GAFFNEY — The son of the woman accused of killing former York Mayor Melvin Roberts – who was once a suspect in the 2010 killing and claimed he was targeted by police afterward – was sentenced Monday to more than 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and drug charges.
William Hunter Stephens, 49, was a suspect in Roberts’ killing, then claimed in court documents that he was only charged with credit card fraud and obtaining drugs in his dead stepfather’s name because police wanted to keep interrogating him.
Stephens’ mother, Julia Phillips, was Roberts’ live-in girlfriend for a decade. She was charged in May 2010 with killing Roberts after police said she fabricated a claim that she had been robbed and kidnapped when Roberts was strangled in his York driveway.
Phillips called her son twice before she called 911 on Feb. 4, 2010, police have said in court hearings. Police say Phillips did not work alone, but Stephens has never been charged in connection to Roberts’ killing.
Prosecutors allege Phillips killed Roberts because he was going to cut off financial support to her business and lifestyle.
Phillips pleaded guilty in 2011 to felony breach of trust charges stemming from the theft of $2,000 in rent money from Roberts’ real estate business.
Stephens claimed last year after his arrest he could not get a fair shake from Cherokee County prosecutors on the drug and fraud charges because Roberts knew many Cherokee prosecutors, so the prosecution of the charges he pleaded guilty to Monday was transferred to the state Attorney General’s office
On Monday, Stephens admitted to the three felonies, including using the identities of his long-dead stepfather and his brother to get prescription medications, run up thousands of dollars in credit card bills and pay for such expenses as cable television.
Stephens’ criminal history dates back to the 1980s, testimony showed, and he has spent at least three terms in state and federal prisons on drugs, fraud and other charges.
Stephens claimed in court Monday that he stole because of an addiction to painkillers and anti-depressants.
But his stepsister, Lori Phillips Gaffney, testified that Stephens’ claims of drug abuse are just a smokescreen for decades of loafing and stealing tens of thousands of dollars that started weeks after her father died in 1999. Stephens “victimized” her family for 13 years, Gaffney said, using a “computer as his weapon” to steal identities and run up massive bills.
“He started this game 13 years ago and continued it,” she said.
From 2000 to 2010 – while Phillips lived in York with Roberts – Stephens lived rent-free in the home in Gaffney that Phillips had shared with her late husband, Bryant Phillips, while scamming family members, Gaffney said.
Gaffney and her sister continue to pay taxes, monthly bills and other expenses on the home of their late father. Bryant Phillips’ will stated Julia Phillips could live in the home until she died.
Stephens faced up to 25 years in prison for all three counts, which alleged frauds starting back to 2008. Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole – the same judge assigned to Julia Phillips’ murder case – sentenced Stephens to half the maximum time. He does get credit for the 15 months he has been in jail since his arrest.
One of Stephens’ court-appointed lawyers, assistant Cherokee County public defender Michael Berry, had asked Cole for leniency. He said after Monday’s hearing he was “surprised” at the length of the sentence. He declined further comment.
Stephens’ other lawyer, Myrtle Beach criminal defense attorney William Luse, alleged in court papers last year that Stephens was “only indicted for a drug charge after the state believed the defendant was part of the alleged murder of Melvin Roberts.” He could not be reached for comment after court.
Luse did not mention that allegation in court Monday.
One of Roberts’ sons, Ronnie Roberts, attended the sentencing hearing. He said afterward he was pleased that Stephens can no longer “victimize anyone else.”
“Now he will be separated from his mother, the same person who is charged in the death of my father,” Roberts said.
Monday’s sentencing is just the latest twist in the three years since the death of Roberts, 79, who had practiced law for 55 years in York when he was killed. Phillips was arrested three months later, when police said testing showed gunpowder residue on her clothes and that she had lied about being robbed.
Just days after her arrest, the Cherokee County coroner exhumed Bryant Phillips’ body when Gaffney asked for an investigation of his death because her stepmother had just been charged with killing Roberts.
That investigation remains pending.
Gaffney then successfully sued to have both Stephens and Phillips kicked out of the home that Bryant and Julia Phillips lived in before he died. That eviction remains on hold because Judge Cole ruled that Phillips has to live there on house arrest while waiting her murder trial.
Phillips’ prosecution is being handled by Greenville solicitors and Cole, who is based in Spartanburg, because of Roberts’ long-standing connections to York County’s prosecutors and judges.
The murder case remains on hold while Phillips is undergoing mental competency testing. Her lawyer, Bobby Frederick, claimed in court papers that she is incompetent to stand trial and can’t assist in her own defense.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065