Suspect in York killing still on house arrest despite violating terms of bond

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJuly 31, 2013 

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    • Jan. 25, 2012: Phillips went to church during a Wednesday night church service. Her bond conditions allowed her to attend church only on Sundays.

    • April 17, 2012: went to Walmart. Per her bond restrictions, Phillips could not walk outside the 600-foot perimeter of her Overbrook Drive home. The boundary extends to her mailbox.

    • April 25- 27, 2012: GPS battery dies and for three days she was out-of-touch with the agency

    Sept. 6, 2012: went to Walmart again

    • June 25, 2013: photographed walking to Dollar General

— The woman accused of murder in the death of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts has violated the terms of her bond more than a dozen times, but a judge ruled Wednesday that she can remain on house arrest until her trial later this month.

Julia Phillips, Roberts’ longtime girlfriend, has gone to Walmart and to church in violation of bond conditions – set by a judge three years ago – that she not leave a 600-foot perimeter around her Gaffney home.

Despite her acknowledgment of the violations, Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg on Wednesday denied a prosecutor’s motion that Phillips’ bond be revoked.

Now, she can go to the Walmart closest to her home on a designated day at a designated time to buy groceries and medications her defense attorney says she needs to ease her bout with breast cancer.

Phillips – who is either 68 or 73 years old, according to court records – has been out of jail on bond since May 2010, three months after police found Roberts, 79, strangled to death in the driveway of the home he and Phillips shared for about a decade.

She told police that a black or Hispanic man bound her with duct tape, robbed her and then killed Roberts on Feb. 4, her birthday.

Investigators said Phillips’ story did not add up when they determined no robbery took place, the duct tape was not tight, Phillips’ clothes were dry on a rainy day, she called her son twice before dialing 911 and she tested positive for gunshot residue though she claimed she hadn’t fired a gun in weeks.

Police suspect Phillips, who is charged with murder, did not act alone. They questioned her son but never charged him.

Phillips had motive to kill Roberts, police said, because she stood to inherit property in his will, but he had threatened to end their relationship and cut her off financially shortly before his death.

In 2010, Cole granted Phillips a $75,000 bond under the condition she remain on home detention with electronic monitoring until her trial. She could leave the house to visit her lawyer, visit a doctor’s office or hospital and attend “religious services” only on Sundays.

Another exception was made in March 2011 so Phillips could receive treatment at a Spartanburg hospital.

But prosecutors and Ned Polk, owner of ICU Alcohol/Electronic/Satellite Monitoring Service in Rock Hill, said in court Wednesday that Phillips had violated her bond several times in more than a year.

The case is prosecuted by a Greenville County solicitor because York County judges and prosecutors recused themselves to avoid perceived conflicts of interest because of long-standing relationships with Roberts, who had practiced law for 55 years.

Kris Hodge, the 13th Circuit Court solicitor on the case, told Cole that witnesses have contacted her after they spotted Phillips in public. She then listed more than a dozen bond violations Polk’s office documented against Phillips since January 2012, including:

• At least two shopping trips to Walmart.

• Allowing her GPS monitor’s battery to die so she remained out of touch for several days.

• A trip to a Dollar General last month, which Phillips’ former stepdaughter photographed.

Lori Gaffney told The Herald she happened to be traveling near Dollar General when she saw Phillips walking down the street and stop to speak with a motorist at a stoplight.

Myrtle Beach lawyer Bobby Frederick, Phillips’ attorney, said Phillips fixed the broken GPS monitor on her ankle. When Polk reported that Phillips walked outside her home’s perimeter in June 2012, Frederick said, she did so to speak with authorities after calling police about an issue not disclosed in court.

Phillips walked several miles to Dollar General last month to buy food after the sister who cares for her had a stroke, and another sister said she was unable to help, Frederick said, and she went to Walmart to buy medicine she needs to combat breast cancer.

Not so, according to Phillips, who interjected and argued with her lawyer, saying: “No, I have never bought a prescription at Walmart. I’ve always bought my prescriptions from Rite Aid.”

“Home detention is an alternative to incarceration,” Cole told Phillips, adding that only he can approve exceptions to the condition of her bond. “She doesn’t get to go to Walmart, the drugstore...or toy aisle.”

Phillips interrupted Cole, who told her he would hold her in contempt of court if she continued to speak out of turn. He told her he’d give her the opportunity to speak.

“You promise?” Phillips asked.

“Mrs. Phillips, don’t say another word,” Cole warned.

She said, “OK.”

Hodge said she sent an email to Frederick about the violations last summer and warned she would take action if he could not “control” his client. Frederick said he thought the problem had been resolved after that.

Phillips was supposed to inform the monitoring agency when she left her home to meet with her lawyer, attend church or go to the hospital, Polk said. She was to contact her attorney if she wanted to go somewhere outside her bond restrictions. Her attorney was then supposed to contact the solicitor so both parties could appear before a judge.

Most of the time, Phillips obeyed the court order and reported her actions, Polk said, adding that GPS monitoring allows the agency to track her whether she contacted them or not. The violations came when Phillips’ monitoring device registered at places she was not approved to go.

Polk said he doesn’t think Phillips violated bond conditions intentionally.

“She was just doing the necessities of life,” he said. … She just flat-out forgot” to notify the agency.

Still, Cole took issue with the fact that he had not been informed of the violations before Wednesday’s hearing. Polk said he reported the violations to Hodge and the York County Clerk of Court.

“I set bond and I put conditions on it, so any violations are reported to me,” Cole said.

Frederick mentioned Phillips’ “mental condition” when he asked that Cole not revoke the bond. Phillips, he said, “says she will not leave the house again.” He said she’s not a flight risk and has “no means to go anywhere.”

In the time since Phillips was charged with murder in 2010:

• She pleaded guilty to stealing $2,000 worth of rent money from Roberts’ real estate business. She was sentenced to probation.

• The body of her late husband, Bryant Phillips, who officials say died of congestive heart failure in 1999, was exhumed at his daughters’ request in light of Phillips’ murder charge. The results of that test have not been made public.

• Bryant Phillips’ daughters, Lori Gaffney and Angela Shaheen, successfully sued to have Phillips and her son, William Hunter Stephens, evicted from their late father’s house, which he left to Phillips until her death or remarriage. Judge Cole ordered that she continue living there, though, until her trial.

• Frederick has claimed Phillips is too small and frail to have killed Roberts. He also said she is not mentally fit to stand trial. But, as Hodge noted on Wednesday, “she’s competent,” according to a ruling Cole made in April.

“They’re going to ask you to give her a little pat on the wrist and let her go,” Hodge said.

Because Phillips went on with her life, “doing what she wanted to do,” Hodge said, she likely assumed that the trial “would never see the light of day.”

Cole told Phillips she will have to contact her lawyer, who will have to ask Cole if there can be any “reasonable” bond condition exceptions. He approved Frederick’s request that Phillips be allowed to shop at Walmart at a designated time on a designated day to be determined later.

Phillips also will have to give Polk proof that she bought medicine or food.

David Roberts, one of Melvin Roberts’ two sons, said after the hearing he was “very disappointed” that Cole decided not to revoke Phillips’ bond. He said he’s concerned that she won’t show up for trial.

Phillips is scheduled to go to trial on Aug. 26. She declined to comment after the hearing.

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