Andrew Dys

June 21, 2014

National TV spotlight to shine on murder of former York mayor

An episode of Investigation Discovery’s “Romance is Dead” series titled “Southern Fried Homicide,” which airs Thursday, will focus on the murder of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.

Julia Phillips – convicted of murdering former York Mayor Melvin Roberts over money and drugs, who sought attention her whole life until it came with handcuffs and prison bars at age 70 – can watch television from prison on Thursday night.

Roberts’ two sons plan to watch the Investigation Discovery program titled “Romance is Dead Thursday night, if the portrayal of their father dead at age 79 with a zip tie around his neck is not too much to bear. They were interviewed for the show.

The cops who caught Phillips, but are still looking for others they believe killed Roberts, will watch. They were interviewed.

The prosecutor who put Phillips in prison for life will watch. She was interviewed.

The Herald columnist who covered the case – from Roberts’ death in February 2010 through the arrest of his girlfriend, Phillips, later that year and her conviction in 2013 – will watch. I was interviewed.

The hope that Roberts’ family and authorities have is that somebody who knows a killer still on the loose will be watching, too.

At 10 p.m. Thursday, the public can watch the hour-long show about the partially solved, partially unsolved killing of Roberts, whose 55 years of practicing law in York had made him a living legend in South Carolina.

“Romance is Dead” airs on the Investigation Discovery network as part of its “Southern Fried Homicide” series. The show’s producers spent weeks in York and Gaffney, Phillips’ hometown, over the winter interviewing people involved in the case.

The show will include a plea for help from Roberts’ sons and York police. Even though Phillips was convicted of plotting Roberts’ strangulation in an effort to stay in his will, prosecutors admitted that investigators have believed for more than four years that the person who pulled the zip tie around Roberts’ neck remains uncaught.

The show will include interviews with Ronnie and David Roberts, York police officers and prosecutor Kris Hodge. It will feature re-enactments to show what happened.

“The police have never given up on finding who else was involved, and we never have either, so that’s why we did this show,” Ronnie Roberts said. “This was not easy. It is going to be difficult to watch a re-enactment that has my dad lying dead on the ground.”

The Feb. 4, 2010, crime stunned the people of York. Phillips had lived with Roberts for a decade at his York home. He had paid her bills and propped up her Gaffney clothing store. Shortly before his death, Roberts planned to sever the relationship and cut off his support of Phillips.

Phillips, a prescription narcotic abuser, called police that day to report that she had been kidnapped and bound by a black or Hispanic intruder who had killed Roberts. She was found covered in duct tape and claiming she had been left in the cold rain for a half hour.

Investigators said the duct tape was not tight around Phillips, and she was not soaked or muddy enough to have been sitting in the rain for 30 minutes. Within an hour, she was interviewed by police and was joking about whether photos they took of her would be published in Playboy magazine.

Phillips’ story changed repeatedly in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed. Police believed from the beginning that her account of that night was a hoax.

It took three months, until May 2010, but Phillips finally was arrested for murder. She denied everything.

It took more than three years – during which Phillips was convicted of stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts – but in a trial in August and September 2013, she was convicted of accessory to murder and sentenced to life in prison.

During that trial, prosecutors and police testified that it was likely that Phillips – a 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound senior citizen – did not act alone in the crime.

Just this month, York Police announced that Ronnie and David Roberts are offering a $10,000 reward for information that could help investigators find whoever helped kill Melvin Roberts.

“We are continuing to look at each and every piece of information that comes in,” said Det. Billy Mumaw, the lead detective on the original investigation who was interviewed for the TV special.

The television show will focus on small-town York and small-town Gaffney, and how the people and places were rocked by Roberts’ killing and Phillips’ arrest and conviction.

“We will never rest until anyone who had anything to do with Dad’s murder is caught,” David Roberts said.

So at 10 p.m. Thursday, the sons of the legendary lawyer and former mayor will grimace and watch an actor portray their father, alive and dead. Julia Phillips is alive and in prison.

And, they will watch the part of the case that remains elusive – the shadow of what police and prosecutors say is an uncaught killer.

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