still does not understand why no one in Thailand fought for a greater investigation into his brother’s death, considering the circumstances of his disappearance and the autopsy report. While he places most of the blame on the Thai police, he wishes the American embassy or Webster University had done more to press for a true investigation.
“Webster should have fought it,” David said. “He became just a guy dead in a hotel room who happened to teach at Webster.”
So far, no one has come forward with any information about why James Hughes disappeared or how he died.
Keith Walsh, the director of Webster University’s Thailand campus, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Patrick Giblin, director of public relations at Webster, provided a statement Nov. 29.
“Earlier this year, Professor James Hughes, one of our communications instructors at the Webster University Thailand campus, died at his hotel residence shortly after the start of the fall semester. Police investigated and concluded he died of an illness,” the statement read. “We learned during the Thanksgiving break that his family petitioned the government in Thailand through the U.S. State Department to take a second look at the case. The University fully supports the family’s right to ask for a second inquiry and continues to cooperate with law enforcement in this matter.”
David said he has no desire to harm the reputation of Webster University in Thailand, or anyone else, but he feels let down by everyone involved.
“It’s my brother,” David said. “My brother’s death. And it’s a homicide.”
David remembers his brother as a creative, deeply intelligent person who “would do anything for anyone.” James was class president in high school and graduated a year early, going on to study at Goddard College and take writing fellowships at several other universities. His first short story, “An Open House,” was published in the New Yorker when he was 22.
“He was a brilliant guy. He was a walking textbook,” David said.
James also had several small film roles, thanks to his brother’s involvement in the industry, acted in plays and played the guitar and saxophone.
“He was just a multitalented guy,” David said. “He was just like miles above me.”
Editor’s Note: The Journal printed Keith Walsh’s name as Kevin Walsh in the original article. The story has been corrected. The Journal apologizes for the error.