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June 17, 2011

Girlfriend indicted in former York mayor's murder

The girlfriend of slain former York Mayor Melvin Roberts was indicted by a York County grand jury Thursday on a murder charge that alleges she strangled Roberts with a zip-tie, court documents show.

The girlfriend of slain former York Mayor Melvin Roberts was indicted by a York County grand jury Thursday on a murder charge, court documents show.

Even as Julia Phillips is a step closer to a trial that could put her in prison for the rest of her life if convicted, investigators continue to seek others who might be connected with the killing.

Authorities have said in court hearings that Phillips likely did not act alone and that she had financial motives for the crime.

Phillips, 67, was arrested in May 2010 after police claimed she killed Roberts outside his York home three months earlier.

Phillips initially told police when Roberts was found dead that she had been robbed by an unknown Hispanic or black intruder and tied up with duct tape - but police later said that story was a lie.

She was arrested after police said gunshot residue was found on her clothes, and other parts of her story did not add up - including that her clothes were not wet although Roberts was killed on a rainy evening. Phillips lived with Roberts for about a decade.

Roberts' family called the indictment another step toward getting justice for a man whose whole life was dedicated to the legal system - until he was choked, shot at and hit over the head.

Roberts was a legendary lawyer in York whose death - allegedly at the hands of a woman he treated to travel, money, a home and other amenities over a decade - stunned people in the city he worked and lived in for 55 years.

"We are pleased that the York County grand jury indicted Julia B. Phillips on the charge of murder in the murder of our father," said a statement from Roberts' family. "We would like to thank all law enforcement for their hard work and the dedication they have provided our family.

"Law enforcement's diligent work led to the grand jury's decision this morning. We are pleased that the case is moving forward. We look forward to the successful prosecution of Julia B. Phillips."

Police and prosecutors have said in court that Phillips likely did not act alone in the killing of Roberts, but no other arrests have been made.

York Police Detective Billy Mumaw, one of the investigators in the slaying and the sole witness to testify to the grand jury, said Thursday that the department continues to investigate the case.

"We are working any leads as they come up," Mumaw said, but declined to talk about potential new information in the case.

The indictment in a closed grand jury hearing at the Moss Justice Center means prosecutors from Greenville County can move forward with a trial against Phillips, who has been under house arrest in Gaffney for more than a year.

A Spartanburg judge and Greenville prosecutors were assigned to the case because Roberts was so well known by York County judges and prosecutors that it presented a conflict of interest.

Prosecutors in the case couldn't be reached Thursday, and it remains unclear when Phillips will go to trial.

Prosecutors have alleged in court hearings that money could have been a motive for the killing.

Phillips is under indictment in Cherokee County for allegedly stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts' realty company, and prosecutors have said in court that Roberts had planned to break off the relationship after finding out about alleged thefts.

Gaffney police and prosecutors also have claimed in court hearings that Phillips had asked people in Gaffney about killing Roberts as long as two years before his death.

Phillips ran a clothing store in a downtown Gaffney building owned by Roberts - a building that before her arrest Phillips stood to inherit after his death.

Roberts had told Phillips' creditors that he would no longer be responsible for her debts, court records show. Phillips, who had no criminal record before her arrest for murder, defaulted on thousands of dollars owed to clothing creditors, court records show.

Phillips' lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, has said in court that Phillips could not have committed the murder, claiming she was too small and frail to subdue and kill the much larger Roberts. Frederick could not be reached for comment Thursday about the indictment.

After Phillips was arrested, the Cherokee County coroner exhumed the body of her former husband, Bryant Phillips of Gaffney, who died in 1999. Testing has been done, but no findings have been made public.

Phillips' stepdaughters also filed a lawsuit to have Phillips removed from the Gaffney home she lived in with Bryant Phillips, but the house arrest bond has allowed her to remain living there.

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