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Thriller Thursday: Josh Phillips – child killer or victim?

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos. 

On November 3rd, 1998, eight-year-old Maddie Clifton disappeared. Over 400 volunteers searched, and a 100,000 reward was offered. Police had an immediate suspect. Fifteen years earlier, a neighbor had been charged in two sexual battery cases, although both were dropped. Cops had it half right, but they had the wrong neighbor. One week later, fourteen-year-old Joshua Phillips, one of the volunteers searching for Maddie, was arrested and charged with little Maddie’s murder.

Joshua’s mother, Melissa, made the horrific discovery when she thought her son’s waterbed was leaking.

As I pondered where to begin, I noticed a wet spot on the floor at the corner of Josh’s softside waterbed and groaned, “Don’t tell me that bed is leaking!” I touched the corner of the mattress and it was soaked. I decided to investigate the cause of the leak rather than tackle the cleaning. I needed to find out how bad the leak was; whether I’d need to drain the bed or not.

As I lifted the corner of the mattress, I noticed a white sock and figured it was one of Josh’s, so I started to pull on it, but it wouldn’t budge. I wondered how it got there in the first place, and now was puzzled as to why it wouldn’t pull free.

About that time I noticed black electrical tape holding the black frame of the pedestal together and surmised the bed must have been leaking for quite some time and apparently Josh had attempted to hold it together with the tape so he wouldn’t get into trouble.

The tape freely pulled away from the pedestal and the wood gave way just enough that I could at least see the sock better. I grabbed it, and this time, felt something else. I still had no idea what I was about to find, but needed more light, so I went to another room and retrieved a flashlight.

As I pulled the pedestal slightly away, the sock fell down and I felt something cold. At the same time, the beam of the flashlight showed me something I could never have been prepared to see. It could not be what I thought it was. Yet, somehow I knew exactly what I had found – the missing little girl from across the street. —Melissa Phillips.

Police arrested Josh at school. He confessed he’d murdered Maddie, but that it began as an accident. Josh claimed he’d accidentally hit the little girl in the head with a baseball, and panicked, he brought her into his room. Maddie started to cry. Josh claimed he was afraid of his father’s reaction if he found the girl in the house and didn’t want to get in trouble for hurting her. He beat her with a baseball bat and stabbed Maddie to keep her from crying, and then hid her body beneath the bed. Police found both weapons.

According to his mother, Josh was railroaded from the start. She’s stated he was taken to a questioning room alone, which is a big no-no unless parental permission has been given. His father was eventually allowed to go into the room, but Melissa was told the room wasn’t large enough for both parents.

She claims Josh was questioned by police even after he’d asked his father if he needed a lawyer. There were no audio or visual recordings. Josh never signed a confession. Josh told his mother later that he was questioned at least five times without his father present and before his attorney arrived.

My research showed a few different resources claiming Josh’s father was abusive and that generated his panic after hurting Mattie. I don’t pretend to understand the boy’s true motivation, but there are laws in place to protect minors during interrogation, no matter the crime. If these weren’t followed, there is a major problem with the conviction. And there have been cases over the years of minors being manipulated by police without their parents present.

Josh’s mother has also made accusations about the investigation. Police had originally called off the search for Maddie after a few days, but outraged neighbors assembled to continue the search. Melissa Phillips says there was no sign anything had happened in the house. According to her, detectives lied about evidence they found, including blood spatter on the ceiling and floor. What’s more–and most suspicious to me–is that Josh’s dog never alerted the family to a body being in the room. A beagle, no less. I hate to be graphic, but there was a body decomposing in a room for a week. How was there no smell? Even if the family somehow didn’t notice, how does a beagle not catch the scent?

Melissa also said that two days before she discovered Maddie’s body, a cadaver dog was just outside Josh’s opened bedroom window (a foot from the waterbed) and had no reaction. Scent hounds never tracked the little girl to the Phillips home.

Even more disconcerting, the night before Maddie was discovered, several officers were in the Phillips home as part of a neighborhood search. The house had also been searched three times before. Officers were in Josh’s room. Yet, they found–and smelled–nothing.

During psychological testing before trial, one of the x-rays to Josh’s brain showed the presence of bilateral frontal lobe lesions, which can affect a person’s ability to tell right from wrong. Melissa says the defense lawyer didn’t bring this before the jury and admitted to her and her husband he’d failed Josh.

To this day, Josh says he doesn’t really know why he killed Maddie, and he has expressed remorse. He was charged and convicted of first degree murder, as an adult. Being under the age of 16 at the time of the murder spared him the death penalty.

Josh’s first appeal was denied in 2002. In 2004, Melissa sought a new trial. Two of the officials involved in his original sentencing have had second thoughts about  denying him parole. In 2005, new hearing dates were set, but Josh is still waiting.

Josh’s father was killed in a car crash 18 months after his arrest. Melissa is struggling to pay for new psychological testing and continuing Josh’s appeal.

This case has so many unanswered questions. I do believe Josh killed Maddie, but the fact no one noticed her body for a week–including police and a dog–really bugs me, assuming his mother is being truthful. And if police didn’t follow the rules when questioning Josh, that’s a major problem. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be in prison, but the system is in place for a reason.

What do you think? Is Melissa telling the truth or living in denial? Should Josh get new trial?

Read Melissa’s full story here.