Today marks 2 years since murder of ex-York Mayor Melvin Roberts

ColumnistFebruary 4, 2012 

  • Two years have passed since longtime York lawyer and former Mayor Melvin Roberts was killed:

    2010

    Feb. 4 - Roberts is found dead outside his home. His girlfriend of 10 years, Julia Phillips, tells police it was a robbery attempt. Through changing stories and gunshot residue on Phillips' clothing, police almost immediately identify her as a suspect.

    May 18 - Phillips is arrested in Gaffney outside the store she ran in the building Roberts left to her in his will. Police charge her with murder, and she is detained without bond.

    June 7 - Prosecutors say in court a motive could be that Roberts was leaving her and it would be financially "catastrophic" for her.

    June 10 - Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg, appointed to hear the case because of Roberts' long-standing relationships with York County judges, sets bond for Phillips at $75,000. He also ordered home detention and electronic monitoring. She leaves the York County jail, only to be arrested and taken to Gaffney to face a beach of trust charge.

    June 13 - Phillips is released from jail in Gaffney on $5,000 bond related to the charge that she stole $2,000 in rent money from Roberts Realty.

    June 14 - The body of Phillips' late husband, Bryant Phillips, is exhumed after his family asked for an investigation into his 1999 death. Results from those tests have not been released.

    Aug. 2 - A probate court judge upholds a ruling to remove Phillips from the Overbrook Drive home. A lawsuit filed in June by Bryant Phillips' daughters claimed she shouldn't be allowed to stay in the house. That ruling is being appealed.

    Aug. 18 - Phillips has an attorney appear on her behalf for a preliminary hearing on the breach of trust charge. Roberts' sons, David and Ronnie Roberts, release a statement that "Julia's" boutique "no longer exists." They dissolve the company that court records show was formed by their father and managed by Phillips.

    Oct. 14 - Phillips is indicted on one count of breach of trust related to the theft of $2,000 in rent money.

    Oct. 29 - 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett hands the case off to the 13th Circuit Solicitor's Office in Greenville to prosecute. Phillips' attorney had asked for Brackett's removal from the case because Brackett knew Roberts well.

    Dec. 10 - Judge Cole finds probable cause for the murder case to proceed to a grand jury.

    2011

    June 16 - Julia Phillips is indicted by a York County grand jury on the murder charge.

    June 27 - Phillips pleads guilty to felony breach of trust for stealing the $2,000 rent money; receives probation and remains on house arrest in Gaffney.

    July - Phillips relinquishes any rights to the Gaffney building where she had the store - a building she would have received after the execution of Roberts' will.

    Oct. 4 - David and Ronnie Roberts attend S.C. Statehouse ceremony for families of victims of domestic violence.

— It was two years ago today, a rainy and cold late afternoon, that police listened to a claim from the longtime girlfriend of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts of an attempted robbery in front of his home.

The story was told by Julia Phillips, on her birthday, as Roberts lay dead, strangled at age 79, in the driveway.

She claimed to have been subdued with duct tape.

More than three months later, after arresting Phillips on a charge of murder, police said her claim of robbery by a black or Hispanic man was a hoax.

Phillips had gunshot residue on her clothes, was not wet from rainfall, no money was stolen, and her story of robbery and duct tape and everything else was false, police said.

Prosecutors and police also said, later, that authorities believe the motive was money - Roberts planned to break off the relationship that had lasted a decade, removing Phillips from his will, through which she stood to gain ownership of a building in Gaffney.

Investigators also said that Phillips did not act alone in killing Roberts, who had practiced law in York for decades.

In court hearings, police testified that Phillips - who is either 68 or 72, depending on what official document you look at - had inquired, to an informant, about what it would take to kill Roberts and create an alibi for herself.

Still today, two years after Roberts was killed, Phillips has not gone to trial, and no one else has been charged.

Roberts' sons, Ronnie and David, said this week that all they want is "justice for our dad." Both men remain upset that Phillips is out on bond while waiting for the case to be heard in court.

They also want to know whether "there is a murderer in our midst," Ronnie Roberts said, if, as authorities say, Phillips did not act alone.

David Roberts was just as blunt: "I will not rest until anyone connected with this is caught."

Phillips remains on house arrest under $75,000 bond, under electronic monitoring, in the Gaffney home she shared with her husband before he died in 1999.

After their stepmother was charged with killing Roberts, Bryant Phillips' daughters asked the Cherokee County coroner to investigate how their father died. No results of the testing of Bryant Phillips' body have been released since it was exhumed in May 2010.

Phillips was not jailed after pleading guilty last year to stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts' realty company in the months before the slaying. She was sentenced to probation and went back to house arrest, after admitting she stole money from the same man police say she killed.

In court hearings, detectives testified that Phillips made two calls to her son, William Hunter Stephens, on Feb. 4, 2010, before Phillips called police to report the alleged robbery outside Roberts' home.

Phillips' lawyer in the murder case, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, claimed in court that investigators thought Stephens had played a role in Roberts' death. Stephens has not been charged.

Frederick has said in court that Phillips is not guilty of murder, being too small and frail to have killed the larger Roberts. Roberts was hit on the head the day he died and shot at, police have said.

Stephens, 48, was arrested last month - for the third time since Roberts was killed - on unrelated charges that he stole his brother's identity to get credit cards and cable TV service for the Gaffney home he lived in with his mother.

He faces previous charges of theft and drugs and driving infraction allegations, court records show. No court date has been set for Phillips' trial in the murder case, said David Hamilton, York County Clerk of Court.

Because of Roberts' 55-year connection to the courts in York County, a judge from Spartanburg and prosecutors from Greenville have been assigned to the case. Prosecutors have not offered any time frame for when Phillips will be tried.

The York Police chief and two top officers involved in the case have since retired. The State Law Enforcement Division investigator assigned to the case is also different than the agent involved when Roberts died.

Lt. Rich Caddell, supervisor of detectives for the York Police Department, said investigators continue to "actively pursue leads" in the case. He offered no details, but encouraged the public to continue to call with any information.

In court hearings, police and prosecutors have said that any other person or persons involved in the crime may have escaped by sliding down a hill behind the Roberts home. Footprints were found. Roberts' sons urged anyone with information to contact police.

"Maybe someone remembers something they may have seen that day," Ronnie Roberts said.

But after two years, what police have is one elderly defendant - whom her lawyer describes as "tiny and frail" - as the sole person charged with the murder of Melvin Roberts.

So today, David and Ronnie Roberts will not do anything on this terrible anniversary except go to the grave where their father is buried.

And they will wait some more, until the system of justice that Roberts worked in for 55 years - a system Melvin Roberts fiercely defended throughout his career - churns forward to find out all the truth.

Timeline

Two years have passed since longtime York lawyer and former Mayor Melvin Roberts was killed:

2010

Feb. 4 - Roberts is found dead outside his home. His girlfriend of 10 years, Julia Phillips, tells police it was a robbery attempt. Through changing stories and gunshot residue on Phillips' clothing, police almost immediately identify her as a suspect.

May 18 - Phillips is arrested in Gaffney outside the store she ran in the building Roberts left to her in his will. Police charge her with murder, and she is detained without bond.

June 7 - Prosecutors say in court a motive could be that Roberts was leaving her and it would be financially "catastrophic" for her.

June 10 - Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg, appointed to hear the case because of Roberts' long-standing relationships with York County judges, sets bond for Phillips at $75,000. He also ordered home detention and electronic monitoring. She leaves the York County jail, only to be arrested and taken to Gaffney to face a beach of trust charge.

June 13 - Phillips is released from jail in Gaffney on $5,000 bond related to the charge that she stole $2,000 in rent money from Roberts Realty.

June 14 - The body of Phillips' late husband, Bryant Phillips, is exhumed after his family asked for an investigation into his 1999 death. Results from those tests have not been released.

Aug. 2 - A probate court judge upholds a ruling to remove Phillips from the Overbrook Drive home. A lawsuit filed in June by Bryant Phillips' daughters claimed she shouldn't be allowed to stay in the house. That ruling is being appealed.

Aug. 18 - Phillips has an attorney appear on her behalf for a preliminary hearing on the breach of trust charge. Roberts' sons, David and Ronnie Roberts, release a statement that "Julia's" boutique "no longer exists." They dissolve the company that court records show was formed by their father and managed by Phillips.

Oct. 14 - Phillips is indicted on one count of breach of trust related to the theft of $2,000 in rent money.

Oct. 29 - 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett hands the case off to the 13th Circuit Solicitor's Office in Greenville to prosecute. Phillips' attorney had asked for Brackett's removal from the case because Brackett knew Roberts well.

Dec. 10 - Judge Cole finds probable cause for the murder case to proceed to a grand jury.

2011

June 16 - Julia Phillips is indicted by a York County grand jury on the murder charge.

June 27 - Phillips pleads guilty to felony breach of trust for stealing the $2,000 rent money; receives probation and remains on house arrest in Gaffney.

July - Phillips relinquishes any rights to the Gaffney building where she had the store - a building she would have received after the execution of Roberts' will.

Oct. 4 - David and Ronnie Roberts attend S.C. Statehouse ceremony for families of victims of domestic violence.

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