After 3 1/2 years, sons of slain former York mayor wait for justice

July 28, 2013 

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— Ever since the cold and rainy evening of Feb. 4, 2010, the sons of slain former York Mayor Melvin Roberts have waited for justice.

This past Wednesday, Melvin Roberts would have turned 83. He did not, because he was strangled at age 79. Killed, police say, by Julia Phillips, who lived with him for a decade and whose life and livelihood was financed by Roberts.

His sons on Wednesday went to the cemetery in McConnells where a giant of the legal profession and local politics, a fighter for justice, is buried under a simple stone. They took flowers.

“It has been over three years since his murder; it seems like yesterday,” David Roberts said. “We are looking forward to getting justice for Dad. Our family is ready for this trial.

“I am confident that the justice system, which Dad served for 50 years, will provide us with the justice he deserves.”

Phillips’ trial on a charge of murder is scheduled for Aug. 26.

She was, prosecutors and police say, a woman so desperate for money she would kill her boyfriend of a decade to get more.

Roberts was not a murder victim like so many – someone involved in trouble and dealing with nefarious characters and dubious lives that finally caught up with him.

He was York County’s longest-serving lawyer, representing people in courts from magistrates to the U.S. Supreme Court for 55 years. In addition to his law practice, he owned a car business and a realty business. For years he ran a cable TV business.

Roberts was mayor of York at one time, a Korean War veteran who up until his death helped put on the city’s annual Veterans Day parade.

This son of dirt-poor farmers in rural McConnells south of York put himself through college and law school working in a chicken plant. He worked his whole life as a lawyer alongside men who would become judges and congressmen and state legislators.

He had argued and fought for justice since Ike was president. He defended black and white and brown. He took on cases that were winners and losers.

A man whose life was dedicated to justice died – in the rain and cold, gasping for breath – on a wet driveway with a plastic tie around his neck. He had just returned from an auto auction in Darlington.

That came just months after he had argued in court that a young York man had been wrongfully accused of murder. He won. Antonio Mobley walked out of court to the rest of his life, proclaiming that Melvin Roberts was the greatest, the only person who believed in him.

The same York Police Department that Melvin Roberts was arguing against in the Mobley trial is the one that investigated his death, and to whom the Roberts family has entrusted their hopes for justice.

That’s how close to the York justice system Roberts was for so long.

Ronnie Roberts said not a day goes by in York, where he runs his own business, that someone does not mention his father, ask about the case, remind him of legal work or other help they had received from Melvin Roberts.

In all those decades of legal practice, Roberts helped countless people who could not pay him. He did it anyway.

“I have lost my best friend on earth and remain in disbelief that he is gone,” Ronnie Roberts said. “He was strict and believed in hard work, but the best father a child could ever hope for in so many ways....I feel he had many more good years to look forward to.”

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Next month, on a Monday, the senior citizen who lived with Melvin Roberts for a decade – the woman whose life and lifestyle, police say, was financed by Roberts until he decided to end the relationship and cut off the money – will go to trial for murder.

Julia Phillips – who is either 68 or 73 years old, depending on what records are used – claimed from the day of the killing, when she called 911, that she had been the victim of a robbery at the house, that she had been bound with duct tape by an unidentified Hispanic or black man.

That day, Feb. 4, 2010, was Phillips’ birthday.

Roberts, a tough man all his life, was found with a gunshot hole in his collar. He had been hit in the head. He had been strangled with a twist tie.

His sons waited as police interviewed Phillips and found that the duct tape was, detectives said, not tight. Nothing had been stolen from either Roberts or Phillips, police said, and later testing showed gunshot residue on Phillips’ clothes – despite her claims that she hadn’t fired a gun in weeks.

The clothes Phillips was wearing when police arrived were dry, although the day was rainy, investigators said.

Police said she also called her son twice before calling 911 for help.

Phillips gave statements, participated in a re-enactment. In May 2010, police arrested her on a murder charge, concluding that her story did not add up.

Police said then that investigators believed – and still do – that Phillips did not act alone in killing Roberts.

To this day, though, nobody else has been charged.

Ronnie Roberts hopes anyone with information about the case will call the police.

Phillips has since admitted to stealing money from Roberts and has been found guilty of that felony.

In 2011, she pleaded guilty to stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts Realty. The thefts came in the months before Roberts was killed, but in the time frame after prosecutors claimed in court that Roberts had told Phillips he was ending the relationship and all financial support for her clothing business and lifestyle.

Phillips owed thousands of dollars, court records show, including defaulted court judgments.

According to Roberts’ will, she stood to inherit a building in Gaffney that housed her clothing store, owned by Roberts, after his death. She would get a vehicle, too.

Pauline Burris, Melvin Roberts’ sister, said it is about time the murder case comes to trial.

“Melvin deserves justice,” she said.

Last year and into this year, Phillips and her lawyer claimed she was mentally incompetent to stand trial. She was tested by state doctors and found competent.

The trial will take place at the Moss Justice Center in York – the same place Roberts argued cases.

Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg will preside, because Roberts knew the York County judges and both recused themselves.

Assistant solicitor Kris Hodge of the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Greenville will handle the prosecution, because 6th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who handles York County cases, knew Roberts and recused himself. Hodge has declined to comment on the case.

Phillips has said from the day of Roberts’ killing that she is innocent. Her lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, has said in court that Phillips is too small and frail to have killed Roberts.

Frederick has repeatedly declined to discuss the case. Phillips has been on house arrest, in Gaffney in the home she had shared with her late husband, Bryant Phillips, until 1999.

It is the same house from which Bryant Phillips’ daughters – who paid all the bills at the house and still do – sued to have Phillips and her unemployed son, William Hunter Stephens, removed after she was charged with murder.

The daughters were successful in their lawsuit, but Judge Cole ordered that Phillips be allowed to stay there under electronic monitoring until trial.

Just days after Phillips was charged with killing Roberts, Bryant Phillips’ remains were dug up from his grave by the Cherokee County Coroner’s office, after his daughters demanded the body be tested for cause of death.

Despite the testing being done more than three years ago, Cherokee County Corner Dennis Fowler said last week the case remains under investigation and results are not ready for release.

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

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