Man Mistakenly ID'd in Dallas Police Killings Struggles to Shed Label - NBC 10 Philadelphia
Tragedy in Dallas

Tragedy in Dallas

Five officers killed and nine injured in an ambush at a peaceful protest, July 7, 2016

Man Mistakenly ID'd in Dallas Police Killings Struggles to Shed Label

Mark Hughes was among the hundreds of people who filled downtown Dallas that summer night to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. A year after the tragedy, the snow cone maker is gradually rebuilding his reputation

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    Mark Hughes is gradually rebuilding his reputation after he was mistakenly identified him as the gunman in the July 7, 2016, police ambush in downtown Dallas. (Published Wednesday, July 5, 2017)

    Mark Hughes finds himself avoiding downtown Dallas these days.

    Being there brings back the fear, confusion and bitterness of July 7, 2016, when a man fatally shot five police officers and wounded seven others during a protest.

    "It's a surreal feeling right now, a lot of emotions. It's actually one of the first times I've been back," he said, sitting just a few yards away from the spot where his life changed. "Still, to this day, people come up and say, 'I know you, you're the shooter.'"

    Hughes, the owner of snow cone stands, was among the hundreds of people who filled downtown Dallas that night to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Unlike the vast majority of protesters, Hughes came to the rally and march armed with a rifle.

    "It was more than just a gun to me. The gun was just symbolism of what we were facing in the movement at that time," he said. "We had Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two men who were gunned down by police officers. [Castile] had the lawful right to carry a gun."

    Shortly after the first shots were fired, Hughes' brother, Cory, told him to give his rifle to a police officer.

    "My first instinct was, 'Why am I going to give my gun over if they're shooting?'" Hughes said. "That's when Cory took it upon himself to go get the police officer like, 'Take my brother's gun. I don't want them to mistake him as the person doing the shooting.'"

    It happened anyway. In a press conference hours after the ambush shooting and later on Twitter, Dallas police released a picture of Hughes carrying his rifle. They called him a "suspect" and asked the public for help finding him.

    Hughes had no idea the police were looking for him.

    "I received a phone call from an individual telling me that I was the suspect, that I was the person they said was doing the shooting. The first thing that came to my mind was they're going to kill me out here. I was angry. I was frightened. I feared for my life. I was confused and didn't know what to do," Hughes said.

    Hughes said he thought he had done the right thing when he surrendered to police. He had the business card of the officer who took his gun and gave it to a detective. He thought clearing his name was going to be easy.

    He was wrong.

    "[The detective] came back in the room and he said, 'I have good news and bad news for you. I found the officer who had your rifle and he corroborated your story. The bad news is I have witnesses who say they saw you shoot your rifle.' That's when I knew I went from a person assisting the police officers — trying to clear my name — to now being a suspect," Hughes recalled.

    Hughes was released several hours later. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the damage to his reputation was done.

    "When they released me, we walked out into a room full of officers. They have TV screens up, and at that moment I looked up and I saw CNN. I saw my image come across the screen, and that's when I knew this was huge," he said.

    In the days and weeks that followed Hughes said he received numerous threats. His five children had to stay with relatives for their own safety, and Hughes closed the snow cone stand he owns and operates.

    "There were notes left that said stuff like 'cop killer' and 'payback.' People would drive by or just sit and watch," Hughes said. "For someone that wanted to feel as if they were helping police out with the manhunt they put out, I feared for my family."

    The threats have since stopped, but Hughes still harbors some bitterness. He understands that police were under pressure that night and mistakes can be made in the heat of a volatile situation. But he feels that he could have been treated better.

    "I had a rifle out there. Bringing me in and questioning me, I have no problem with that. But to release me as the suspect before you even spoke to me, before you have any evidence, that was reckless and dangerous," Hughes said in frustration. "I believe right is right, and wrong is wrong. If you make a mistake, correct it."

    A year later Hughes is gradually rebuilding his reputation as one of the best snow cone makers in North Texas. Most of all he just wants to be himself again, someone who is known for his peaceful demeanor and activism — not as a suspect.

    "The best thing I can do is be a voice for the community. Show my face and let them know I'm not walking around with my head down. I'm a man that's trying to make a living and provide for my family like any other person," Hughes said.