Still no trial 3 years after slaying of former York mayor

Herald columnistFebruary 4, 2013 

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    Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the York Police Department at 803-684-4141.

— Monday was a tough day at the intersection of Liberty and Congress streets, the two main drags in downtown York.

No gray-haired lawyer who once was the city’s mayor walked up the little hill from his office to the York County Courthouse to where he plied his trade for 55 years.

Because three years ago Monday, on Feb. 4, 2010, Melvin Roberts, that longest-serving lawyer in York County, was shot, strangled and hit over the head at his home in York.

“I’ve been mayor for 11 years, and it remains the darkest day in York in my tenure,” York Mayor Eddie Lee said Monday. “People here will always remember. It comes up all the time.”

There still has been no trial to resolve the killing of a man whose death shocked an entire city and led to the exhumation of another man’s body to see if he had been killed years earlier by the same woman who is charged with Roberts’ murder.

Monday was also the birthday of Julia Phillips, who lives alone in a Gaffney home under house arrest, an electronic monitoring device designed to make sure she stayed home while waiting for a murder trial.

Phillips was Roberts’ girlfriend for a decade. Her business had been subsidized by Roberts, she had traveled with him and he had paid her bills for years. They became a couple after her second husband, Bryant Phillips, died in 1999.

Three years ago Monday, Phillips told police an intruder tried to steal money from her as she came home to Roberts’ house, then bound her with duct tape. Roberts, who also had a car lot and rental property businesses, had returned from a car auction in Darlington that day.

He never made it into the house.

In May 2010, police charged Phillips with murder, saying her story of the robbery was a sham. Police said her clothes were not wet despite her claim of being held outside. She had gunshot residue on her clothes, police said, despite claims of not firing a weapon. The duct tape was a hoax, police said, and no money was stolen.

Just days later, the daughters of Bryant Phillips, Julia Phillips’ stepchildren, asked the Cherokee County Coroner to exhume their father’s body to have testing done to determine the cause of his 1999 death. No results from those tests have been made public.

Phillips and her lawyer claimed her innocence from day one, maintaining she was too small and frail to have killed Roberts.

It came out later in court hearings that police do not believe Phillips worked alone in the slaying, although no other arrest has been made. Phillips’ son was questioned but never charged, court testimony showed, after police learned Phillips called him twice before calling 911 to report the alleged robbery.

Her son, William Hunter Stephens, remains in jail in Gaffney pending trial on unrelated charges. He has claimed in court documents he was only arrested on drug charges because he was a suspect in Roberts’ killing.

Phillips has already been convicted of stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts in the months before his death. Phillips talked to a person about how to have Roberts killed and cover up the crime, a Gaffney police officer has testified in court.

The motive for the killing, police and prosecutors say, was greed. Roberts was going to end the relationship and cut off all the money to Phillips. Before Roberts’ death, Phillips stood to inherit the Gaffney building that housed her clothing business.

Last summer, her lawyer claimed that Phillips was mentally incompetent, unable to help in her own defense or to understand the charges against her. Some court-ordered competency testing has been done, but the York County clerk of court has not received any results, officials said Monday.

If Phillips is found competent, prosecutors could set the case for trial. If not, she could be sent to an institution for treatment.

“This office is waiting on the results of the testing,” said Marcia Barker, a spokesperson for the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Greenville, which is handling the case because of Roberts’ longstanding relationships with prosecutors and judges in York County.

The York Police Department continues to investigate, but has uncovered no new leads as to who might have helped kill the city’s former mayor.

The people who knew Roberts well remain hopeful that justice will be done.

“Melvin Roberts believed in the justice system and I also believe that justice will prevail in his death,” Lee said.

American Legion Post 66 in York, which Roberts helped found after his return from the Korean War, is in talks to honor Roberts.

“Melvin deserves to be recognized for all he did, for this post and for York,” said T.J. Martin, a Korean War veteran who also helped organize the post in the mid 1950s.

On Monday in York, there was no ceremony or recognition or anything else to honor Melvin Roberts, who gave his entire adult life to the city.

About 10 miles away, though, in McConnells, there is a memorial of sorts.

Roberts was born and raised on a farm there. He grew up poor in the Depression, when poor meant hungry. He went to school barefoot. He drove a school bus while still in high school to help the family. He studied law at the University of South Carolina without money for a bus to get back and forth, so he hitchhiked.

After serving in the Korean War, Roberts spent 55 years working for justice for other people who were broke and poor and beaten down.

Less than a year before he was strangled, Roberts successfully defended a York man accused of murder.

At 78, in a trial, Melvin Roberts was still fighting for justice.

Then, at 79, he himself was killed.

On Monday, Melvin Roberts’ headstone in the tiny cemetery at Olivet Presbyterian Church was the only place his name was memorialized.

Like Feb. 4, 2010, Monday was brutally cold. The wind whipped past leafless trees.

The headstone reads:

“Melvin Lee Roberts, US Army Korea. Jul 24, 1930, Feb 4, 2010. Bachelor of Laws. Loving Father. Best Friend.”

The stone does not say “justice yet undone,” but maybe it should.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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