Concert pianist Zach Hughes – who stands accused of the gruesome October 2021 murder of South Carolina vet tech Christina Parcell – scored a small victory in court last month when a circuit court judge declined to cite him for contempt for failing to turn over his iPhone passcode.
Investigators have since unlocked Hughes’ iPhone, but they continue struggling to access messages sent via the encrypted smartphone application WhatsApp – messages which may point to a broader conspiracy related to Parcell’s slaying.
Parcell was savagely slain on the morning of October 13, 2021 in a suburban neighborhood in Greer, South Carolina. As we have previously reported, details of this crime scene were “disturbingly ritualistic.” For starters, the killer allegedly sprinkled rose petals around Parcell’s body after dragging (and posing) her in the front living room of a 2,100-square foot home owned by her sister, Tina Parcell.
“Rose petals were sprinkled around her body,” a source familiar with the killing told this news outlet. “She was dragged – there were drag marks. The scene was staged.”
Other sources cited the presence of multiple “deadheaded roses” around Parcell – who had sustained more than thirty stab wounds to the head and neck area.
These accounts have led to the crime being dubbed the “Rose Petal Murder.“
Parcell’s body was discovered shortly after 11:00 a.m. EST on the morning of the murder by her fiancee, Bradly Post, who has since been arrested (but not for killing Parcell).
Instead, Post is 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 (you can read more about that last charge here).
Hughes’ arrest in connection with Parcell’s murder shocked the Upstate seeing as he had no known connection to the victim. A California native and graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, Hughes is a classically trained concert pianist who studied and performed piano sonatas and concertos written by famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
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On April 6, 2023, Wilkins’ office filed a motion seeking criminal contempt charges against Hughes in addition to the murder and weapons charges he is facing. Specifically, prosecutors asked for the court to impose an “active incarcerative sentence” on Hughes for his alleged “willful intent to deceive the court and to undermine the administration of justice.”
Prosecutors claimed Hughes “intentionally attempted to mislead investigators by providing a bogus iPhone passcode with an accompanying fraudulent backstory for the creation of the bogus passcode” as they were attempting to unlock his Apple iPhone 8.
Shortly after the motion was filed by prosecutors, Hughes’ defense team fired back with a response claiming Hughes’ family has been assisting him with meeting his financial obligations “prior to being caged in a cell” – including paying outstanding bills and stopping automatic drafts from his account for services he no longer uses. The defense stated Hughes’ father asked his son for the passwords for his accounts so he could manage those bills. But despite his best efforts, Hughes had not been able to recall the passwords his father requested.
In an order filed December 15, 2023, S.C. circuit court judge G.D. Morgan Jr. denied the State’s motion stating while the claim Hughes knew his passcode may be true, they did “not clearly prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, he could remember the password.”
Despite Hughes’ failure to provide the passcode, the device was unlocked on February 8, 2023 after nearly 700,000 attempts to crack its code, according to an affidavit from Greenville County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) investigator Charlie Cunningham.
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What investigators found remains unknown, but additional charges were filed against Hughes last September – indicating the investigation was still active. Those charges also revealed a link between Hughes and Parcell’s former boyfriend – self-styled music producer John Mello.
Along with Hughes, Mello was charged with first degree harassment and conspiracy after allegedly coordinating the dissemination of nude images of Parcell to Hughes. At the same time Mello was charged, Hughes was also in court facing charges of first degree harassment and conspiracy for allegedly disseminating the pictures provided by Mello to an undisclosed group of recipients.
Sources familiar with the situation indicated prosecutors had obtained proof Mello “sent nude pics of Christina” to Hughes which were subsequently “mailed to various locations around the Greenville area in an effort to purportedly harass Christina.”
According to these same sources, the late Christina Parcell is listed as the victim of the alleged harassment orchestrated by Mello and Hughes.
If true, the allegations contained in the September indictments of Mello and Hughes would more closely connect the two – who have already been linked together via cryptic WhatsApp messages exchanged around the time of Parcell’s graphic murder. Indeed, based on these new allegations it appears law enforcement is continuing to analyze data on Zach Hughes’ phone – and communications between him and John Mello.
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Mello and Hughes were “very close friends,” according to prosecutors, and routinely used WhatsApp to communicate with each other. In fact, Mello and Hughes are said to have exchanged at least 1,769 encrypted WhatsApp messages in the months leading up to Parcell’s murder.
In one conversation via WhatsApp on April 17, 2021, Mello indicated he had obtained Christina’s private number and instructed Hughes to use it to “harass the shit out of her.”
Authorities also uncovered 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.”
Mello, who was notably out of the country when Parcell’s murder took place, was involved in a bitter, ongoing custody battle with Parcell at the time of her death. Some expected Mello to be revealed as the orchestrator of this violent attack. Many still do.
But investigators haven’t been able to get to all of the WhatsApp messages between the two men.
Adding to the mystery, sources have told FITSNews when Mello was arrested upon his return to the U.S. after Parcell’s murder, he had a “substantial amount” of gold coins with him.
Investigators continue to pursue information and leads regarding the relationship between Mello and Hughes.
The murder trial of Hughes was initially rumored to begin in February of 2024, but a mid-year date appears more likely due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
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 email@example.com.
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