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Prosecutors: Expected breakup was motive for York attorney's slaying

York attorney Melvin Roberts was ending his relationship with longtime girlfriend Julia Phillips, and prosecutors said in court Monday the 66-year-old Gaffney woman he bankrolled had every reason to believe she would be written out of his will.

Roberts, 79, who was found strangled to death outside his home Feb. 4, supported Phillips financially -- supplying her cosmetics store in Gaffney and paying for medical bills and debts, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said during a hearing in Cherokee County court.

The hearing was the first time officials spoke publicly about a possible motive and the belief that a second person was involved in the crime.

'This is a personal crime'

One motive Phillips would have to kill Roberts, who the investigation showed wanted her out of his house, is money, Brackett said.

"Mr. Roberts' decision to break off their relationship would be catastrophic financially," he said. "She had every right to expect she would be written out his will."

Roberts owned the building where her consignment business is located -- a building Phillips stood to inherit after Roberts' death, according to Roberts' will. The business is worth at least $150,000, Brackett said.

Newspapers lined the windows of that business Monday.

Phillips also was stealing from Roberts, he said, taking income from his rental properties.

"Roberts is the kind of man that would have had her charged and prosecuted for that," Brackett said.

Police arrested Phillips three weeks ago after an extensive investigation into Roberts' death. Roberts was found with a plastic tie around his neck and had been hit in the head. There also was a bullet hole in the collar of an article of his clothing.

The nature of the crime -- the way Roberts was killed by someone who knew where he typically parked his car -- suggests his killer knew him well, Brackett said.

"He was choked with a zip tie tightened around his neck until he asphyxiated," Brackett said. "This is a personal crime. ...This is someone who knew Melvin Roberts' personal habits."

Phillips, who police say was severely addicted to pain medication, is being held in the detention center in York County awaiting her chance to answer to the murder charge. Other than traffic violations, Phillips has no prior criminal record.

Monday's bond hearing before Judge Derham Cole, the circuit court judge appointed to hear all matters because of Roberts' close ties with York County judges as an area attorney for five decades, was asked for by Phillips' Myrtle Beach-based attorney Bobby Frederick.

Phillips not lone suspect

Cole didn't set bond in that hearing Monday, and he is expected to issue a written order about Phillips' bond in the next 10 days.

In Monday's hearing, however, police and prosecutors did further discuss the details of Roberts' attack, of which Phillips initially claimed to have been a victim.

For the first time since Roberts' killing four months ago, officials said they believe Phillips was not capable of committing the crime alone and that at least one other person likely was involved in the incident.

"Based on evidence found at the scene, we believe there was someone who assisted her in this," Brackett said.

Police K-9 units tracked footprints into the woods behind Roberts' house, which officials believed may have belonged to another person involved in the killing, Brackett said.

York Police Detective Sarah Robbins said Phillips made two other phone calls before calling 911 the night Roberts was killed -- including one to her son, William Hunter Stephens. In the initial emergency call, Robbins said, Phillips claimed her attacker was black. She later said he spoke with a Hispanic accent, had green eyes and was wearing jeans instead of khakis like she originally claimed.

Phillips first said it was a robbery and that the intruder who bound her with duct tape wanted money. But Robbins said nothing was taken from Phillips' bag, and Roberts' wallet was still in his back pocket.

Police believe the duct tape around her head, hands and feet that night was "fabricated." Robbins said Phillips was involved in a re-enactment of the crime for police.

Phillips told police her attacker shoved her face in the mud and threatened to kill her. She told police she prayed while she laid behind a brick wall, bound and gagged, hearing a man curse, a pipe hit the ground and then a gunshot.

Evidence contradicts this story as gunshot residue found on her sleeves says she was within feet of the gun when it was fired, authorities say.

Brackett said another "oddity" in Phillips' actions is that she got into a car with her keys and didn't drive away from the attacker. Instead she made calls, the third to 911.

Those are just a few of the changing stories that led police to suspect Phillips was involved in the crime.

Defense: Leads ignored

Frederick, Phillips' attorney, argued that she should be released on a reasonable bond and monitored with a GPS tracking device. He claimed the police focused their investigation on Phillips and her son, ignoring previous death threats against Roberts and other possible suspects.

Officials declined to comment on the existence of death threats, but did say hundreds of people were interviewed in this case and numerous leads were followed before Phillips' arrest on May 18.

Frederick explained some of the inconsistencies police used to link his client to the killing, saying she was questioned an entire night after being assaulted.

"Police pursued making a case against Julia Phillips and her son from the beginning," Frederick said.

Cell phone records and witnesses give Stephens an alibi for the crime, Frederick said. Stephens, who has an extensive criminal history in South Carolina dealing with drugs and medications, has not been charged in this crime.

Stephens lived with his mother on Overbrook Drive in Gaffney prior to her arrest, and Frederick argued Phillips, if released, would return to that residence, which her previous husband's will allows her to live in until she dies or remarries.

Frederick explained that Phillips' clothing was dry after the attack, instead of wet as police would expect if she had been drug on the ground on a raining night, because she had been sitting in a heated police car.

Robbins countered that Phillips' clothes were damp in spots, but not wet when they arrived that night.

Frederick pointed to the one court row packed with friends and family of Phillips as a reason to let her out on bond.

Roberts' sons, David and Ronnie Roberts, echoed Brackett's plea to keep Phillips behind bars until the case goes to trial.

His oldest son, David Roberts, told Cole he was afraid for his family's safety if Phillips is released.

"She has family who have dropped everything to come to Gaffney to support her," he said.

Ronnie Roberts added, "Everyone agrees, we want to see her in jail until the trial. That includes me and the communities of York and Gaffney. I would feel much better if she was not let out."

Kimberly Dick | 803-329-4082

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