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Death on the highway 

A year later, a double slaying heads to the prosecutor.

click to enlarge DEATH CAR: What first looked like an accident turned into a homicide case.
  • DEATH CAR: What first looked like an accident turned into a homicide case.

At first, it looked like a traffic accident. Around 6:30 a.m. on May 9, 2009, passersby reported seeing a black Ford SUV off to the westbound side of Interstate 40 between the Burns Park and Crystal Hill exits in North Little Rock.

When state troopers arrived at the scene, however, it turned out to be much more than a simple breakdown or fender bender. Inside, they found the bodies of two people: the SUV's owner, Tammy Lawrence, 48, and Akhi Hughes, 24 — who the State Police have called "acquaintances." Both had been shot to death. So far, the State Police won't say why they believe Hughes and Lawrence were slain, or who they think might be responsible for the crime. Last week, however, the State Police sent their investigation file to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office, indicating that the case has developed to the point where charges might be pending.

That Saturday night on the freeway wasn't Tammy Lawrence's first brush with death. In May 2006, Lawrence was sleeping on a boat moored near Murray Lock and Dam on the Arkansas River with her husband David Tedford and friends Richmond Rice and Veronica Harmon when carbon monoxide from a running generator began seeping into the cabin. By the time friends came to check on them the following afternoon, Rice and Tedford were both dead, and Lawrence and Harmon were clinging to life. Lawrence was eventually released from the hospital, but friends told press at the time of her death that she still suffered from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, including the loss of much of her fine motor skills.

She was left incapacitated enough by the incident that in March 2007, almost a year after she was pulled from the boat, the courts appointed her stepson Jason Tedford to be her legal guardian. Carbon monoxide blocks the absorption of oxygen in the blood, which can lead to a host of long-term problems, including behavioral changes, headaches, autoimmune disorders, and brain damage.

Since the incident on the river, friends and neighbors have said, Lawrence started hanging with a different, possibly more dangerous crowd. One of those was Akhi Hughes. According to paperwork on file at the Pulaski County clerk's office, Hughes had been convicted and sentenced on criminal charges four times since he turned 18, including theft by receiving in 2003, and robbery, theft of property and fleeing in 2004. The sentences from the 2003 and 2004 convictions were scheduled to run concurrently, netting him 15 years in the Arkansas Department of Correction. He was released on parole in February 2009. Less than three months later, he was dead.

Reached for comment, Jason Tedford said he didn't want to talk about the case, but added that he felt confident that the Arkansas State Police investigation had been thorough. Investigators, he said, have been in weekly contact with the family since the deaths.

Information about that investigation has been slim. One peek inside the case happened in late May 2009, when State Police investigators brought in three North Little Rock men for questioning. No charges resulted.

State Police spokesman Bill Sadler deferred all questions about the investigation to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office, which he said had instructed him to make no comments about the case.

John Johnson, chief deputy prosecuting attorney, said his office received the "enormous" case file from the State Police around the first of June. Attorneys are reviewing it, and deciding whether charges should be filed. "When we get a review file, what that means is the police feel like they've completed their investigation," Johnson said. "Whether they have or not may change, but when they turn a file into us, they have to identify someone as a suspect. ... They send over everything that they've found and leave it up to us to determine whether there are sufficient facts for someone to be charged." He said a decision should be reached by early July.

Johnson said that State Police investigators have identified more than one suspect, but refused to name them or exactly how many are listed in the file. He wouldn't comment if the suspects included those men questioned last May.

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