The city of York, population less than 6,000, has been one of the most famous small towns in America this year. TV shows and small armies of camera-toting crews show up seemingly all the time. The fascination is for one big reason – murder.
York will again become a part of America’s fascination with sensational crime at 9 p.m. Sunday as a third television show focusing on the 2010 murder of former Mayor Melvin Roberts airs on “Snapped” – the Oxygen Network’s true crime show, which highlights female criminals.
York’s best-known female criminal, the oldest female inmate in South Carolina, is a real doozy. She was convicted of committing a murder on her 65th birthday while wearing a thong bought at Victoria’s Secret.
Julia Phillips, Roberts’ girlfriend of 10 years, a convicted golddigger, thief and killer, again makes a national TV appearance for the stories she told that nobody except maybe her lawyer believed. And the lawyer claimed that Phillips was mentally incompetent, to boot.
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Roberts, 79, was a defense lawyer for 55 years, an icon in York’s law and business communities. He was hit over the head, shot at and strangled in his driveway on Feb. 4, 2010.
Phillips, who lived with Roberts, claimed the night of the crime to have been attacked and tied up by a black or Hispanic attacker – echoing an all-too-common ploy of blaming dark-skinned people for crimes. Police and prosecutors say Phillips set up Roberts’ killing in a play for money to keep her prescription drug habit and other comforts alive.
Just days after Phillips was arrested, the remains of her long-dead husband, Bryant Phillips, were dug up to see if maybe he too had been murdered.
Fascination remains for the unsolved part of Roberts’ murder: Police and prosecutors believe that an accomplice who helped Phillips strangle Roberts still walks free, and Roberts’ two sons have put up $10,000 of their own money to catch the killer.
“Many people ask why we continue working on Dad’s case, since Julia has been convicted, and the answer is two-fold,” said Ronnie Roberts. “My father was my very best friend in life, along with being my mentor, and I will not stop until the entire details of his murder are known and all culprits are made accountable.
“My father would do the same for me.”
Earlier this year, the Investigation Discovery channel’s “Southern Fried Homicide” and “Dateline NBC” aired their own versions of the Roberts/Phillips tragedy.
Phillips – now at least 70, but who might be as old as 72, according to conflicting documents – told police the cold, rainy night Roberts was killed that a black or Hispanic man with an accent bound her with duct tape, gagged her and killed Roberts during a robbery.
But nothing was stolen, she was not muddy, and the duct tape “evidence” was not credible. Within minutes of being taken to the police department for questioning, while Phillips was being photographed, she jokingly asked officers if the pictures were being taken for Playboy magazine.
Over the following months, Phillips changed her story numerous times, including during a re-enactment of the crime that police said was a futile attempt to throw them off her trail.
Finally, in May 2010, Phillips was charged with Roberts’ murder after gunshot residue was found on the clothes she was wearing the night of the killing. She was convicted last year in a sensational trial that included testimony about her trying to hire a hit man after learning that Roberts – her sugar daddy for 10 years – was going to end their relationship, cut off her money and remove her from his will. Phillips also was convicted of stealing from Roberts.
She is serving life in prison.
Phillips has maintained her innocence since she was arrested and convicted, and still does. She is appealing the conviction and life sentence.
York police have long acknowledged that they don’t believe Phillips acted alone. Since Phillips was convicted and the TV shows started airing this summer, York Police Capt. Brian Trail, Lt. Rich Caddell and Sgt. Billy Mumaw have interviewed and re-interviewed dozens of people connected to the case.
Authorities believe that at least one other person was involved in the crime because Roberts was so much bigger than Phillips and evidence showed someone ran away from the back of Roberts’ home the night of the killing, slipping down a muddy slope.
Ronnie and David Roberts earlier this year put up $10,000 as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone else who was part of the plot that Phillips hatched to kill their father. They have done so not to shame the city they love and still live and work in, but for justice.
The same justice that Melvin Roberts always sought.
“I also want the person responsible to know we will never stop working to find and prosecute you for the murder of my dad,” David Roberts said. “I continue to say we will not rest until Dad can rest. He can’t rest until his case his solved.”