Sons of slain Melvin Roberts learn domestic violence first-hand

ColumnistOctober 6, 2011 

— The dead in domestic violence crimes of 2010 were read alphabetically by county Tuesday.

Accounts of an elderly woman, 85, killed by repeated blows of a hatchet to the head. Women sliced up with kitchen knives. And of course - this being South Carolina - dozens of bullets fired by jealous or desperate men. Several of those cowards then turned the guns on themselves.

York County comes last in South Carolina, alphabetically. The 44th and last name read by the attorney general himself, Alan Wilson, at a ceremony in Columbia was of a legendary man named Melvin Roberts.

On the steps of the Statehouse, where laws are made - laws that Melvin Roberts upheld through his whole 55-year career as a lawyer, many times representing the poorest, most broke defendants in the state who were accused of some terrible things - stood David Roberts with a silhouette of a faceless man.

David Roberts' father was Melvin Roberts. Nearby stood Ronnie Roberts, his other son.

"Melvin Roberts, 79 years old," the attorney general read, as not even a bird whistled in a tree. "Mr. Roberts was strangled to death on February 4, 2010. Mr. Roberts died at his home from asphyxiation due to strangulation. He was also shot.

"Mr. Roberts' girlfriend, Julia Phillips, was questioned by police and gave statements about the scene that were inconsistent with the evidence. Investigators believe that an unknown accomplice killed Mr. Roberts and that Ms. Phillips conspired to have him killed.

"At the time of his death, Mr. Roberts was the longest-serving member of the South Carolina Bar. Ms. Phillips was arrested and charged with murder. She is currently awaiting trial. Mr. Roberts is survived by two sons."

Those two sons did not want to go and be a part of a group of grieving, broken families, but they went anyway - to support other victims of domestic violence and to honor their father.

Their father had worked as a lawyer longer than any other man in South Carolina. No other victim had his or her lifetime of public service mentioned.

"It was something we felt like we had to do, a tribute to Dad," said David Roberts.

Of the 44 victims, 10 were men. Melvin Roberts was the second-oldest and the only one believed to be the victim of a murder conspiracy.

"Most people think of domestic violence, they think of young women, but Dad was sure a victim of domestic violence," Ronnie Roberts said. "He was murdered at his own house. And the police say she did it."

Julia Phillips was not at the ceremony, nor is she in jail awaiting trial. She is under house arrest - with electronic monitoring - in the Gaffney home that belonged to her late husband. A house that her stepdaughters from that marriage had her evicted from - but she remains in because of her house arrest requirements.

Prosecutors have said the motive for this domestic violence killing was money. Melvin Roberts was going to break off the more than 10-year relationship after he found out Phillips, who lists her age as 66 in police records but could be as old as 71, had been stealing from him, authorities allege.

Prosecutors have claimed Phillips knew Roberts was leaving her and she had "every reason to believe" he would write her out of his will, and she would stand to lose property because of it.

Phillips claimed to have been robbed and kidnapped at the same time on a rainy day, in a crime done by a man she first said was Hispanic, then black. But police say no money was stolen from Phillips or Roberts, her clothes were dry and she had gunshot residue on her clothes.

After Roberts was killed, Phillips' stepdaughters asked the Cherokee County coroner to exhume the body of their father, Bryant Phillips, so testing could be done. The body buried in 1999 was dug up. No results have been released.

Julia Phillips, Roberts' sons have testified, traveled the world with their father, who paid her bills for years. Her payback to Melvin Roberts for his decade of paying her bills, police allege, was to strangle him to death in his own driveway, or assist with that strangulation.

Police say her claims of robbery and kidnapping were bogus and suspect Phillips did not act alone in this domestic violence. No one else has been arrested.

None of the other cases of domestic violence received two pages of coverage in the National Enquirer.

A couple of weeks ago, at supermarket checkouts across America, the tabloid that sells millions broke no news but did splash the case against Julia Phillips across two pages with the headline, "Black widow."

That is the awful reality for David and Ronnie Roberts every day of their lives.

The sons went to that awful, necessary ceremony on Tuesday because their father deserves justice in York County's 2010 domestic violence killing.

"We heard at the ceremony how brutal, how senseless these killings were," Ronnie Roberts said. "These domestic violence murders were vicious, mean, awful and violent."

In his long career, which included a stint as mayor of York, Melvin Roberts fought in the system ferociously for the little guy. The voiceless person had a voice with Melvin Roberts.

With his killing, he became one of the voiceless.

Yet his sons are not silent. Both are upset - "livid" was Ronnie Roberts' word - that Julia Phillips has been out of jail on house arrest for more than year.

She was convicted in Gaffney this summer of stealing money from Roberts' real estate company before he was killed. In that case, Phillips pleaded guilty to a felony and was sentenced to probation. Then she went home.

The sons went home, too, but without a father.

The judge in the case ruled when setting bond in 2010 that Phillips was not a flight risk. She did not flee in the three months after the killing before she was arrested, and she was likely not a threat to the community, the judge ruled. Before her arrest, Phillips had no criminal record.

She has since pleaded guilty to a felony, which brings a criminal record.

Phillips' lawyer has said Phillips is not guilty, that Phillips was too small and too frail to kill Roberts.

Court records reviewed Wednesday show that as recently as September, the electronic monitoring company reported to authorities that Phillips has conformed with wearing the bracelet.

But Roberts' sons remain upset that any bond is an issue. This is an unresolved murder case in which one person is charged and authorities suspect others were involved. No date has been set for Phillips' trial.

"People in York and Gaffney are upset she is out on bond," Ronnie Roberts said. "I am one of them."

After seeing the shared pain of others, all the ruined families, Roberts' sons are considering some kind of public effort in their father's honor on behalf of other domestic violence victims.

David Roberts hopes that soon there will be no need for ceremonies like the one he had to attend.

"It sure would be nice if nobody had to go there and hold a cutout, a silhouette, because their father or mother or child was murdered in a senseless, brutal crime," David Roberts said. "That happened to our dad.

"I don't wish it on anybody else."

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

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