YORK -- A 20-year-old former cashier and one-time Rock Hill junior college student who police said confessed to seven robberies and several shootings pleaded guilty to one of those on Monday -- and could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Phillip Fleming Watts Jr. pleaded guilty Monday to his role in a January robbery and shooting at Rock Hill's Saltwater Seafood Market.
Watts pleaded guilty to armed robbery and assault and battery with intent to kill. Both charges carry a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Watts, formerly a freshman at Clinton Junior College, also pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. That charge carries up to five years, the judge said.
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Defense attorney Doug Gay contended that his client is mentally ill. Gay could not be reached after court for comment. However, Watts said he was diagnosed in 2004 with a mental illness.
Judge John Hayes III delayed sentencing during court to allow Watts time for a mental evaluation.
Authorities have said Watts was on a robbery spree from December 2007 to Feb. 14. At issue during court Monday was the Jan. 28 robbery of Saltwater Seafood Market, owned and operated by Ping Chen and her brother.
"The victim's brother was in the back getting some ice," 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said of Xian Zhao Chen. "He turned around and noticed an individual standing there in a hoodie carrying a pistol."
Chen's brother spoke limited English, so his sister talked to the man, Brackett said.
"His sister saw the gun," Brackett said. "She told Mr. Watts, 'Please don't hurt anybody. I'll give you what you want.'"
Ping Chen took $300 from the cash register and gave it to the gunman who acted as if he were leaving, Brackett said.
Then, "he turned around and pointed the gun at her (Chen) and said, 'Do you think I'm joking? Do you think I'm joking?'" Brackett told the court.
According to authorities, Watts fired at Ping Chen, striking her shoulder before she fell behind the counter. He leaned over the counter and fired again as Chen tried to cover her face with her hand, striking her left hand.
Then he fled the store. What followed was a crime spree heightened by shootings.
On Feb. 5, former Fort Mill Mayor Charlie Powers was shot in the face and clerk Yen Nguyen was shot in the stomach during a robbery at John Boy's Valero in Fort Mill. Then on Valentine's Day, Ida Neal Lord was shot in the back and head as she stood in the lobby at Cash on the Spot.
After Watts' arrest at a Rock Hill condominium on Feb. 18, police said he confessed to seven robberies and four shootings. Brackett announced plans to seek life without parole in each of those shootings against Watts.
Watts was convicted in September of armed robbery and possession of a weapon during a violent crime at a Rock Hill convenience store. A judge handed down a 35-year prison sentence in that robbery.
Brackett said Watts' evaluation results and sentencing are expected in a January hearing.
Watts remained in custody Monday night at York County Detention Center. He will be returned to Lee Correctional Institution, a high-security prison in Bishopville.