No more waiting: Girlfriend on trial for 2010 strangling of former York mayor

Herald columnistAugust 24, 2013 

— This case about a strangling could not be scripted better by Hollywood screenwriters.

It is a Southern, small-town love story, complete with a Sugar Daddy who was going to break off a relationship that ended with his murder and the accused white woman blaming a black attacker.

But this is real life.

In court on Monday morning, more than a thousand days after the killing that shocked York and York County, prosecutors will attempt to prove that Julia Phillips killed her longtime boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, who practiced law here for more than five decades.

This is a woman who, police said, did not act alone in the killing – but, crucially, nobody else has been arrested.

A woman whose mental competency was tested, yet a woman many claimed might be malingering to avoid a trial as she waited for judgment day. A woman who waited on house arrest in a Gaffney home that she had been evicted from under a cloud of suspicion about how her then-husband died in 1999.

Roberts grew up the son of a tenant farmer, so poor he went to school barefooted, then hitchhiked to college and became a profound success.

Melvin Roberts’ life was the American dream, until his life ended in nightmare as he gasped for air.

The killing has been topic No. 1 in York for more than three years. A day does not pass when people don’t ask about it, wonder, speculate.

“It is time for justice to run its course,” said York Mayor Eddie Lee, a longtime friend of Roberts. “Everybody is anxious for this to reach its conclusion.”

Phillips – who is either 68 or 72, according to conflicting court records – was Roberts’ longtime girlfriend who had lived with him for a decade. She slept at Roberts’ York home nights, ran a business in her hometown of Gaffney by day.

That business was a money pit and went belly up twice. Roberts paid the bills.

Phillips’ husband died in 1999. His body was exhumed at his daughters’ request after Phillips’ 2010 arrest for murder in Roberts’ slaying. The daughters sued to have Phillips evicted from their late father’s home.

Phillips had money trouble and creditors demanding payments that were never paid, even after court judgments against her.

She was convicted of having stolen rent money from Roberts around the time of the killing, after he decided to cut off the money that she had used to stay afloat for so long. She pocketed $2,000 in rent that Roberts’ tenants paid her.

She stood to inherit a building when Roberts died.

Police have said Phillips allegedly spoke years ago in front of an informant about how to kill Roberts and not get caught.

Her ex-con son was a suspect in the Roberts killing, too, before he was sent to prison for other crimes. He claimed he could not get a fair shot in his drug and fraud scams in court, after a life of crime, because he was suspected of a role in Roberts’ killing.

The son claimed the judicial system was working against him to try to pin Roberts’ death on him.

Phillips lied about the killing itself, police say. She claimed she had been robbed and tied up by a black man – no, she said later, he was Hispanic. Yet no money was stolen.

Phillips – all 5 feet 2 inches and 100 pounds of her – supposedly killed a man far larger and stronger by strangling him with a zip tie after he had been hit over the head.

All of this in the rain, in the driveway of the dead man’s home in the city he has practiced law in for a half century, and once ran as mayor. Despite the rain, police say, Phillips’ clothes were not drenched when she called to report the alleged robbery and having found Roberts dead in the driveway.

Phillips and her lawyer have claimed since day one that she is innocent. She gave police statements and participated in a re-enactment with officers.

Three months after the killing, she was charged with murder.

The dead man is not some drug kingpin who avoided death for years before getting what he deserved.

Melvin Roberts personally knew judges – from the York County bench to the Supreme Court. He defended accused killers who were innocent and killers who were guilty in 55 years of practice that made him the dean of York County lawyers.

He ran a car business and a realty business.

He was loud and proud.

Roberts could be gruff, said longtime friend and former law partner, Jim Boyd. But age had not slowed Roberts’ legal mind or his care for clients and people in general, he said.

Roberts never would have retired, Boyd said, and “Melvin wasn’t scared of dying, either.”

But nobody ever thought Melvin Roberts, iconic lawyer, would die at the hands of a killer.

Just a year before he was strangled, Roberts took to trial a murder case involving the same York Police Department that would investigate his slaying. Roberts argued that the cops botched the case and arrested the wrong man. He fought long and hard and he roared at injustice.

Roberts won that case. The man was found not guilty.

Months later, Roberts himself was dead, a homicide victim.

The case against Phillips is circumstantial. Phillips never confessed. No witnesses to the crime have been found. Her lawyer has stated repeatedly she was too small and frail to kill Roberts.

Now, 42 months later, a jury of 12 people from York County will decide.

The jury will decide whether the broke girlfriend convicted of stealing from Roberts was a victim herself that awful day in February 2010.

Or the jury will decide that Julia Phillips, a senior citizen, reportedly fighting breast cancer, is the ultimate femme fatale – a woman who took everything she could get from Roberts until finally she killed him for money, then blamed some mysterious brown-skinned man.

The jury will decide if Phillips heads back to Gaffney to live, or dies in a prison.

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

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service