Andrew Dys

6 years after ex-York mayor’s murder, girlfriend in prison but accomplice remains uncaught

Melvin Roberts
Melvin Roberts RockHill

Six years ago on Feb. 4, 2010, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, 79, was strangled outside his York home. The strangler has never been caught, even though Roberts’ former girlfriend Julia Phillips is in prison for life for being an accessory to murder.

Police and prosecutors say Phillips did not act alone. But if Phillips did not actually hit Roberts over the head, fire a gun at him, and strangle him with a zip tie, then who did? Somebody left DNA on that zip tie that was used to kill Roberts – but so far it has not matched anyone.

Phillips is South Carolina’s oldest female inmate and convicted killer. The murder of Melvin Roberts was so shocking it spawned not just massive local coverage in The Herald, but three television documentaries on cable and network news.

But for York police and Roberts’ sons, the conviction of the girlfriend remains a hollow victory. Julia Phillips was convicted of plotting the killing in an attempt to get money out of Roberts, but no one else has ever been charged.

“I will never rest – never – until all the people who were involved in Dad’s death are caught,” said David Roberts, one of Melvin Roberts’ two sons.

David and his brother, Ronnie, have put up $10,000 of their own money toward a reward leading to an arrest and conviction of whoever worked with Phillips in the scheme. Ronnie Roberts said as the anniversary approaches, the pain of the killing becomes even more difficult. It has been six years, he said, and he is thankful to police, prosecutors and all who worked the case, but a killer is out there somewhere.

“My resolve to find the other culprits remains unwavering, and I will do anything possible to help find them. Law enforcement has a very tough and for the most part thankless job, and I very much appreciate their continued commitment,” Ronnie Roberts said.

Police have continued investigating but little has happened in the past two and half years since Phillips, 70, was convicted in September 2013.

Prosecutors successfully convinced a jury that Phillips lied to police on Feb. 4, 2010, when she claimed she was a robbery victim in the same incident where Roberts was killed. Testimony showed Phillips tried to hire a hit man and her story was inconsistent as prosecutors proved that Roberts, a well-known lawyer, was going to cut off Phillips’ money supply and leave her penniless.

Police do not know who helped or if more than one accomplice was in on it. However, York Police Chief Andy Robinson and Lt. Rich Caddell said that detectives have worked all leads that have come in, no matter how small.

“We followed up on every one of them – no matter what it was,” Robinson said this week.

One of Phillips’ grown sons, William Hunter Stephens of Gaffney, who admitted in court he was a suspect in the killing, has never been charged. He did go to prison soon after the killing on drug and identity fraud charges. During Phillips’ trial and in police investigation, Stephens had what appeared to be a solid alibi that put him elsewhere when Roberts was killed. He was paroled late last year.

Phillips, who is appealing her conviction in a case that has not yet had any hearings, claims York police rushed to find a scapegoat in her. Prosecutors scoff at Phillips’ claims, but sometime in 2016 the appeal will be heard.

And Phillips, because of the appeal and because she still claims to be innocent, has refused to talk to York police about any potential co-conspirator.

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065

Got information?

Anyone with information on the death of Melvin Roberts can call the York Police Department at 803-684-4141 or York County Crimestoppers at 1-877-409-4321.