From the moment police set foot on the crime scene where prominent attorney and former York Mayor Melvin Roberts was murdered, they believed his longtime girlfriend was involved.
Julia Phillips, 66, of Gaffney changed her story about the events that transpired outside Roberts' expansive home Feb. 4, but none of it matched the evidence, said York Police Chief Bill Mobley. And after the forensics evidence surfaced, Mobley said that's when a warrant for Phillips' arrest Tuesday was drafted.
"Her statement of events differed from scientific evidence that has been gathered through this investigation," Mobley said. "DNA and forensic evidence gave us probable cause she had committed the crime of murder under South Carolina law."
Roberts, 79, died from asphyxiation due to strangulation, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast said. He was strangled, possibly by the plastic tie the police report noted was around his neck, had a blow to the head and a gunshot hole in the collar of his shirt.
Phillips called 911 that night - her birthday - and she told police she had been robbed by an unidentified man when she returned from the grocery store. That man bound her at her hands and feet, gagged her and dragged her behind a wall 60 feet away from where Roberts' body was found when she heard a gunshot, according to the affidavit for her arrest.
Phillips had duct tape on her - but not on her skin. Mobley called the duct tape job "questionable."
It was raining that day, but Phillips' clothes were dry and clean. Police found gunshot residue on the sleeves of her blouse. That would indicate she was no more than 12 feet from Roberts when the gun was fired. Phillips told police she hadn't fired a gun in years, according to the arrest warrant.
Her pocketbook was undisturbed, and nothing was taken to make the incident a robbery, Mobley said. "Phillips claimed to be a victim," he said.
Phillips said time had passed between when she was attacked and when Roberts came home. She told police she heard a short altercation. By the time she said she had freed herself and called 911, Roberts was dead.
Mobley said evidence suggests Phillips was present at the time of the killing, although police have not said whether they suspect she shot or strangled Roberts. Police are still investigating the case and whether Phillips might not have worked alone.
Despite Phillips' age (66), height (5-foot-3) and weight (117 pounds), Mobley said police believe Phillips it is possible she committed this crime by herself.
"This case is not closed by any stretch of the imagination," Mobley said. "We will continue to investigate until all leads are covered. We believe Phillips was involved in this crime."
Arrested in Gaffney
Phillips was arrested and charged with murder Tuesday morning near her consignment store on Limestone Street in Gaffney by York and Gaffney police. Phillips runs the store in the building she received from Roberts in his will. Roberts also willed his girlfriend of more than 10 years her pick of cars he owned - with the exception of a 1974 Cadillac convertible. The building and the land it's on is valued at less than $150,000, according to Cherokee County records.
Phillips was a "person of interest" since the slaying, Mobley said, but police had to wait for evidence that supported a charge. Meanwhile, Mobley said they investigated other possible leads in the crime and all trails pointed back to her.
No official motive for the crime was released. Mobley said there have been some issues between the two in the past.
Phillips was Roberts' off-and-on girlfriend, his friends said. Diane Rayfield, whose husband was friends with Roberts for 25 years and who was with him earlier the day he was killed, said she was not shocked to hear Phillips was charged with murder.
"The story she told about what happened that night never made any sense," Rayfield said. "Melvin had said they weren't getting along."
Rayfield said Roberts, a prominent attorney and former mayor of York, was a wonderful, very good-hearted person.
Phillips' son Hunter Stephens said Tuesday his mother is innocent. He described her relationship with Roberts as loving and caring.
"My mother loved Melvin more than life itself," Stephens said. "This man was a part of her life for 10 years. My mother worshiped the ground he walked on. I don't think she's physically capable of committing the crime."
Stephens added he didn't think is mother was treated fairly by police through the investigation.
Through attorney Dan D'Agostino, the Roberts family thanked investigators for their "hard work and dedication."
"The family is very pleased and confident of where we are in the judicial process. They would also like to thank the community for their outpouring of support during these most difficult times. It has been humbling and very much appreciated."
'Heinous and gruesome'
York Mayor Eddie Lee said that he was pleased that more than three months of comprehensive police work led to an arrest.
"On Feb. 4, there was an especially heinous and gruesome murder committed in the city of York," Lee said. "The last hundred days have been difficult for the city and its residents, who expected that this case be solved. The York Police Department first, with the State Law Enforcement Division and the York County Sheriff's Office and Cherokee County authorities, have worked hard on this case. Today an arrest has been made. I am proud of the men and women of our police department."
Phillips faces a murder charge, and she is being held at the detention center in York. In a court hearing late Tuesday at the Moss Justice Center before York City Judge William Moody, Phillips made her first court appearance and was appointed a public defender after she was asked about her income, according to the York County Clerk of Court Office. The judge also read Phillips the charges against her in the procedural hearing. In first appearances, defendants typically receive an explanation about the pending charges. Only circuit court judges can set bond in murder cases, so Phillips has not yet had a bond hearing and any potential bond was not at issue during the Tuesday hearing. No bond hearing date or time has been scheduled.
She could face additional charges, Mobley said. She doesn't have a criminal history in South Carolina, a SLED background check shows.
The York County Sheriff's Office, SLED, the 16th Circuit Solicitor's Office and the FBI assisted in the investigation. York Police Chief Bill Mobley encourages anyone with information on this case to call Crime Stoppers of York County at 877-409-4321 or the York Police Department at 803-684-4141.