SPARTANBURG - Julia Phillips talked about having longtime boyfriend and former York Mayor Melvin Roberts killed as early as two years before he was found beaten and strangled to death, according to testimony presented in court Thursday.
Phillips, 66, was charged in May with murder in connection with the death of Roberts, 79, outside his York house on Feb. 4, Phillips' birthday.
Authorities also claim Roberts broke up with her in 2006 when he discovered she was stealing from him. He didn't even buy her a birthday present after finding out she was stealing again, York Police Detective Billy Mumaw said during Thursday's hearing.
Phillips did not attend the preliminary hearing related to the case.. Instead, her attorney, Bobby Frederick, argued that there wasn't sufficient evidence for the murder charge to stand.
Judge Derham Cole said he will issue a written order on whether he finds probable cause for the case to proceed. Regardless of that order, the next step is to put this case before a grand jury for possible indictment, attorneys said.
New details emerged in the hearing about how Phillips' stories changed during the investigation, the relationship between the pair and Roberts' death.
During the investigation, a State Law Enforcement Division agent called the York Police Department about a conversation a criminal informant from Gaffney had with Phillips two years ago - a conversation about "how to go about killing Melvin Roberts," Mumaw said.
A few weeks before Roberts' death, the informant said he got a call from an unknown female asking, "Would you or do you know someone who would kill Melvin Roberts?" Mumaw said.
A few days after the killing the informant was at a business where that same female was talking to Phillips about her alibi and what time that female should tell police Phillips left her store in Gaffney on the night of murder, Mumaw said.
Prosecutors have said in court that money could be a motive in the killing after Roberts threatened to end the relationship and stopped bankrolling Phillips' business and covering her personal debts.
Phillips is under indictment in Cherokee County on allegations she stole rent money from Roberts' Realty company, but police said in court Roberts discovered she was stealing from him in 2006 when he went to use a bank card and his account was empty.
At that time, the pair broke up, and she was written out of his will, where she stood to inherit "a good bit of money," Mumaw said. Trespass papers were served on her during that time. The couple reconciled, and Phillips was added back in the will.
On Feb. 4, Roberts was struck at least two times in the head with a blunt object - once on the top and another time on his left ear - "with good force," Mumaw said.
While on the ground, some pulled a zip-tie around his neck and tightened it. Officials used activity on Roberts' pacemaker to determine the time of the attack.
Police testified that DNA evidence from the zip tie that suffocated Roberts doesn't match his or any of the 50 or so potential suspects officials tested.
Phillips told police she was the victim of a robbery, but police later said investigators suspected immediately her story was a hoax. The descriptions of her attacker changed, the duct tape job was "shoddy," she wasn't scraped or scratched, and officials said her clothing wasn't dirty or wet despite a tale of being dragged through mud and leaves on a rainy night. Roberts still had $400 in his wallet, and Phillips' money bag also had cash inside.
Frederick, Phillips' attorney, asserted that one of the investigators' original theories was that Phillips' son Hunter Stephens committed the murder, and his mother assisted.
Police have found no evidence that links Stephens to Roberts' murder, Mumaw said.
An alibi puts Stephens with a friend in Gaffney at the time of the slaying, Mumaw said. Cell phone records which show which towers his phone was using were still being analyzed by SLED.
"Is it fair to say theory is now someone killed Melvin, and Julia was involved?" Frederick asked.
"Yes," Mumaw said.
But no one else has been charged in the killing, and investigators say the case is ongoing.
A motion is being filed by Frederick to have Kevin Brackett and the 16th Circuit Solicitor's Office removed from case. Roberts practiced law in York County, and because of potential for conflict of interest, a 7th Circuit judge was appointed to the case.
Brackett said he'll soon address that motion. There could be a hearing before Brackett's office is removed from the case.
Phillips had lived with Roberts in York for about 10 years before Roberts' death. She ran a clothing business in Gaffney in a building owned by Roberts that Phillips stood to inherit after Roberts' death.
Phillips remains under house arrest and electronic monitoring in Gaffney, living in the home she once shared with her late husband. Bryant Phillips died in 1999, but since Roberts' death, Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler exhumed Bryant Phillips' body for toxicology tests. Those tests are pending.
Bryant Phillips' daughters also filed suit against Phillips in probate court, attempting to have her evicted from the Gaffney home. Phillips was evicted, but she remains in the home pending her appeal of a probate judge's eviction order.
Kimberly Dick 803-329-4082