Julia Phillips, the convicted killer of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts in a crime that remains at least partially unsolved, died late Wednesday, York police and prison officials said.
She died in a hospital, while the man she was convicted of killing – the boyfriend who paid for her lifestyle for a decade – died gasping for breath on the driveway of his home as icy rain covered his body.
It remains unclear if any chance to catch whomever worked with Phillips in the killing that police and prosecutors say involved at least one other person and possibly more, died with Phillips.
Phillips, 72, was believed to have been the oldest female killer in South Carolina’s prison system. After a weeklong trial in 2013, throughout which she maintained her innocence, Phillips was convicted of accessory to murder and sentenced to prison for life.
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After a 10-year relationship during which the couple lived together, police and prosecutors said, Roberts was planning to cut off Phillips financially. That prompted her to try to hire a hit man to kill Roberts. She also was dealing with a narcotics addiction, police said, and had stolen thousands of dollars from Roberts before he died.
Roberts was shot at, hit over the head and strangled in the driveway of his home on Feb. 4, 2010.
“Our father died a far more painful death than she did,” David Roberts said.
Ronnie Roberts said he felt no sorrow for Phillips after being told by prison officials of the death of the woman convicted in connection with the murder of his father.
“I hope she died a painful death,” he said. “I said when Julia was convicted she would rot in jail and then burn in hell. She is dead. She is not in jail any more.
“That means she is burning right now ... Last night was her first night in hell.”
An autopsy performed Thursday morning showed Phillips, who had suffered from heart disease, died of natural causes, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said. Autopsies are routine when inmates die. Phillips, who died at Palmetto Health Richland hospital in Columbia, had been incarcerated at Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia, where she had been housed since her 2013 conviction.
For a week last month – June 23-29 – Phillips was taken out of the prison for women for treatment of an undisclosed medical problem, state Department of Corrections records show. She was rushed to the hospital Wednesday, where she died.
Phillips denied involvement from the time Roberts was killed until her death. York police said Thursday that detectives plan to be at the prison Friday when state corrections officials inventory Phillips’ personal effects to see if anything found might help the investigation. Phillips refused to talk to police while in prison and her appeal – which was scheduled for later this year – was pending.
The hope by police and Roberts’ family is that there’s a clue among Phillips belongings to lead them to possible co-conspirators, including the person authorities believe strangled Roberts.
“We are disappointed we never had a chance to talk to Ms. Phillips, and this may close some doors in the investigation,” said Lt. Rich Caddell of the York Police Department, who is in charge of the case. “But it may open other doors.”
Caddell, Detective Billy Mumaw and York Police Chief Andy Robinson vowed to keep the case active until anyone else involved is caught.
Police still consider Phillips’ son, William Hunter Stephens, a suspect in the case, Caddell said Thursday. Stephens, a convicted felon recently released from prison on unrelated drug and fraud charges, admitted himself that he was a suspect in court documents when he claimed he was charged with drug crimes because police wanted to nail him for the Roberts killing.
Stephens has never been charged. During Julia Phillips’ 2013 trial, Stephens provided an alibi – a retired police officer from Gaffney who placed Stephens miles from the crime scene in York.
Police have interviewed Stephens several times while he was in prison and since. He has submitted to a lie detector test. Police “do not feel he was at the home when the murder took place,” Caddell said, but that has not eliminated Stephens as important to solving the crime more than six years later.
Stephens “injected” himself in the case, Caddell said, and remains “a person we are not finished with.”
Police have no other suspects, Caddell said. Now that Phillips is dead, police plan to interview people she talked with while in prison, including family members and anyone else who might have knowledge of the crime.
After Roberts, 79, a longtime York lawyer, was strangled outside his home, Phillips told police she was attacked in the same assault. Police never believed her story and arrested her three months later as an accessory to murder.
Authorities say Phillips concocted a scheme to kill him in an attempt to secure her financial future, after learning that Roberts was preparing to end their relationship.
York police and State Law Enforcement Division agents tried for years to get Phillips to confess, but she denied having played any role in Roberts’ killing. Her appeal of the murder conviction was set for later this year and the hope of police and Roberts’ sons was that Phillips would eventually name her accomplice.
“We are more committed than ever to making sure that anyone who was involved in the brutal killing of our father is caught,” David Roberts said. “Julia’s death does not change the fact that we will find everyone who had any role in that killing.”
He called Phillips a “cold, calculating, ruthless killer.”
Ronnie Roberts said Phillips concocted and carried out the plan to have his father killed – all over money.
“My father died in the cold,” he said. “He was murdered, strangled, and she was the one who did it. She and anyone else who helped her, we will find all of them.
“We will not rest until all of them are in prison just like she was, where she died without ever telling us or anyone who helped her.”
The Roberts family has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone else involved in the killing.
York Mayor Eddie Lee, a longtime friend of Melvin Roberts, said he remains confident York police will solve the case.
“There are many unanswered questions in the death of Melvin Roberts, but Julia Phillips’ death does not end the pursuit of answers to those questions,” Lee said. “The police department in York has been relentless in this case, and will continue to be.”
Efforts to reach Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, Phillips’ lawyer in the 2013 murder trial, were unsuccessful Thursday. Frederick claimed from the time of Phillips’ arrest that she had been unfairly targeted by police and that she was too small and weak to have killed Roberts.
As Phillips’ trial began, Frederick claimed that she was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Doctors testified that Phillips understood she was facing murder charges and capable of assisting in her defense.
Michael Scott of Columbia, Phillips’ court-appointed appeals lawyer, called Phillips’ death “terrible news.” He declined to comment on the fact that Phillips never had an appeal hearing after almost three years in prison. He had written in court documents that Phillips was convicted without enough evidence and never should have faced a jury.
Roberts’ killing stunned the York community. The arrest and conviction of Phillips spawned several television documentaries that were rooted in The Herald’s reporting on the case.
Phillips called 911 the night Roberts was killed. When police arrived, she had duct tape wrapped around her head and wrists. She told officers she had been held outdoors in the rainy night for half an hour by an unknown black or Hispanic attacker.
From the beginning, York police believed Phillips’ story was a sham and spent months accumulating evidence against her. Evidence included gunshot residue on her clothes. Police also said her clothes were not wet and the duct tape was not tight or otherwise consistent with having been used for binding. Phone records show she called her son twice before calling 911.
Phillips also gave several recorded statements, including a reenactment of the alleged crime, that police said were false and contradictory. Those were used against her at trial.
After her arrest in May 2010, Phillips spent three years under house arrest after admitting to having stolen money from Roberts. While Phillips awaited her murder trial, the Cherokee County coroner exhumed the body of her former husband, Bryant Phillips, after his stepdaughters demanded an investigation into their father’s 1999 death. No charges were ever brought in that case.
Phillips’ stepdaughter, Lori Gaffney, who fought Phillips for years over possession of the family home, asked the coroner to review the death of Bryant Phillips. She declined to comment Thursday on Phillips’ death.
Phillips had been a prison ward keeper, cleaning and performing maintenance and other duties while in prison before she died.
And now, more than six years after Melvin Roberts was killed, what Julia Phillips may have known about who else was involved may have died with her.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • @andrewdysherald