In a York courtroom Thursday morning, an admitted serial gunman who shot four people in a brutal seven-store robbery spree in 2008 will have another day in court.
Phillip Watts, serving seven life terms, has filed a lawsuit claiming his guilty-but-mentally-ill pleas were involuntary because he was mentally ill at the time he terrorized York County.
In the first row will sit Ida Neal Thompson.
This 47-year-old mother and grandmother from York will walk into the courtroom with the regal bearing of a queen. The walk will be slow, with a limp and one arm will swing in its disfigurement.
Next to her will be former Fort Mill Mayor Charles Powers.
This grandfather, his face scarred forever by a Watts bullet, will not let Ida Neal Thompson be alone in that courtroom. Powers wheeled her into court four years ago, as she sat paralyzed.
“I was honored, to do it,” he said.
And now, Powers is starting up a fund to help Thompson – who until recently went by Ida Neal Lord, her former married name – because she was left disabled and cannot help herself.
Thursday will be the first time Thompson has seen Watts since he was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms for shooting her and others.
Police have said many times that Watts would have been a serial killer if he had had a larger gun than the small pistol he used. Instead, Watts left behind a carpet of living, brutalized victims.
“I want him to see me,” said Thompson, the last victim shot by Watts and the one he hurt the most. “I want Mr. Watts to see the damage he did to me. I want him to see that he took my independence.”
As Watts claims to be the victim – not getting a fair shake by the courts because he had emotional troubles when robbing and shooting – the real victim struggles to make ends meet.
Thompson has to live on $748 a month in disability payments. With that, she has to pay for rent, medications, clothing, food, the light bill.
Watts shot Thompson in the head as she was in line at a Rock Hill check cashing store. Then, as she lie on the floor, bleeding, he shot her in the back.
Now he says he is a victim.
“I am struggling sometimes to have enough, and right now I don’t have enough to even get through this month,” Thompson said from her small apartment in York. “He took away the way I had to make a living. I always worked.”
Thompson was a home health aide until she was shot.
“I went to the houses of people who were dying and gave them a bath and fed them,” she said. “I always worked. I took care of myself and my family. Now I can’t work.”
In the years since, Thompson has re-learned how to walk, talk, bathe, everything. Despite help from her sons and others, she sometimes does not have enough to live on.
“My Lord Jesus Christ will provide,” she said. “And I would tell Mr. Watts that Jesus loves him, too.”
Thompson has never stopped praying for the man who shot her, even as he now schemes to change his pleas and sentences.
For weeks after the shooting, Thompson was in a coma. After many surgeries, she finally awoke, but needed a wheelchair and had to wear a helmet that literally kept her head from falling apart.
Powers was the customer shot in the face by Watts at the Fort Mill store Feb. 5, 2008, nine days before Thompson was shot. He was Fort Mill’s mayor for a quarter century before that.
He was shot that night holding the door for Watts, whom Powers presumed to be a customer walking toward him. It was only what Powers calls “a miracle from God” that the gun, initially pressed against Powers’ temple, slid down to his cheek.
A gentleman, Powers looked at Thompson in the wheelchair four years ago at the courthouse and said, “If you allow it, I will push you into that courtroom.”
Powers is upset that Thompson now must struggle through life without enough to eat or money for utilities, because of Phillips Watts.
Powers has contacted a credit union to start a fund to help Thompson pay her bills. He hopes to have it set up by Thursday – when Watts will be back in court and Thompson and Powers will see each other for the first time in years.
“This woman never did anything to deserve what happened to her,” Powers said, “and it sure does not seem right that she has it so tough because of what that man did to her when he shot her.”
In the weeks before he shot Thompson, Watts shot Powers and two immigrant store clerks – Ping Chen from China and Yen Nguyen from Vietnam.
He was caught because he had left DNA on a pen, and his DNA was on file because Watts had been paroled from prison only a month when he started his violent spree. He had been in juvenile jails since he was a child.
Watts was caught a few days after shooting Thompson and has been in jail or prison ever since. He has had many taxpayer-funded lawyers and years of prison meals and warm blankets and air conditioning paid for by taxpayers like Thompson and Powers.
The appeals Watts writes – his lawsuit is called a post-conviction relief claim – were paid for by taxpayers.
Both will see him Thursday, when lawyers for the S.C. Attorney General’s office argue that Watts deserves nothing except to die in prison.
Together, Thompson and Powers will hope the courts will not give Watts a chance to hurt anybody else.