- Associated Press - Friday, September 2, 2016

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Debra Hughes remembers how her sister, Shelia Hughes, was about to begin a new chapter in her life before Sept. 1, 2000.

Shelia, then 29, was due to give birth to a son.

“She was saying that when she had the baby, she would stay with me for a few weeks and then find a place,” Debra Hughes said. “She was going to name him Junior.”

The night of Sept. 1, Shelia was living with her sister in Aliceville when she was picked up by Renard Simmons, her boyfriend and father of the unborn child. Debra Hughes remembers that before her sister left she said something to her that she still remembers to this day.

“Her last words to me were ‘If you don’t ever see me again, don’t worry about me because I have lived my life to the fullest,’” Debra Hughes said.

After that, Shelia was never seen again.

Thursday marked 16 years to the day that she disappeared, but Debra Hughes and her family still hold out hope that they will receive answers one day. In 2008, the family had Shelia declared legally presumed dead in Pickens County Probate Court.

“In my heart, I really believe she is deceased, but sometimes hope arises,” Hughes said.

Hughes said she always had concern about Simmons’ account of the night. According to reports, Simmons told law enforcement that after picking Shelia Hughes up that evening, he dropped her off back home at 3 a.m. the next morning.

However, Hughes said she was at home that night and never saw her come back.

“I was at home that weekend and he did not drop her off,” Hughes said. “That’s what he said, but I was off that weekend, so he did not drop her off.”

Following Shelia’s disappearance, Hughes become more vocal about what she thought happened to her, telling The Tuscaloosa News in 2008 about how she felt about how Simmons “may have had something to do with her going missing.”

“He’s shown no sympathy since she disappeared,” Hughes said in that interview. “He wanted her to have an abortion, but she refused and he was really upset.”

On Nov. 5, 2013, Simmons died. He was never charged, although District Attorney Chris McCool said he was a person of interest at one point.

“The evidence was never clear enough to charge anyone, and until the evidence shows what happened and who did it, even if that person is deceased, it won’t be closed,” McCool said.

Keith Cox investigated Shelia’s case from the time he was a police officer at the Aliceville Police Department to his time as an investigator for the district attorney’s office and said Simmons was not the main focus of the investigation, though with his death, some questions remain unanswered.

“Regardless of what people think his status was, any information we need to clarify with him we can’t do now,” Cox said.

Cox said he is not sure what happened to her. No body was ever recovered and no new information has been gathered in the case in years.

“Until there is some final closure, you never really know what happened,” he said.

McCool, who was assistant district attorney for Pickens County at the time Shelia disappeared, said the case is cold, but not closed. McCool said Simmons was a person of interest for a time, but that there was never enough evidence to charge anyone. Nonetheless, he said the case would remain open.

“Finding out what happened is justice,” he said. “I’m not satisfied until we know what happened.”

Cox, now circuit clerk of Pickens County, said the case still weighs heavily on him.

“It’s probably one of the biggest disappointments in my career that I could not give this family an answer as to what had happened,” Cox said.

Shortly after Shelia’s disappearance, law enforcement came across substantial evidence: pieces of her clothing that were found in Mississippi. Cox said that unfortunately, the discovery did not yield any further results in the case.

Cox said the biggest obstacle in figuring out what happened to Shelia was the lack of evidence and, outside of Simmons’ account of the night, nothing of note.

“It’s almost as if she just vanished into thin air, but we both know that is not the case,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Cox said at one point, law enforcement investigated rumors that Shelia had been seen in different parts of the country. Hughes is adamant that her sister would never have just left her family.

“If that was me and someone said that, that might be true, but with Shelia, there’s no truth to that,” Hughes said. “I knew Shelia too well.”

People that knew Shelia said she was very social and full of spontaneity, often planning family trips and reunions.

“She was the one that kept the family together,” Hughes said. “We haven’t had a family barbecue since she was missing because she was the one that used to get it together.”

She said she still thinks about her sister every day.

“I often think about what she would be doing now,” Hughes said. “I think about what her child would be like and how he would come to visit.”

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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