Crime & Courts

A year after trial, Roberts family seeks answers in York murder

A year ago this week, what seemed too strange to be true was laid out for the world in small-town York.

Nobody needed to make anything up about then-accused senior citizen killer Julia Phillips in her murder trial. She was convicted of killing former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, her longtime boyfriend, in a gold-digging plot to keep his money flowing so she could buy narcotics and clothes and jewelry and travel.

As the evidence and testimony showed, reality is far better than fiction.

And despite courtroom theatrics straight out of a Tennessee Williams play or a Truman Capote novel – and at least three TV documentaries in the year since – the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.

Police and prosecutors have admitted they had half a case against Phillips, maybe less. They went into court with a leaky bucket and still won – life in prison for Phillips. Investigators admit Phillips likely did not work alone. The other killer or killers remain uncaught.

“We have talked to new people in the case, made progress and continue to investigate,” said Lt. Rich Caddell of the York Police Department.

The facts of the crime and the trial itself were so bizarre. Facts brought forth through testimony and hard evidence were and still are astounding.

Roberts, 79, a lawyer in York for 55 years, was strangled outside his home on Feb. 4, 2010 – Phillips’ 66th birthday. Instead of cake and party favors, someone hit Roberts over the head, shot at him and then strangled him with a plastic zip tie.

Phillips called 911 and told police she had been assaulted and robbed during the attack. She claimed to have been kept outside in the cold rain and mud for a half hour. She did what some Southern whites tend to do; she blamed a dark-skinned attacker. Barely an hour later, she asked the cops if pictures taken of her alleged wounds and the duct tape supposedly used to bind her were “for Playboy” magazine.

Police didn’t believe her for a minute.

Roberts – a tough old hombre who could be cantankerous after his rise from penniless farm kid to shrewd lawyer, businessman and politician – was ready to throw Phillips out. She already had been stealing from Roberts to pay for drugs and her lifestyle. He had sent letters to her many creditors saying he would not give her another dime.

Phillips stuck to her story, which changed repeatedly and included a video re-enactment at the crime scene. Her lawyer said she was too small, old and frail to even hold a hammer, let alone kill anybody by strangling after a beating and gunshot. Her lifelong felon of a son, William Hunter Stephens, a drug abuser who stole from his brother and dead stepfather for drugs, admitted in court documents that he was a suspect in the killing, but his alibi checked out.

Three months later, after investigators found gunshot residue on her clothes, Phillips was arrested. Her stepdaughters from a previous marriage immediately had their father, who died in 1999, exhumed from a Gaffney grave to see if he, too, had been murdered.

Phillips was placed on house arrest pending trial, but the same stepdaughters sued to have her evicted. A judge ruled she could stay.

The Herald’s coverage of the crime and aftermath led to Phillips’ being featured on the cover of the National Enquirer.

After many delays – including Phillips’ lawyer claiming she was mentally incompetent to stand trial – the trial finally started one year ago this week. It took a week of testimony, some of it thrilling.

In just the second day, before court started, Phillips swung her purse at a Herald reporter recording her arrival at the courthouse. Phillips, not much of a home run hitter, whiffed.

Jurors watched wide-eyed as Phillips’ videotaped statements to police about being attacked were shredded by prosecutors. Jurors’ eyes got even bigger as police showed that Phillips never asked for medical help despite claiming she had been attacked – bigger still as testimony showed Phillips stopped at a store for a 12-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade before heading to her old house in Gaffney after claiming she was a crime victim.

Jurors’ eyes strained as Phillips’ unraveling life of drug abuse and back-door dope deals to get painkillers was laid bare. Their eyes almost bugged out as a street-corner plastic surgeon from nearby Gaffney testified as a police informant that Phillips had been trying for years to hire a hit man to kill Roberts, offering $10,000 to do the dirty deed.

Still, the elephant in the courtroom was the empty chair next to Phillips, as prosecutors had to admit to jurors that Phillips likely did not kill Roberts herself, but that she just hatched the plot, set up the scheme and played the starring role in a fake sob story.

After eight days of trial, jurors convicted Phillips of accessory to murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison.

Phillips remains, at age 70 – her own lawyer says Phillips really is 73 – the oldest female inmate in South Carolina’s prison system. She pushes a mop as a janitor at a woman’s prison in Columbia.

Her son, the admitted suspect who had an alibi in the killing, remains in prison on drug and fraud charges, too. Police have talked to him in the year since the trial, Caddell said, declining to give details.

Detectives also have talked to others who knew Phillips and Stephens, and more of the people in the tawdry back-alley painkiller and drug world of York and Gaffney.

The investigation goes on.

“We are still working the people around that set of people,” is all Caddell will say about the investigation.

Roberts’ family has offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to other convictions in the case.

Phillips still denies any involvement in the plot and the brutal strangling of Roberts. She has appealed her conviction. Her appellate lawyers – paid for by taxpayers that include Roberts’ sons – have received four extensions to file court papers saying what legal grounds the appeal might claim.

In the past year, crews from three different television networks have filmed documentaries on the case and trial. There might be more coming as this case continues to enthrall all except the people who loved Melvin Roberts.

For them, every day is another day an uncaught killer or killers walks free.

“I thank the jurors that convicted Julia Phillips and sent her to prison, where she will stay until dead,” said Ronnie Roberts, one of Melvin Roberts’ two sons. “I will never rest until anybody who had a hand in my dad’s death is in a courtroom facing life in a jail.

“If it takes the rest of my life, the people who did this will be caught. I will look at them in court like I looked at Julia Phillips as she was convicted. Anyone who had a hand in it, they should know by now, we don’t quit.”