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After Julia Phillips’ murder conviction, an accomplice remains uncaught

By Andrew Dys
Herald columnist
phillipsday8
ANDY BURRISS - aburriss@heraldonline.com
Julia Phillips in court at the Moss Justice Center in York Thursday for the eighth day of her murder trial. Julia Phillips stands to make a statement to the judge after the guilty verdict was handed down. Her defense lawyer Bobby Frederick is at right.

YORK Just after 8 a.m. Friday, 14 hours after his father’s girlfriend had been sentenced to life in prison for killing his father, David Roberts stopped at the post office.

Using his father’s old key, he picked up the office mail for Roberts Realty.

Then he went to the York Police Department and saw Detective Billy Mumaw, the lead detective in the murder case that seemed to end Thursday night with Julia Phillips’ being led off to life in prison for killing former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.

“We still have to catch a killer,” David Roberts said.

The case is not over.

Phillips, the accomplice to murder – at least 69 years old but maybe as old as 73, her family says – already was at the state Department of Corrections by Friday morning.

Phillips, until the day she dies, will be known as Inmate No. 356902.

“Tick, tock – that’s all I can say to whoever it is out there who killed my father,” said David Roberts. “The clock is ticking. And we will not rest until he is caught.”

Mumaw, right back at his office Friday after that two-week trial, said the same thing.

“We are continuing to investigate,” he said. “We have never stopped investigating.”

Convicting Phillips remains tempered by the belief of law enforcement that only half of the killing team is in prison. The person prosecutors argued actually killed Roberts, 79, remains on the loose.

“The trial is over, justice was served, but the search by our officers goes on,” said York Mayor Eddie Lee.

Even after conviction, Phillips has refused to admit any guilt or give police any leads as to who helped her in the crime.

The theory of police and prosecutors, agreed to by jurors, showed Phillips as a prescription-drug-addicted, desperate woman who had Roberts killed before he could change his will and cut off her chance to get a $150,000 building in Gaffney.

Roberts already had cut off paying Phillips’ bills, friends said, and was going to end the relationship and cut Phillips out of his will when he was strangled outside his home Feb. 4, 2010.

Throughout York – at church groups and the grocery store where Phillips bought her last six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade before the killing – almost all people talked about the trial. Like the dozen jurors who needed less than four hours to convict Phillips, the community seems convinced that the jury got it right.

Melvin Roberts was not just another guy. He was the senior lawyer in York County with 55 years of practice when he was strangled with a zip tie. A pathologist testified that Roberts died a brutal, struggling death outside the house that he built with his own two hands.

“York is a place where people know each other, and people knew Melvin Roberts,” Lee said. “When he was killed, through the trial and even today, people are talking about it.”

At the Roberts Realty offices – Phillips was convicted in 2011 of stealing from the company – David Roberts received walk-ins Friday. The phone rang almost non-stop. The community of York, in calls from a retired cop’s widow, a renter and more, wanted to tell him that all were happy a killer was convicted.

“Our family has always been honored by how York has cared about Dad’s case, and they still do,” David Roberts said.

A woman who rents a home from Roberts Realty walked in Friday to pay her rent. She had the face and hands of a working woman.

“I’m glad they got her,” she told David Roberts as he handed her a receipt.

Nobody deserves to get strangled by a girlfriend of 10 years, and nobody deserves an accomplice who has never been caught.

Phillips arrived at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia before dawn Friday. She gave jailers at the York County jail no trouble in her last night in York.

Her driver Friday, heading south on Interstate 77, was a heavyset deputy carrying a gun that can stop an elephant. She wore handcuffs. And leg irons. And a waist chain.

This old lady is a convicted killer. Her lawyer, Bobby Frederick, could not be reached Friday to see if Phillips plans to appeal the verdict and sentence.

Yet Phillips is expected to appeal her conviction: Almost all people convicted at trial appeal. Almost all stay in prison.

Graham is a maximum-security prison, one of three prisons for women in the state, said Clark Newsom, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. All new female inmates go through reception and evaluation there.

“This woman sat in my house, with my granddaughter bouncing on her knee, on Thanksgiving in 2009 and it turned out she was plotting to kill my father at the same time,” David Roberts said Friday.

He had told the judge the same thing in court Thursday night. “She was scheming to kill Dad when we were having a family party.”

Violent female offenders convicted of murder usually end up long term at one of two maximum-security prisons for women: Graham in Columbia or Leith Correctional Institution in Greenwood, Newsom said.

Processing is prioritized, Newsom said, and older women with health concerns require extra attention.

If an inmate needs crisis intervention, whether she has any protective concerns, requires medication – all are taken into consideration, Newsom said.

Trial testimony showed Phillips abused prescription narcotic painkillers and bought drugs both legally and illegally for many years. And, although a state psychiatrist found her competent to trial last week, her lawyer claimed as the trial began that Phillips was mentally incompetent and not fit to stand trial or assist in her own defense.

Phillips will be at the Columbia reception prison for prisoners for up to a month, Newsom said. New inmates go through several interviews that include classification, medical, educational testing and substance abuse screening, Newsom said.

William Hunter Stephens, Phillips son, who was a suspect in the killing but was never charged, is also an admitted narcotics addict who stole from his family and others in a lifetime of crime and jail. He is in prison for drug possession and fraud.

Phillips and Stephens – quite possibly South Carolina’s only mother/son convicted felon duo serving time in the state’s prisons.

After the verdict, Ronnie Roberts, David Roberts’ brother, vowed to catch the other killer who worked with Phillips. Then he had this send-off for the woman who stole from his father and then killed him:

“May she rot in hell.”

Phillips did not go to hell Friday, but as David Roberts said, “she sure went to prison.”

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com
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