South Carolina

December 31, 2013

Convicted boyfriend-killer gets new job: custodian

Julia Phillips, senior citizen and convicted killer of her longtime boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, now has a new address and new job.

YORK — Julia Phillips, senior citizen and convicted killer of her longtime boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, now has a new address and new job.

Custodian, at Leath Correctional Institution.

Phillips, who is at least 69 but documents and even her own lawyer say could be as old as 73, was not known for her housekeeping. She hired people to do it, but her Gaffney home was described by police as filthy and unkempt with holes in walls and more. But she is now working in maintenance as a wardkeeper assistant after being transferred to the maximum security prison for women in Greenwood. She shares a cell with another woman.

“The job is generally helping to clean up,” said Clark Newsom, a S.C. Department of Corrections spokesman.

Phillips prepares for a life cleaning toilets even as cable television shows prepare to show specials on the woman and her trial, which produced one of the most compelling criminal trials of 2013 in South Carolina. Phillips was convicted of not just killing Roberts, but also trying to hire a hit man to do it. She spent months after the crime lying to police in an attempt to cover up the crime and throw suspicion on non-existent black and Hispanic assailants. On her way into the courthouse during her trial for murder, Phillips even swung her purse at a Herald reporter and threatened to sue if pictures and video of her entrance were filmed.

As Phillips adjusts to the prison that is expected to be where she lives the rest of her life, Roberts’ two sons remain dedicated to finding the other person or people who were involved in the plot and strangling.

“We are not going to rest until anyone who had anything to do with dad’s death is found,” Ronnie Roberts said. “She is gone and in prison and deserves to die there. But that isn’t the end - not by a long shot.”

Roberts, 79, a legendary lawyer for 55 years, was beaten and strangled Feb. 4, 2010, outside his York home. Phillips, his live-in girlfriend of 10 years, claimed to have been robbed and bound at the time but police never bought her story. She was arrested in May 2010 and, in an eight-day trial that ended after Labor Day this year, was convicted by a jury of accessory to murder. The trial judge sentenced her to life in prison.

But, police and prosecutors say, whomever helped Phillips with the strangling of Roberts with a zip tie, and plotting and pulling off the crime, escaped uncaught.

Roberts was hit over the head and shot at - a bullet passed through his collar - before he was strangled. Phillips’ son, William Hunter Stephens, who is in prison on unrelated fraud and drug charges, was a suspect in the killing but trial testimony showed he had an alibi of being somewhere else, with another person, at around the time of the crime.

Before the trial started, and even as the trial got underway, Phillips’ lawyer claimed she was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Phillips was tested by state doctors and showed to be competent, despite her often contradicting her lawyer, making statements about God getting her through the ordeal, and how she claimed to love Melvin Roberts.

Phillips was shown during the trial to be a desperate woman with a narcotic prescription drug habit that led to the bankrupting of the Gaffney clothing business that she ran and Roberts owned. The motive for the crime was her attempt to assume ownership of that Gaffney building, as called for in Roberts’ will, before he severed the relationship and cut her off without a dime. She was convicted of stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts in a separate criminal case. The Phillips trial featured prosecutors hammering Phillips’ claims about being attacked the night Roberts was killed as a hoax set up to cover her involvement. Her stories to police changed repeatedly, and even her own lawyer said that Phillips could not keep a story straight.

Phillips denied involvement in Roberts’ killing and has appealed her conviction, but her appeal has not yet been heard.

A documentary on the Oxygen network is scheduled to air in the next couple of months, and other cable shows about the crime and trial are in the works. But for the Roberts’ family, the notoriety attached to Phillips now that she is convicted is secondary to finding the other killer - maybe more than one - who helped orchestrate and assisted in the killing.

“It was a heavy burden lifted off of all of us when Julia - I don’t even like to say her name - was finally convicted,” said David Roberts, Melvin Roberts’ other son. “But this is not over. Dad can’t truly rest in peace until all the people connected with his death are charged and brought to trial and convicted just like Julia was. He can’t rest, and we can’t either.”

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