Fort Mill Times

Watts pleads guilty, gets life in jail

Phillip Fleming Watts Jr. bows his head in court.
Phillip Fleming Watts Jr. bows his head in court.

The Rock Hill man police said shot a former Fort Mill mayor and a clerk during a gas station robbery pleaded guilty but mentally ill Monday to charges in connection to last year's double shooting at John Boy's Valero in Fort Mill.

Phillip Fleming Watts Jr., 21, also pleaded guilty for his role in the 2008 Valentine's Day double shooting of Rock Hill's Ida Neal Lord as she waited in the lobby of Cash on the Spot.

For those shootings, Watts was given multiple life sentences and will spend the rest of his life in jail, a judge ruled.

"I think it would be better for the public and you if you don't get out of jail for the rest of your natural life," 16th Circuit Judge Lee S. Alford said before sentencing the former Clinton Junior College student.

Moments passed.

Lord waited for the justice that would come for the bullets she took in her head and back. Fort Mill's former Mayor Charlie Powers and the son of Yen Nguyen (pronounced Win) waited for justice to take center stage for the bullets they took in the face and stomach respectively. And the nightmares that still come.

Across the courtroom, Watts' father, also named Phillip, waited alone. Watts' mother had long since abandoned the courtroom.

Then Alford spoke.

Eight consecutive life sentences, Alford ruled.

Then a son turned and locked eyes with his father.

"I love you," Watts Sr. mouthed to his handcuffed and shackled son before he was lead from the courtroom.

The sentences stem from the Feb. 5, 2008, double shooting at John Boy's in Fort Mill, where Nguyen worked and was shot after she gave Watts $88, according to 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. Then Powers opened the store door for Watts as he left. For that simple act, Brackett said, Powers was shot in the face.

For Watts, those shootings brought multiple charges -- kidnapping, two counts of assault and battery with intent to kill and armed robbery -- accounting for four of the eight life sentences.

"It's totally appropriate," Brackett said after court of the forever sentence. "This is an individual who seems to derive pleasure from inflicting pain and causing other people to suffer. He would get the money from people and then shoot them.

"In each of these cases, it's not like he's running to a victim to get them to comply," Brackett added. "He's shooting them after they've complied or before they even knew that he wanted something."

Yet, Watts' attorney painted a different picture marred by a disruption of medication, some that helped check Watts' anger.

"The whole thing is tragic," Doug Gay said after court of his client's downturn and subsequent life imprisonment. "By all counts, Phillip was a good In March, Judge John C. Hayes handed Watts a life sentence for his role in the Jan. 28, 2008, shooting at Rock Hill's Saltwater Seafood Company that left Ping Chen, then 40, wounded. In that shooting, court documents show that Chen complied and gave Watts $300.

Then the woman was shot twice: Once in the right shoulder and a second time in her left hand as she attempted to shield her face.

Months before the series of robberies and shootings, Watts was released from a juvenile program, where he had been taking various medicines.

Watts, who was released with three weeks of medication, had an appointment with Catawba Mental Health but left more than once without refills because no doctor was present for a prescription, Gay said.

Yet, Watts in an apology to the victims and his family contended that two months without medicine provided through Catawba Mental Health triggered his downturn.

"I'm not using it as an excuse," Watts said. "I know what I did was terrible...Once I became dependent on that medication and went without it, I didn't know how to control myself."

Gay also offered an explanation.

"After two months without medication, these incidents begin to happen....," he said. "I wish I had a better explanation for you. It would have been a better chance that this wouldn't have happened if he stayed on his medication."

But Watts' victims were not convinced. Some spoke of lingering nightmares that continue to haunt them.

"My mother would be here today, but she is scared and afraid," Tim Bui said of Nguyen, who with his father saved money to buy a store years after moving to America. "She still has nightmares and sits there staring at the wall.

"Mom did everything that Mr. Phillip Watts Jr. asked on the video," Bui added. "She did everything, but he just looked her in the eyes and pulled the trigger... "How could he do that?"

The nightmare also remains constant for Powers, Fort Mill's former mayor.

"I opened the door," Powers recalled of the double shooting. "I said, 'Good afternoon,' and opened the door for him."

Then the gun used to shot Nguyen was fired again. This time at Powers. For that Powers is unforgiving, he said.

"Mr. Watts is a cruel man," Powers said. "I'm sorry I can't turn the cheek."

Nine days later on Valentine's Day, Watts walked into Cash on the Spot and sat down at a counter. He fingered some papers and a pen, Brackett said.

Then Lord walked in, and Watts crossed the lobby.

"He grabbed her from behind kind of like a choke hold," Deputy Solicitor Willy Thompson said. "He immediately put the gun up beside her head and shot her. Then he let her drop to the floor, pointed the gun at her back and shot her again."

That shooting triggered panic among those who worked at Cherry Road gas stations and convenience stores. Police arrested Watts three days later when a tip lead authorities to a condo off Cherry Road, where they found a gun.

"It was in a shoe box in the top of the closet," Thompson said of the weapon that was loaded with ammunition from Wal-Mart.

But there was more, Brackett said.

"DNA and blood belonging to Mrs. Lord was found on the gun," he said.

Before Watts' arrest, police linked Watts' DNA and fingerprints to Cash on the Spot, Brackett said. Yet, in court Watts disagreed with the DNA.

"We could not have apprehended Mr. Watts if we hadn't had the DNA," Brackett said as Watts continued to disagree.

"You gave a confession?" Alford asked.

"Yes sir," Watts answered.

"And was that confession correct?" Alford asked.

"Yes sir," Watts answered again.

Then Lord, who nearly died more than once after the shootings, with cane and slow, measured steps made her way to a chair near the Alford's bench. Meanwhile, Watts' mother, Valerie Dunham, left the courtroom.

"My name is Ida Neal Lord," a small voice said before silence and sobs commanded attention. "I was a certified nursing assistant. I liked helping people. He changed my life tremendously. He really changed my life."

Remembrance and quiet sobs stopped her words. Less than 10 steps away, Watts hung his head and tears fell. After court, the image of a woman less than her former self stayed with Watts Sr.

"After seeing the lady struggling to get up to the front (of the courtroom), my heart goes out to her. She was hurt the worse," Watts said. "I'm grateful that no one died and he didn't die. I can visit him."

But a proud man hid tears that freely fell during court.

"I'm hurting pretty bad," he said. "My son is going to spend the rest of his life in jail."