Phillips: Roberts' 'days on earth' would not be long

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comAugust 29, 2013 

Julia Phillips in court at the Moss Justice Center in York Wednesdy for the third day of her murder trial. Julia Phillips is shown in a York Police video being interviewed the night of Melvin Roberts murder. The video was shown in court Wednesday.


— Jurors again on Thursday morning heard details of Julia Phillips' harrowing escape from duct tape she says an unknown, Hispanic attacker used to bind her minutes before she heard a gunshot and later saw her longtime boyfriend Melvin Roberts lying still on the cold, wet ground.

They also heard Phillips say to police that she never loved her first husband as much as she loved Roberts, although both she and Roberts knew his "days on earth" wouldn't be long because of his heart condition.

Roberts was 79 when police found him dead in the driveway of his Roberts Avenue home on Feb. 4, 2010 —Phillips' birthday. Phillips is standing trial in Roberts' murder after police say she became greedy and desperate when she realized Roberts, a prominent York attorney who financed her lifestyle and store in Gaffney, planned to end their decade-long relationship.

In a second videotaped interview with police, dated three days after Roberts' murder, Phillips explained that she and Roberts' family planned to throw him a big birthday bash.

She recounted the details of her attack, describing how the money-hungry attacker placed either a cloth or hood over her head as he almost simultaneously applied duct tape to her head, mouth, eyes and later her feet and arms. He dragged her by her hair behind a brick retaining wall.

She told police she did not hear much after that until she managed to see the glint of Roberts' truck headlights as he drove into the yard. She mumbled, "That's Melvin," prompting her attacker to threaten to kill her, shove her to the ground and her face into the mud and call her a profane name in his "foreign tongue."

Phillips told police that she heard Roberts scuffle with the attacker before Roberts shouted a profanity. Then, she heard the sound of a pipe hitting the ground before hearing a singular gunshot.

According to Phillips, she used a key to tear through the duct tape. She ran to her car, turned on the heat, locked the door and turned on her headlights, which shined on Roberts' body as he lay in the "fetal position" on the ground.

"Melvin, I know, fought very, very hard," Phillips said to investigators. "I think he was fighting for his life.

"Melvin was 80" and had heart trouble," she said. "He really didn't have a very long lifetime" left.

Again she claimed she tried reaching 911 but could not get through. She then said she thought she dialed 911, but realized she called "every number but 911."

On Wednesday, York Police Lt. Dale Edwards testified that he photographed Phillips' cell phone call history and saw that she twice called her Gaffney home before dialing 911. Phone company records also show she called Gaffney first.

Though in the Feb. 4 interview Phillips said she was "physically exhausted" and "sore all over," three days later she told police she had not found time to see a doctor.

Edwards once again took the stand on Thursday and said Phillips did not have mud on her face or in her hair when he spoke with her. Edwards responded to the crime scene and also interviewed Phillips for five hours the night of the murder.

When Kris Hodge, the Greenville County solicitor prosecuting Phillips, asked Edwards about discrepancies in Phillips' story between interviews, he laid out new information she gave police the second time she spoke with them, including: the cloth or hood he placed over her head, him calling her a profane name and her head hitting a pile of discarded bricks although she did not complain of head injuries.

The solicitor’s office in Greenville is prosecuting Phillips because York County solicitors recused themselves due to past associations with Roberts, who worked as an attorney in York for 55 years. York County judges also recused themselves from the case, which is being heard before Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg.

While drinking from a can of Sprite soda, she told police her jeans became loose and saggy because they were dampened from the rain. They slumped down, she said, concealing her feet and protecting them from being scarred as her attacker dragged her across the wet mud.

Before, Phillips claimed she could not think of anyone who had a grudge against Roberts, though she said often that he was "a character" who said what was on his mind and sometimes hurt people's feelings, including hers.

Her son, William Hunter Stephens, liked Roberts sometimes, she told police before describing a dispute the two had over ownership of Phillips' store in Gaffney. Phillips said her son would rarely attend family gatherings if they were at Roberts' house —"he would wait until (Melvin) came to" Gaffney.

During their investigation, police questioned Stephens in connection with the murder but never charged him. He is currently serving a prison sentence for identity fraud.

Phillips told police her attacker was a "mahogany-colored" Hispanic man. The next day, she called Edwards and remembered that she had received three strange phone calls in which all she heard was Hispanic rap music. When police took her phone and went through it, they did not find any such calls, Edwards testified.

A few days later, she called Edwards again and gave him the name of one of two possible suspects —both of whom were black men who rented from Roberts' property in Gaffney, according to a phone recording prosecutors played in court.

Bobby Frederick, Phillips' Myrtle Beach attorney, is expected to cross-examine Edwards after lunch.

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