YORK — In prison, taxpayers pay for everything for a man described in court documents as “a madman on the loose” when he was shooting four people and robbing seven stores in 2007 and 2008.
We will pay for Phillip Watts’ housing, medical care, food and a phalanx of lawyers until he dies.
Watts, 26, has never held a job, never done anything except steal and maim people – and then blame everybody else.
Police and prosecutors have said if Watts had a larger gun than the stolen .22-caliber pistol he shot four people with, he would have been a serial killer.
Ida Neal Lord, meanwhile, had always worked. She helped hospice patients die with dignity. She cleaned the withering bodies. She fed them. She soothed them. She kissed them and told them she loved them.
Then Watts shot her in the head when she went into a payday lender business on Valentine’s Day in 2008. Just for kicks, he shot her in the back, too.
Lord, six years later at 48, can barely eat and pay rent and utilities on her $771 a month disability payments. Sometimes she has to go to food banks to have anything to eat. Watts took away her ability to take care of herself.
“It is a struggle every day to try and live,” Lord said. “I was never this way. I didn’t do this. It was done to me. He gets treated like royalty. Look how I got treated.”
And now, Lord’s future rests with the state Supreme Court, which will decide if she can continue with a lawsuit alleging that the business where Watts shot her should have had a security guard on site, because Watts before his arrest was a threat to public safety – including the customers at the payday lender.
Watts gets money for stamps to mail in his appeals. Lord gets nothing except food stamps. Or she did, until cuts in the federal program went into effect last year cut her off from those measly dollars, too.
Watts is serving nine life sentences for a string of crimes that terrorized York County. He was caught because he left DNA behind when he licked a pen during his last crime – when he shot Lord at Cash on The Spot at the corner of Heckle Boulevard and South Cherry Road in Rock Hill.
That came just days after he had shot two people at a Fort Mill store, and another at a Rock Hill fish market.
On Valentine’s Day 2008, Lord, mother of three and a grandmother, was on her way home from helping hospice patients. She stopped at the Cash on The Spot to get money to send to her brother, who was in prison. Waiting inside was a man wearing a hoodie, posing as a customer. That was Watts, fresh off six other armed robberies in two months.
After Watts shot Lord in the head and back, she was rushed to a hospital, paralyzed.
A few days later, after matching DNA from that robbery scene to Watts’ from a state criminal database – he had been in juvenile detention until just weeks before he started robbing and shooting – Rock Hill Police Capt. Charles Cabaniss charged into Watts’ girlfriend’s apartment. Cabaniss – who had apprehended the most violent offenders in York County for three decades – told Watts to sit still or die.
At that moment, Lord was hooked up to a machine that breathed for her. She was in a coma – and would be for months.
Watts confessed, saying he had planned to rob and shoot until police stopped him or killed him. Here is what he said about shooting Ida Neal Lord:
“I got behind her and was going to threaten her and get the clerk to give me the money. I must have cocked the hammer beforehand, and it went off. I saw her hair on fire as she fell to the ground. I turned and shot her as she lay on the ground. I looked at the clerk behind the counter, and then I left.”
Watts was convicted at trial of one of the armed robberies, then later pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the rest of his crimes. Lord – wearing a helmet that kept her skull in place so her brain wouldn’t leak out – had to be wheeled into court, her wheelchair pushed by another of Watts’ victims, former Fort Mill Mayor Charlie Powers. Watts shot him in the face in a Fort Mill armed robbery during which he also shot a clerk in the stomach.
Once in prison, Watts immediately became a most prolific writer of jailhouse appeals. He has filed and lost lawsuits claiming his first lawyer botched his case – despite overwhelming evidence against him, his own confession and an alibi that was shown to have been a concoction of lies. He claimed the United States, South Carolina and any other entity he could think of was out to get him.
Prison records show Watts has been caught three times with drugs, most recently in September. He has lost his canteen privileges and phone privileges – but not his right to file lawsuits – for three years because of his possession of contraband. Before Christmas, Watts filed yet another lawsuit alleging ineffective counsel from his court-appointed lawyer when he pleaded guilty. In prison, Watts has access to computers, pens and paper. Every time he asks, he gets another taxpayer-funded lawyer. He has had almost a dozen of those lawyers so far.
Lord went through years of therapy, learning again how to walk and talk, how to feed and bathe herself. Her arm is limp, her body ruined. She can’t work. She gets no free lawyers. She gets nothing but the small disability payments that keep her from starving in a tiny apartment in her hometown of York.
In 2009, a lawyer filed a lawsuit on Lord’s behalf against the business that she was in when she was shot and maimed for life. The lawsuit claimed negligence that cost Lord her health and future. The lawsuit alleged that the business should have had a security guard and other measures in place.
The big insurance company for the business balked at paying Lord anything because of an assault and battery crime exclusion in the business’ liability policy. The insurance giant got the case dismissed.
In the York County case against the business, the owner of the business acknowledged that there was “a madman on the loose.” But lawyers for the business argued that Watts was so out of control, so bent on violence, a security guard posted at the business would have made no difference. A security guard “would have provided Mr. Watts another victim,” the lawyer for the business wrote in legal documents.
That lawsuit was later dismissed by a judge in what is called a summary judgment, before there was ever a trial. The judge ruled that under Lord’s argument, every business in York County would have had to have hired security guards while Watts was on his rampage. For hundreds, thousands of businesses to hire security as Watts plotted his next crime was not feasible or reasonable, the judge ruled.
But the case has churned through apppeals, and the state Supreme Court last month heard arguments from Lord’s lawyers and lawyers for the business about whether the decision to dismiss the case was right. If Lord wins that appeal, she gets a chance to continue with the lawsuit. If not, she will remain broke in York. The Supreme Court has yet to make a decision.
Lord could sue Watts, but he has nothing. In fact Lord, as a taxpayer, is helping pay for Watts’ lawyers who are trying to overturn his convictions.
“It doesn’t seem right, what happened to my mother,” said Tay Caldwell, Lord’s oldest son. “And (Watts) still is trying to get out of it.”
On Friday, it will have been six years since Phillip Watts took away Ida Neal Lord’s ability to work and have what most people consider a normal life. There are months when Lord drops to her knees and prays that she will not end up homeless because of what Watts did to her.
“I always tried to be a good person, I am a good person,” Lord said. “I didn’t do anything to anybody. I’m the victim.”
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org