June 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Deborah Hughes: The retired nurse likely helped to save life of beaten Clinton Township tree-trimmer

Michiganian of the Year: Deborah Hughes
Michiganian of the Year: Deborah Hughes:

Deborah Hughes was a voice of reason in a bloodthirsty crowd, turning shouts of revenge into applause, and perhaps saving a man’s life.

The mob beating of motorist Steve Utash on April 2 made national headlines and gave Detroit yet another black eye. But Hughes, a retired nurse, emerged from the incident as an example of how one person can make a bad situation better.

Hughes was sitting in her apartment when she got a phone call from her neighbor. A 10-year-old boy had just been injured near the gas station across the street after he ran into the path of a truck.

“(The neigbor) knew I was a nurse,” Hughes said. “So I grabbed a coat and a little protection (a handgun), and I ran over.”

The injured boy, David Harris, was writhing on the ground and screaming. His leg was broken.

“He was crying, and I got him to calm down,” Hughes said. “I started saying really silly stuff, and he started laughing. After about five minutes ... a man came up to me and asked ‘Did I kill him?’ I said, ‘just calm down,’ and he walked off.”

The stranger was Utash, a Clinton Township tree-trimmer who was concerned after striking Harris.

A crowd that gathered after the accident turned ugly, Hughes said.

“I heard, ‘No, no, I didn’t mean it.’ I was on the ground with the baby with his head on my lap, so I couldn’t see them beating him,” she said. “The last thing I heard was, ‘I didn’t mean it.’ Then everything stopped and I heard kicking and hitting.”

Hughes worked her way through the irate mob and began administering first aid to Utash, who suffered severe head wounds from the beating.

“The crowd was screaming; a couple boys were saying, ‘Leave him alone! Let him die!’ And other people were clapping and hollering,” Hughes said.

After ambulances arrived and conveyed Utash and Harris to the hospital, the crowd’s mood changed, Hughes said.

“Everybody was cheering and hollering,” she said. “My heart was full, and I cried a little because I could help somebody. And then I thought about the people; so many people out here were saying, ‘Good job, lady. You’re the best.’

“It made me feel good. It made my heart feel so large. And I just grinned and came home, and, talking to myself, said, ‘I did the right thing. I saved somebody.’ I felt great.”

University of Detroit Mercy criminal justice professor Mike Witkowski said Hughes likely saved Utash’s life.

“I’m sure if not for her, they’d have probably beat him to death,” he said. “Fortunately, she was there to help him out.”

George Hunter

Debra Hughes / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News