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York jury for Julia Phillips murder trial hears 2 versions of former mayor’s death

By Jonathan McFadden
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com
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ANDY BURRISS — aburriss@heraldonline.com -
Julia Phillips swings her purse toward a reporter as she arrives at Moss Justice Center for the second day of her murder trial. She is accused of strangling her longtime boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.

YORK Julia Phillips had planned to celebrate her 67th birthday with Mike’s Hard Lemonade and a pink pair of silk thong underwear her longtime boyfriend had bought, her defense attorney told jurors during her murder trial Tuesday morning.

Instead, two men ambushed her from behind, wrapped her wrists, head and ankles in duct tape and dragged her 60 feet behind a brick retaining wall, where Phillips feared she would be raped, attorney Bobby Frederick said.

Minutes later, Phillips heard a gunshot and wept when she learned former York Mayor Melvin Roberts – whom she sometimes referred to as her “husband” – had been killed.

But prosecutors said a lethal combination of greed and desperation drove the 117-pound Phillips to conspire with an unidentified accomplice to have Roberts killed when she realized their relationship was coming to an end.

The attorneys gave opening arguments to the jury, previewing what evidence and testimony they would hear for the next four days.

The Gaffney woman was charged three years ago with killing Roberts, police said, because he already had started cutting her off financially.

“She was not a person of many means on her own,” said Kris Hodge, the Greenville County assistant solicitor prosecuting Phillips. “He kept her up for 10 to 12 years. This was coming to an end.”

The 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Greenville is prosecuting Phillips because York County solicitors recused themselves due to past associations with Roberts, who worked as an attorney in York for 55 years.

York County judges also recused themselves from the case, which is being heard before Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg.

The unknown suspect

Hodge opened her arguments with a New Testament verse that warns that the “love of money is the root of all evil.” She told the jury that Phillips worried Roberts would write her out of his will, costing her a chance to inherit property valued at $150,000.

So she enlisted aid from an unknown suspect to beat, shoot at and eventually strangle Roberts in the driveway of their home, Hodge said.

“It was a cold and rainy night,” she said, “and it was a cold, brutal, personal murder.”

Phillips’ claims that she was robbed and how Roberts was later killed are “implausible” and “impossible,” Hodge argued, because Roberts had more than $100 in his pocket when police found him. Several police agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have worked to identify a second suspect, but no one else has been charged.

The “most compelling evidence,” Hodge said, will come from Phillips herself in the form of several inconsistent statements to police the night of the murder and in the days following.

The gunshot evidence

Finally, Hodge, who admitted that prosecutors do not have direct evidence linking Phillips to the murder, said jurors will hear from experts who will testify that, though Phillips claimed she had not fired a gun in years, her clothes tested positive for gunshot residue.

Frederick said that because gunshot residue is vaporous, it could have landed on her anywhere, including in a police car, at the police station or in her own home when her son, William Hunter Stephens, fired a gun a month before Roberts was killed.

“They’ve had three years with agencies across the state,” Frederick said of police and prosecutors. “They’ve had three years to prepare this opening statement...three years to put together a motive.”

He criticized Hodge’s arguments, saying that she was asking jurors to ignore the fact that prosecutors don’t have evidence proving Phillips’ involvement in Roberts’ death.

“If this were open and shut, I’d be telling you about other issues,” he said. “She is 100 percent innocent. There is no question in our minds that she is innocent.”

That’s when Frederick knelt to the floor and described in detail how two men – one possibly a light-skinned black man and the other Hispanic, or maybe both Hispanic – attacked Phillips, wrapped her in duct tape and demanded money. She thought she would be raped as they dragged her behind a brick wall, Frederick said.

She next heard Roberts’ truck pull up in the driveway and eventually a gunshot, Frederick said. Phillips freed herself from most of the tape by using a keychain around her wrist and chewing through tape that covered her mouth. “Traumatized,” Frederick said, she called her son but could not get an answer. She then called police.

Sobbing call to 911

That 911 call was played in court. In it, Phillips yelled and sobbed as she asked a dispatcher to stay with her over the phone. She screamed that the robbery happened at “Melvin Roberts’ residence!”

Frederick also challenged Hodge’s assertion about Phillips’ inconsistent statements. He called his client “weird” and “awkward” and described her as someone who “cannot be consistent to save her life about anything.”

York Police Lt. Jimor Gwinn and Capt. Brian Trail, who were first to respond to the 911 call, testified that they found Roberts face down on the ground in front of the home’s patio door.

Phillips remained in the car for about an hour, they said, as investigators looked around the scene. She did not ask to see Roberts, Gwinn said, and did not appear concerned that he was dead.

She did not appear to be very wet, Trail testified, despite the rainy weather that day and her claims that she had been outside for at least 30 minutes. Phillips changed her story several times and claimed her attackers forced her face down, Trail said, but it was the back of her jeans that were wet and slightly muddy.

Footprints found leading away from Roberts’ home and toward the woods did not match the shoes Phillips wore that night, said Vicki Hallman, a crime scene analyst with the State Law Enforcement Division.

She also testified that 10 pieces of duct tape collected from the crime scene did not contain DNA or fingerprints, and the tape used on Phillips did not contain many hair strands, contrary to what forensic experts expect to find when a victim is bound. The edges of the tape were smooth, she said, as if they had been cut with scissors instead of hastily torn.

Also Tuesday:

• Phillips’ bondsman said he no longer wanted to carry her bond, Frederick said, so she was taken into custody during the lunch break. She will remain in custody for the duration of the trial.

• On her way into the courthouse Tuesday morning, Phillips swung her purse at a Herald reporter as he was shooting video of her on the public sidewalk. Her purse did not make contact. She also threatened to sue the reporter and a Herald photographer.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082
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