Andrew Dys

December 30, 2013

Julia Phillips moved to new prison, gets inmate job as custodian

Phillips was convicted of plotting the murder of Roberts after he was going to cut off her money. But police still seek whomever helped her in the strangling death.

Julia Phillips, senior citizen and convicted killer of her longtime boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, now has a new address and new job.

Custodian, at Leath Correctional Institution.

Phillips, who is at least 69 but documents and even her own lawyer say could be as old as 73, was not known for her housekeeping. She hired people to do it, but her Gaffney home was described by police as filthy with holes in walls and more. But she is now working in maintenance as a wardkeeper assistant after being transferred to the maximum security prison for women in Greenwood.

“The job is generally helping to clean up,” said Clark Newsom, a S.C. Department of Corrections spokesman.

Phillips prepares for a life cleaning toilets even as cable networks prepare to air specials on the woman and her trial, one of the most compelling criminal trials of 2013 in South Carolina. Phillips was convicted of not just killing Roberts, but also trying to hire a hit man to do it. She spent months after the killing lying to police in an attempt to cover up the crime and throw suspicion on non-existent black and Hispanic assailants. On her way into the courthouse during her trial for murder, Phillips even swung her purse at a Herald reporter and threatened to sue if pictures and video of her entrance were taken.

As Phillips adjusts to the prison where she is expected to live the rest of her life, Roberts’ two sons remain dedicated to finding the other person or people who were involved in the plot and strangling.

“We are not going to rest until anyone who had anything to do with dad’s death is found,” Ronnie Roberts said. “She is gone and in prison and deserves to die there. But that isn’t the end - not by a long shot.”

Roberts, 79, a legendary lawyer for 55 years, was beaten and strangled Feb. 4, 2010, outside his York home. Phillips, his live-in girlfriend of 10 years, claimed to have been robbed and bound at the time but police never bought her story. She was arrested in May 2010 and, in an eight-day trial that ended after Labor Day this year, was convicted of killing Roberts. The trial judge sentenced her to life in prison.

But, police and prosecutors say, whomever helped Phillips strangleRoberts with a zip tie escaped uncaught.

Roberts was hit over the head and shot at - a bullet passed through his collar - before he was strangled. Phillips’ son, William Hunter Stephens, who is in prison on unrelated fraud and drug charges, was a suspect in the killing but trial testimony showed he had an alibi for the time of the crime.

Before the trial started, and even as the trial got underway, Phillips’ lawyer claimed she was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Phillips was tested by state doctors and showed to be competent, despite her often contradicting her lawyer, making statements about God getting her through the ordeal, and her claims of love for Melvin Roberts.

During the trial, Phillips was shown to be a desperate woman with a prescription drug habit that led to the bankrupting of the Gaffney clothing business that she ran and Roberts owned. The motive for the crime was her attempt to assume ownership of that Gaffney building, as called for in Roberts’ will, before he severed the relationship and cut her off without a dime. She was convicted of stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts in a separate criminal case. The Phillips trial featured prosecutors calling Phillips’ claims about being attacked the night Roberts a hoax meant to cover her involvement. Her stories to police changed repeatedly, and even her own lawyer said Phillips could not keep a story straight.

Phillips denied involvement in Roberts’ killing and has appealed her conviction, but her appeal has not yet been heard.

A documentary on the Oxygen network is scheduled to air in the next couple of months, and other TV specials about the crime and trial are in the works. But for the Roberts family, the notoriety attached to Phillips now that she is convicted is secondary to finding anyone else who was involved in the killing.

“It was a heavy burden lifted off of all of us when Julia - I don’t even like to say her name - was finally convicted,” said David Roberts, Melvin Roberts’ other son. “But this is not over. Dad can’t truly rest in peace until all the people connected with his death are charged and brought to trial and convicted just like Julia was. He can’t rest, and we can’t either.”

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

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