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Crime & Courts

Rose Petal Murder: The Suspect

Zachary David Hughes’ journey from acclaimed concert pianist to accused murderer …

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When deputies from the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Zachary David Hughes on November 3, 2021 – charging him with murder in connection with the savage October 13, 2021 slaying 41-year old Christina Parcell – people were shocked. The small community of Greer, South Carolina had already been rocked by the violent murder – and the unexpected arrest of Hughes, a man who seemingly had no nexus to the crime, sowed further confusion and fear

Parcell’s body was found by her fiancee, Bradly Post, in a home owned by her sister, Lutina Parcell. She had been stabbed 31 times in the face and neck and her killer allegedly sprinkled rose petals – or some say deadheaded roses – around her body after dragging and posing her in the front living room of the modest 2,100-square foot home. 

Post, incidentally, was arrested just days later in connection with a child pornography investigation related to evidence obtained from the murder scene – one which has since plumbed new depths of depravity. Many thought that investigation would lead to his arrest for murder – but that’s not where the evidence pointed.

Where did it point? To Hughes …

By all accounts, Zachary David Hughes – a California native and graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City – was an unlikely suspect. Scratch that, an impossible suspect. A classically trained concert pianist, Hughes studied and performed piano sonotas written by famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

On the day warrants were issued for his arrest, Hughes was preparing to begin a new job on an international cruise line and was in Detroit, Michigan awaiting a flight to Europe. According to a motion filed by his defense team in support of bond, upon learning of these warrants Hughes didn’t attempt to flee across the border into Canada – instead, he rented a car and drove from Detroit to Greenville, where he turned himself in to authorities.

(Click to View)

Zachary Hughes (Facebook)

With no apparent connection to Christina Parcell, Hughes’ motive was a mystery – but the evidence against him was damning. As previously reported, during an April 6, 2022 bond hearing before S.C. circuit court judge Edward W. Miller, S.C. thirteenth circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins revealed a Ring camera from a home across the street showed “the defendant dressed in a black hoodie and a backpack entering the front door” of Parcell’s home just before her murder.

Hughes was later seen on another Ring camera “leaving the subdivision on a bicycle” after Parcell’s murder, Wilkins told the judge. A bicycle “matching the exact bicycle leaving the neighborhood at the time of the murder” – was spotted on yet another camera in the back of Hughes’ truck, according to Wilkins.

Hughes’ attorneys disputed the video evidence, claiming the clips cited by prosecutors “don’t show Zach.”

However, prosecutors further asserted that DNA collected from under Parcell’s fingernails belonged to Hughes – which would definitively link him to the crime scene.

“The victim’s fingernails were processed for DNA, and the (result) conclusively shows that Zach Hughes’ DNA was under the fingernails of the victim,” Wilkins told judge Miller.

According to Wilkins, “the premeditation and calculation and planning that had to go into this crime was pretty impeccable.”

Bond was denied – and Hughes has remained incarcerated at the Greenville County detention center pending trial.

Who is Zachary David Hughes? And what could have motivated this talented young man with no apparent ties to Christina Parcell to murder her in such a brutal manner? 

A motion in support of bond by Hughes’ lawyers at that hearing in April 2022 gave the public the first glimpse at the man charged with this gruesome, ritualistic crime. The motion detailed the life of Hughes leading up to the homicide and while many were anxious to learn more about the man accused of the savage murder, many walked away even more befuddled than before.

(Click to View)

(Jenn Wood)

Hughes was born in Morro Bay, California to Dave Hughes and Mindy Hughes.  In addition to Zachary, Dave and Mindy – married for over 46 years – have another son named Eli Hughes, who is 23 years old. According to court documents, Dave and Mindy both were born and raised in California. Upon making the decision to start a family, they wanted to “ instill in their children a love of the Lord and an appreciation for family” and decided the best way to do this was to move the family to Virginia. 

After moving young Zack and Eli across the country, in 2005 David and Mindy adopted five children, all siblings, from Russia to provide these children with a better life. The motion in support of bond stated that “the addition of these children to the Hughes’ family had a profound impact on Zack.” According to the Hughes family, they were unaware that most or all of these children suffered from significant emotional, psychological, and/or physical adversity due to maltreatment they had received in Russia.

These children had difficulty adapting to America in general and family life in particular. The stress on the Hughes family resulting from this sudden change in the home life was tremendous and according to them, it hit Zachary especially hard. 

The initial plan to move the family to a small farm in Virginia called for both Dave and Mindy to stay at home with their children while they lived off of savings and any income the farm generated. But they soon learned this wasn’t enough to sustain the family – which required Zachary to step into the role of adult caregiver for the children.

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Hughes found an outlet for his mounting stress in music. His parents had purchased a used piano at a yard sale when he was a young boy and noticed quickly that he had an “aptitude for music.” After his adopted siblings joined the family, he lost himself in the piano. His parents told the court he devoted his entire life to it as an escape from his life at home.

During high school, Hughes began entering competitions and won first place in the prestigious Southeastern Piano Festival. This prize earned him a soloist performance with the S.C. Philharmonic Orchestra for a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor Concerto”). Hughes’ talent was undeniable. 

In 2010, Hughes applied to The Juilliard School for piano performance. Entrance into Juilliard – a highly competitive performing arts conservatory in New York City – is exceedingly difficult. Despite the highly selective admissions process, Hughes’ talent was noticed by the school and he was not only admitted, but offered numerous scholarships. 

While at Julliard, Hughes thrived both academically and socially. Among the fifty-four letters sent on his behalf to court during his bond hearing were many from former classmates who recalled a loyal friend with a great sense of humor and deep love of music.

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(Via: S.C. Thirteenth Circuit)

One former classmate named Rachel wrote, “if I were to describe Zack in a few words it would be: loyal friend, strong sense of what is morally right and wrong, a big heart for defending those he is close to from harm, and a very patient listener.” 

Rachel also described how Hughes would use his talent to brighten the lives of those in need by playing at hospitals and nursing homes. 

Another classmate named Jules wrote “what struck me the most when we first met was not only his deep kindness and great ability to laugh and make laugh, but also his profound and rare interest for the core of musical grammar as well as for new music.”

During his time at Julliard, Hughes was one of only twelve students around the world – and the only one from the United States – chosen to play in the Kyoto International Music Festival.

In 2018, while attending the University of Tennessee in pursuit of a masters degree in piano performance, Hughes volunteered to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. Though he initially applied as an enlisted soldier, the recruiter instructed Zack to apply for officer candidate school instead.

Three weeks into his training, Hughes suffered stress fractures in both of his legs, forcing him to withdraw. At the time of his injury, he was in the top three percent of his OCS class – which was composed of approximately 400 students. He was encouraged to return after recovering from his injuries. 

Those plans were put on hold, though, when a friend contacted him with a request. A church in Greenville, S.C. had been recently gifted with a high-end piano and a woman named Jeannette Winn was leading the search for a talented pianist to play it for its inaugural performance. Hughes agreed and after the 2019 performance, the Winn family and Hughes family developed a close, personal friendship.

(Click to View)

Zachary Hughes/ YouTube

With the support of Greenville Unitarian Universalist Church, Hughes decided to stay in Greenville. To support his new life, the church helped him realize his dream of performing all thirty-two of Beethoven’s sonatas (from memory) during the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2020. The church came to an agreement with Hughes that they would request a donation from all those who attended these performances, and the donations would be split evenly between Hughes and the church. 

The plan was going off without a hitch until Covid-19 halted social gatherings in early 2020 shortly after his third performance. Hughes persevered by purchasing an electric keyboard and performing in large open spaces. Hughes also supplemented his income by providing virtual piano lessons through the Bronx Conservatory of Music.

How did this talented young man who friends describe as a loyal friend with a big heart end up a suspect in the horrific slaying of a woman to whom he seemingly had no ties? 

Investigators believe the answer lies with the father of Christina Parcell’s young daughter, John Mello. Christina and John had been embroiled in a contentious custody battle over their young daughter for years.

Mello, who describes himself as a music producer, lived on the west coast until moving to Greenville with his family. It is unknown how he met Christina Parcell, but the custody battle over their young daughter began in earnest in 2016 – and continues to this day even after her death.

According to investigators, Hughes worked for Mello cleaning his house and performing other domestic tasks from 2020-2021. It is unknown how they met, but in the relatively small community of Greenville, South Carolina it is believed music brought them together.

On October 5, 2020, Mello took his daughter to Italy in the midst of his ongoing custody battle with Parcell. This led to criminal charges being filed against him for custodial interference in Greenville County. On October 21, 2021 – a year later and just after Christina’s death – Mello returned to Greenville from Italy and was served a warrant for these charges and arrested.

Upon being processed in the Greenville County Detention Center, Mello listed ‘Zachary Hughes’ on the relationship portion of his intake form – allowing the two of them to communicate while he was incarcerated. He also recorded a video with Hughes granting him permission to retrieve his luggage and medication from the Charlotte Airport following his arrest. 

The Ring camera footage obtained by neighbors of the Canebrake house where Parcell was murdered showed a man in a grey hoodie with a backpack entering the residence around 10:00 a.m. EDT. The same individual was shown wearing a N-95 mask with a hoodie over his head leaving the residence on a bike. 

(Click to View)

Suspect leaving scene of Rose Petal Murder (Provided)

When authorities learned of the relationship between Mello and Hughes, they began looking at footage from Flock cameras. Flock cameras are license plate reading cameras that store every vehicle that is read by a particular camera in a searchable database – including dates, timestamps and photos of the car.

What they discovered was chilling. On the day before the murder – and the day of the murders – Flock camera footage showed Zachary Hughes’ truck with a bicycle located in its bed. This bicycle matched the description of the bicycle the killer used when he was leaving Christina Parcell’s neighborhood immediately following her murder. Law enforcement officials used this footage to obtain a search warrant on the home where Zachary Hughes was living. 

During this search, a bicycle was discovered matching the description of the bicycle located in the back of Zachary Hughes’ truck – the one photographed on the Flock cameras. A witness in Zachary Hughes’ home stated Hughes owned the recovered bicycle and had recently used it. 

During this search, authorities also located Hughes’ iPhone and obtained a separate search warrant for it. The phone required a 6-digit passcode and law enforcement technicians were unable to unlock the phone though they were successful in extracting partial contents from it. 

(Click to View)

(Via: S.C. Thirteenth Circuit)

Mello and Hughes communicated extensively through an application on their phones called WhatsApp – which encrypts messages and is often used to exchange messages, videos, and phone calls when one person is living outside the United States. At the time of Christina’s homicide, Mello was in Italy. 

Some of these messages were able to be downloaded, others were not. The messages that were viewable by law enforcement were presented in a motion to compel Hughes to provide authorities with the passcode to his phone.

And they were concerning …

In one conversation via WhatsApp on April 17, 2021, Mello told Hughes he obtained Christina’s private number and instructed him to use it to “harass the shit out of her.”

Authorities also found numerous conversations between Mello and Zachary Hughes via WhatsApp between October 8 and October 13, 2021 – the day of Christina Parcell’s murder. On October 13, for example, there is a conversation in which Mello asked Hughes “how did the music research go?”

“Good,” Hughes responded. “I’ll tell you over the phone.”

The partial extraction revealed Hughes’ iPhone was in airplane mode five times: Twice on October 12, twice on October 13 (the day of the murder) and once on October 19.

Without the passcode, though, investigators cannot obtain the remainder of the encrypted messages as well as any geolocation data for the phone. Using software to unlock the phone could take as long as three years.

On September 20, 2022, S.C. circuit court (now appeals court) judge Letitia Verdin ruled in favor of the prosecution’s motion to compel the iPhone passcode. But to date, Hughes has refused to provide it, placing him in violation of Verdin’s order. As his bond was denied last April, authorities have littler leverage over Hughes to obtain his passcode.

(Click to View)

(Via: S.C. Thirteenth Circuit)

Mello’s contentious custody battle with Parcell over their young daughter included multiple complaints alleging sexual abuse of their child. Among the questions people are now asking about Hughes’ motive: Did the contentious custody battle become so ugly that Mello had Hughes kill the mother of his young child? And if so, what compelled the talented young musician to commit such a brutal crime on the behalf of someone he allegedly worked for only on occasion?

The arrest of fiancee Bradly Post just one week after Parcell’s murder brought multiple heinous allegations to light. Post is currently facing five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor in the first degree, one count of sexual exploitation of a minor in the third degree, one count of third degree criminal sexual content with a minor and one count of buggery. He is currently incarcerated at the Greenville County detention center – the same facility where Hughes is being held.

The two civil lawsuits filed against Post and the estate of Christina Parcell – one brought on behalf of Parcell’s own daughter and the other brought on behalf of another minor female allegedly victimized by the couple –  implicate Christina Parcell in the abuse as well. They also provide background into the criminal charges filed against Post.

According to the first lawsuit – filed in February of 2022 – “Parcell and Post took pictures/ videos of and with (the minor female) in states of undress and in sexually provocative positions.” These images and videos were uncovered “during the investigation of the murder of Parcell.”

The second lawsuit was filed in August of 2022 on behalf of Parcell’s own daughter and claims that the child allegedly photographed and videoed “in various stages of undress and in sexually explicit and nude positions.” Some of these files (graphic content warning) “graphically depict(ed) her genitals and breasts.”

As this news outlet continues to investigate this disturbing story, we will be diving into the custody battle between John Mello and Christina Parcell in greater detail – attempting to determine if systemic failures put a child in danger and potentially contributed to the violent murder of her mother. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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2 comments

Nick March 28, 2023 at 2:01 pm

first off…that looks like a woman on that bike. but like was the car near the scene??

Reply
richard.frierson Top fan March 29, 2023 at 9:50 am

Well, at least you learned the difference between a concerto and a sonata even though you misspelled sonata (“sonota”). And by the way, it is Ludwig Van Beethoven, not Von Beethoven.

Reply

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