SAN JOSE -- Lawrence Hughes always yearned for a phone call from his long-lost mother.

So the New York attorney kept his information listed in the phone book, and dreamed of Joan Anne Hughes giving him a ring, finally asking for help getting off the streets or even just saying "I love you," in a voice that had been absent in his life for at least 20 years.

But that dream ended when a pair of plainclothes detectives showed up at his door Tuesday and told him to call the San Jose Police Department. His hopes sparked -- maybe she'd gotten into trouble but at least she was found -- but when he dialed the number he reached a recording at the Santa Clara County coroner's office. Then he lost it, he said, and became "quite emotional."

"I realized something really bad had happened," said Lawrence Hughes, 50.

Nearly three months after his mother, a mysterious but well-loved homeless woman, was brutally slain in a bizarre samurai sword attack on a busy Midtown street, state officials identified the woman known to many as "Gail" through fingerprint records that had been unavailable to other investigators.

Joan Hughes, 70, was a Brooklyn native who moved with her husband and two children first to Illinois and later, in 1978, to Saratoga. Her son said she was a nurse, passionately devoted both to a profession she cherished and her family.

"She treated us like precious children who she cared for so much," her son said. "It's difficult to pick out anything in particular about her, we were surrounded by love."

She was a Cub Scout den mother, he said, who enjoyed painting flowers and landscapes in oil and had an insatiable sweet tooth. She was also fiercely self-reliant -- a trait evident in her refusal to accept any handouts. Lawrence Hughes said his parents divorced in the early 1980s after more than 20 years of marriage, and his mom took it hard. At first she moved into an apartment near Cupertino but "she had a difficult time dealing with life."

He didn't want to disclose the reasons she moved out of her apartment, but she ended up without a permanent home. Still, he kept hoping her life would turn around.

"I thought she was getting through it, I thought things would improve," he said. "I thought she would get over the bump and do well, as many people do after a divorce."

Eventually, she stopped practicing nursing. After rejecting offers of help from various family members, she "turned off communication with us" around 1992, Hughes said.

"I felt helpless," he said. "I didn't know what to do and I didn't know where she was."

Joan Hughes was a fixture in the Midtown area, where she frequented spots along Lincoln Avenue and San Carlos Street.

The woman was seen by many who drove or walked past her favorite haunts. After her death, a candlelight vigil drew hundreds to the Walgreens that abuts the sidewalk where she was slain.

Hughes was killed in the early evening Aug. 13 while sitting on the sidewalk on San Carlos at Meridian Avenue by a man who stabbed her numerous times with a short samurai-style sword. A short time later, police arrested Marquis Reynolds, a 37-year-old San Jose resident.

Witnesses described Reynolds displaying erratic behavior toward Hughes earlier the day she was slain, getting extremely upset and saying that she had been trying to cast a "black voodoo spell" on him.

Reynolds remains held in County Jail without bail.

JB Smith, who befriended Hughes more than four years ago, said he was "overwhelmed" by the latest revelations.

"A son?" he asked incredulously. "She never told me she had a son. I offered to fly her home, but every time she just wouldn't do it."

Smith said Hughes spoke about "being a child, being on the track team, reading a lot, being a tomboy" but did not bring up her later-in-life family.

Sgt. Manuel Rey of the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's Office said earlier attempts to glean her identity were stymied because of a glitch in the state fingerprint database that "blocked our ability to see the fingerprint."

He said the state Department of Justice internal system bypassed the glitch when his office reluctantly submitted the case to them at the end of October.

"We didn't want to go down that route," he said. "I hesitated to submit because at that point we've given up, thrown our hands up, saying we've done everything we can."

The DOJ got a hit within a week, Rey said.

"(The glitch) isn't something that happens all the time," he said. "It was a one-in-a-million thing."

Rey said everyone at the coroner's office is "pretty happy" that the Jane Doe case was solved. "For me, there's a sense of relief," he said. "I didn't want her to be forgotten."

Hughes is survived by two sisters, her son, daughter Karen Anderson, and two granddaughters that she most likely never met.

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.