By the time Brianna Hughes turned 30, her mother had stopped worrying about her run-ins with the law.
In fact, she welcomed them.
“I prayed every day that there would be something that Brianna would do, so that Brianna could go to jail – so that I could sleep at night because that’s when I knew where she was,” Paula Gregg said.
Two weeks after her release from the Allegheny County Jail in early December 2016, Hughes showed up at her mother’s house in Upper Burrell. It was the last time Gregg would see her.
When Hughes failed to call her daughter, Elle, on her birthday in March 2017, Gregg knew something was wrong. That’s when she reported her missing to Upper Burrell police.
Hughes stayed in touch with her children, no matter what — even when she was in the throes of her drug addiction, her mother said.
“My daughter may have been an addict, but my daughter … would beg for rides to try and go see her children,” Gregg said.
Now that Hughes has been missing for more than a year, Gregg, 52, wants to find her for her grandchildren’s sake more than anything.
“Until we have closure, we’ll never give up that 1 percent hope,” Gregg said. “Not a day goes by that my Bree isn’t in my mind.”
Injured to addicted
Hughes, who was 32 when she disappeared, grew up an active child in the Burrell School District. She enjoyed softball, volleyball, cheerleading and especially gymnastics. She made the varsity cheerleading squad as a high school freshman and competed in gymnastics at the state level, Gregg said.
Around age 16, she suffered a broken foot while doing a floor exercise, which kept her out of gymnastics for a while. During that time, she got addicted to prescription painkillers and fell in with the “wrong crowd,” Gregg said.
Her transition to harder drugs, including heroin, started Hughes on a 14-year struggle with addiction that led to multiple criminal charges and jail stays. She had three children, each by a different man, and tried to be a good mother even as she tried to stay sober, Gregg said.
The longest she ever stayed clean was when she was pregnant with her second child, Emmanuel, now 8, and checked herself into transitional housing for pregnant women, Gregg said.
Jenise Boyd, one of Hughes’ best friends from childhood, said Hughes was able to stay off drugs for only a few months at a time.
“She did share with me when she had relapsed. She also shared with me about being clean and sober,” Boyd, 33, said.
Boyd and Hughes knew each other from the third grade and stayed good friends when Boyd moved to California after her freshman year at Burrell High School. Boyd had her own issues with addiction, although she currently has four years’ sobriety and is an administrator at Pax House Recovery East in Louisville, Ky.
“With both of us, our fondest childhood memories were about each other,” she said. “The real drug usage … wasn’t until we were in our 20s.”
Searching for a break
Following her last jail stay, Hughes told her mother that she planned to go back into rehab. She showed up on Gregg’s back porch on Dec. 15, 2016. She did not look good. Gregg gave her clothes but no money.
As Hughes prepared to leave, Gregg realized there was a car out front with a female driver waiting. Gregg did not recognize the woman, whom she described as heavy-set with blond, curly hair. Later, she thought she resembled a “madam” who was arrested outside Pittsburgh Mills mall in January.
Gregg was unable to get the license plate number as the car, possibly a red Chevrolet Cavalier, drove away. That was the last time she saw her daughter. In the months that followed, Hughes also was seen on Frankstown Road in Homewood, where she was believed to be living with her youngest child, Brayzee, 4, and the child’s father, Gregg said.
Hughes was last seen in Homewood or East Liberty in mid- to late February. Then she did not contact Elle for her 13th birthday.
Kenneth Pate, Upper Burrell’s police chief, describes the case as “active but cold.” He posted missing person posters along Frankstown Road in 2017 and this year. He plans to do so again next year. He believes Hughes disappeared from the Homewood area.
“It’s probably intertwined with the company she was keeping. I don’t think she just up and relocated,” Pate said. “In my mind, there’s definitely foul play (involved.)”
Although Gregg named one man who she believes was involved with the disappearance, Pate stopped short of calling him a suspect or person of interest.
“It’s one of those cases … that you just take with you. I just wish something would break,” he said.
Gregg said the response to her daughter’s plight has been a mix of compassion and cynicism.
“A lot of people look at an addict who’s gone missing as, ‘Oh well, they’re just in the depths of addiction,’” she said. “Missing addicts are just people who went away to do drugs.”
But Gregg said the love she has for Hughes keeps her motivated to find her daughter.
“The last thing I said to my child was, ‘I love you, Brianna.’ That is the only thing that gives me some kind of solace,” she said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.