Andrew Dys

2 years after Julia Phillips trial: She is serving life, killer walks among us

Julia Phillips is escorted out of the courtroom at the Cherokee County Courthouse by York County Sheriff's Deputies after a 2010 bond hearing.
Julia Phillips is escorted out of the courtroom at the Cherokee County Courthouse by York County Sheriff's Deputies after a 2010 bond hearing. aburriss@heraldonline.com

In York Wednesday morning, there were no TV trucks.

No senior citizen wobbling into the courthouse on high heels with a lawyer, eager to talk about her Victoria’s Secret thong underwear.

No convicted thief wondering why everybody would not just believe her when she said she was not a greedy gold-digger.

No murder defendant blaming phantom minorities for the death of her 79-year-old boyfriend, who was beaten over the head and shot at before someone finally strangled him on her birthday.

No, Aug. 26, 2015, was a lot different than Aug. 26, 2013 – the first day of Julia Phillips’ trial for the murder of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts four years earlier.

From the outset, police and prosecutors admitted to a jury that Phillips did not kill Roberts – who had practiced law in York for decades – herself. She was too weak, too frail. She had an unknown accomplice, they said, but they were going to try to convict her of murder anyway.

Phillips’ arrest three months after Roberts’ killing and the subsequent trial was not just about justice, it was theater:

▪ She swung her purse at a Herald reporter trying to take her picture outside the courthouse.

▪ A paid police informant – an admitted black market plastic surgeon – testified that Phillips tried to hire a hit man to kill Roberts before he cut off his financial support for her.

▪ At least three TV documentaries about the case have aired since.

The police theory that Phillips – who, at the age of at least 71, is the oldest woman in a South Carolina prison – did not act alone “hasn’t changed,” Lt. Rich Caddell of the York Police Department said on Wednesday.

There is a $10,000 reward out there for information about the uncaught killer. So far, no more suspects or charges. York detectives continue to work the case, but little has changed despite police receiving an average of two tips a month – even more after TV specials re-appear on cable.

“The well has not run dry,” Caddell said. “We continue to receive information to follow up on, and we do.”

Phillips and her lawyers blame everybody but her for Roberts’ death. Here is what her lawyers wrote in March, when they finally appealed her conviction:

“This is a case about pressure – on the York police and on (prosecutors). This is a case about publicity. More than five years after his death, Melvin’s killer remains at large. A reward is currently available for his or her arrest and conviction. In the meantime, someone had to be charged and convicted. That someone was Julia. In a trial focused almost entirely on character and motive, (prosecutors) introduced very little evidence that Julia actually did anything or participated in any way in Melvin’s murder.”

Yes, Phillips’ lawyers say she did nothing except get targeted by cops, tried by prosecutors, and vilified and ridiculed by the media.

“What we wrote still stands, and that’s all I can say,” said Mike Scott, the Charleston lawyer assigned to Phillips’ appeal because she is indigent, entitled to a taxpayer-paid attorney.

Police, prosecutors and Roberts’ family continue to shake their heads.

“The evidence we presented against her speaks for itself,” Caddell said.

David and Ronnie Roberts remain steadfast that Phillips set up their father’s murder. Both said they will spend the rest of their lives, if necessary, working to find out who else was involved in the killing. It’s their $10,000 that has been offered as a reward for information about her alleged accomplice.

“I believe now, and always have, that anyone involved will be caught,” David Roberts said. “As for Julia, Dad wouldn’t have died if it wasn’t for her. She’s the head of the snake. The snake’s head is in jail, where she will die.”

Most of what Ronnie Roberts has to say about Phillips can’t be printed here. He remains furious toward the woman his father took care of for 10 years.

“Julia Phillips will die in prison where she belongs, but she still hasn’t said who helped her kill my dad,” Ronnie Roberts said. “Nobody believed her when he was murdered and she said she was robbed, attacked. Nobody believed her when she was arrested and said she was innocent. Nobody believed her when she was convicted.

“Nobody believes this nonsense now. She knows what happened. If there is a hell, she is going.”

Over the course of a two-week trial, Phillips was portrayed as a narcotics abuser on the verge of being cut off by Roberts – both in financing her lifestyle and in removing her from his will.

While she was free on bond awaiting trial, Phillips’ two step-daughters from a previous marriage fought to have her kicked out of their late father’s home. They also had their father’s remains exhumed from the Gaffney grave where he had rested since his death in 1999. They ordered tests to see if he was murdered.

Phillips’ adult son, an ex-con and admitted drug user, claimed in court documents that police charged him with stealing identities and drugs because they could not pin Roberts’ murder on him. William Hunter Stephens, 51, in prison just like his momma, could be free as early as December. A suspect by all accounts – including his own during the early weeks of the investigation – Stephens has never admitted any wrongdoing or been charged with any crime in connection with Roberts’ death.

A retired state trooper testified at the trial that Stephens was with him at the time Roberts was killed. About as airtight an alibi as they come.

Still, police have interviewed Stephens “several times” in prison since the trial, Caddell said. Stephens agreed to submit to a lie detector test, Caddell said, but he has provided “no information that directly impacts the case.”

At trial, police and prosecutors used a dozen rambling, changing statements Phillips made after Roberts was killed. They pointed out her stories made little or no sense, that they changed every time she retold them. They labeled as preposterous her claim that she had been hogtied in a cold rain by either a black or Hispanic attacker, despite police finding her dry and unhurt – her supposed duct-tape bindings looked more like a gray phony crown of thorns.

After speaking to police for hours following the alleged attack – during which she said she was cold and afraid she was going to die – Phillips did not ask for or seek medical treatment. Her son picked her up, and they stopped at the grocery store on the way home to buy some Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

A recorded re-enactment Phillips helped police with was even more inconsistent.

Prosecutors said gunshot residue was found on her clothes after she claimed she had not fired any guns.

The jurors needed just hours to convict Phillips, and she was sentenced to life in prison. Today, she remains a custodian, cleaning prison toilets at Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia. At 71 – or possibly 75, depending on which official documents you go by – she did get a promotion a few months ago. The woman who used to pay people to feed her cat and clean her house now is in charge of other inmates cleaning bathrooms.

Her appeal remains pending, and prosecutors with the state Attorney General’s Office are expected to file their opposition soon.

“The State has not solved this case,” Phillips’ lawyers maintain. “Nonetheless, pressure and publicity dictated that someone be convicted. Unfortunately, that someone was Julia ... at trial, Julia stood alone.”

But there is one thing on which Phillips’ lawyers and the cops agree:

“The killer of Melvin Roberts remains at-large.”

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065

Got a tip?

Anyone with information about the death of Melvin Roberts can call Crime Stoppers of York County at 877-409-4321 or go to yorkcrimestoppers.com.

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