Chapter 3: The Trial

The trail for William Phipps’ 1995 death began in July of 1996. The accused shooter, James “Jimmy” Coley was facing capital murder charges. If found guilty, he might get the death penalty.

Keep this in mind: At NO time, did Jimmy Coley ever confess to or deny the shooting. That sets the stage because most of the jurors I spoke with said there was never any question in their mind that Coley did it.

There is a 2,000 page court file in Duplin County’s Court House. Unfortunately, there is no written transcript of the trail because he was found not guilty. There is also no evidence from the crime scene. The District Attorney’s office says that someone broke in years after the murder and stole the evidence. They say that sometimes people are hoping to swipe drugs and such…looks like that robber ended up with a box full of bullet casings and maps….

This is what I gathered from the paperwork: 1. Investigators seized a 7mm magnum live ammunition round and a yellow Chevrolet Cavalier. 2. At the crime scene, they found a 7mm fired bullet, a 7mm fired bullet jacket fragment and there was no microscopic agreement to show that the two were or were not fired from the same firearm. 3. They interviewed Coley’s friend who admitted that Coley had gone to his home later that night asking to switch the tires on their two Cavaliers. 4. Also on scene was the 7-foot ladder and nearby was where they said they found the bullet jackets.

The State prosecuted against Coley. The Phipps did not represent themselves in court. Lacy says that a law enforcement officer threatened him to stay away. He also said it was a conspiracy and that justice would not be brought during the trial…so why go?

Based on what was found at the crime scene, it was believed that Jimmy Coley climbed that ladder and sat and waited for the Phipps to drive by. Who knows how long? He shot 3 times into the back of the car and then went to change the tires so that his car wouldn’t be traced to the marks left in the sandy soil. Again, Coley never denied any of this. He just said that he was “in a bubble”…an amnesia of sorts where he couldn’t remember anything from that night.

The defense built their case with testimony from the community. There was a thick pile of subpoenas in the court file, all people who lived nearby. Jurors told me that each one told stories about how the Phipps’ had terrorized this community. They spoke about barns being burned down, dogs poisoned, driving down the middle of the road to scare people off, putting stakes in the fields, on and on….. The Phipps’ have always denied these accusations and have never been charged for any of them.

Still, those testimonies made a big impression on the jury. The ones I spoke with said they quickly decided that Jimmy Coley and his family (and perhaps, the entire community) was pushed to the brink after years of land feuding and acts of revenge.

In addition, Coley admitted to taking amphetamines to stay away for days, standing guard on his parent’s front porch. They reasoned that the stress plus the drugs had caused him to snap.

It wasn’t until after the jury was selected that the “temporary insanity” plea was brought up…9 months post-murder. The State argued it was an “11th hour defense” but their case quickly deteriorated as the jury heard more testimony from the community.

More about the jury: they were from Onslow County. Apparently, the Phipps’ and their land debacle was so well-known in Duplin, that they knew they would not be able to find an objective jury. They had to bus them in from Onslow every day.

The juror I spoke with said that at first, they were not unanimous, but eventually everyone agreed on “Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity.” I asked both reporter Ruthie Pope and the jurors what the reaction in the court room was. I mean…I would THINK there would be some surprise over an “Insanity” case….Nope. According to them, the only reaction was from William Phipps’ wife, who started crying. No one else seemed that surprised.

Of all felony cases, less than 1% raise an insanity defense…of THOSE…less than 25% succeed…

Chapter 3: The Trial

Tonight at 11…the last part of The Effigies series…

What happened at the trial for William Phipps’ death was VERY unusual. In fact, it happens in less than 1% of felony cases…..

This will be the last long-term in-depth report that we do. Starting on Monday, I’ll be doing the dailies for the night shows. I’ve put a lot into each and every one of these stories. I’ve always been very excited to show them to you and I hope you’ve enjoyed them for the past year and a half!

The Effigies….Chapter 2….

The re-enactment of William Phipps’ death was probably one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever shot. Luckily, I had the help (and mental support) of Chief Photographer Ryan Koresko.

Lacy and Reese pumped up the front tires and pulled the 1985 Chevrolet from a sea-going container in their backyard. I’m not sure it has moved since the night of the shooting.

I sat in the passenger’s side (where William had been) with Lacy in the driver’s seat – just as it was on September 5th, 1995. As we drove down Warren Road he described everything that happened that night while my camera rolled.

Admittedly, it was uncomfortable. They’ve run wires through the bullets trajectories. Every time the wire poked me in the back I just kept thinking about what taking a 7mm bullet must have felt like. TWO of them for that matter…

Outside Ryan was with Reese Phipps. Reese described the shooter’s actions as we drove by. Of course, Reese can only pass on this story from what he’s heard from his father Lacy.

They said it was a 3-prong attack by some of the people who they were in a land feud with. They say the first man was under the bridge, the second was standing on top of it. They shot simultaneously into the back of the car. William was hit in the back, Lacy in the head.

Lacy said the only reason they didn’t kill him was because, moments before the trigger was pulled, Lacy had shifted in his seat when William suddenly moved to reach for a cigarette.

Lacy says he kept going to get away. Suddenly, William started screaming out the name of the third shooter who he could see from his side of the car. In a panic, William started to grab the wheel to try to pull them into a ditch and get them out of the line of fire. Lacy never saw the shooter and started to fight William for the wheel. The car landed perpendicular to traffic, putting the back of the car directly in line with a nearby embankment (where they say the 3rd shooter was). Lacy says that’s when two shots went into the back of the car, killing William.

This is a COMPLETE contradiction from what the State Bureau of Investigators say they found. Remember, they say there was only one shooter who was standing on a ladder.

The Phipps’ say, that’s just impossible. To see if they had a case, I brought a 7-foot ladder with me. I stood on it with my camera to get the shooter’s perspective. Admittedly, its hard to see how someone could shoot directly into the back of the car from that angle and that height. BUT, I don’t know what that area looked like 15 years ago (trees and brush could have grown up) and I don’t know if he had climbed higher in the tree. From what I saw, you lose complete sight of the car rather quickly.

The only way to know would be to survey the scene with the lead investigator on the case: Sheriff Blake Wallace.

His response to my request: No.

The Phipps’ DID name the three shooters…but for legal reasons, I’m not allowed to name them. I did find those people to ask them bluntly whether they had any role in the shooting.

The first person was not happy to see me. He was calm at first but our conversation ended in him yelling at me and threatening to sue me. He told me that he had no role in the shooting but he did not think it was done by just one person.

He would not give an on-camera statement about his innocence. His reason: fear of retaliation. He said if he said a word, the Phipps’ would probably set something on fire or damage his property.

The other man whom the Phipps’ have accused is now dead.

Tomorrow night at 11…you’ll see what happened to the man who DID go on trial, Jimmy Coley, who was facing capital murder charges. What happened in that trail…was very usual indeed…

Chapter 2…Tonight at 11

You’ve seen the gallows…you’ve heard their gripes…

Tonight, you’ll get to re-live the night of the shooting…

Of all the stories I’ve shot…this has to be the most bizarre!

Yes, the Phipps family has kept the car that William was killed in…locked up in their backyard…

Find out why…at 11!

The Effigies Part I

Setting: slow news day…phone rings…

Assignment Manager: “Casey…pick up. Some guy says a man in Duplin is hanging state leaders on his front lawn…”

<….Dashes to phone…>

Granted, people have hung government officials in effigy since the Civil War (and probably before that). Still, it’s rather unusual, particularly when someone goes through the trouble of (1) finding seven mannequins, (2) dressing them to their likeness and (3) constructing an enormous gallows on their front lawn to have them all swing from.

These gallows have been up since 2000 but somehow we just heard about it now. The Phipps have worked hard to promote it. They routinely give passers-by tours of the site. They’ve even made videos of it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxHJU_LVuuc (note that the gallows in this video looks different from the one in mine…you’ll find out why in Part III).

Faison isn’t exactly around the corner from the station and there was no way to reach the Phipps’ but to just drive up there – solo.

Driving down Warren Road, I didn’t know if I’d be able to find the house since I didn’t have a house number. Turns out, I didn’t need one…you CAN’T miss it.

The gallows has are about 15 feet high. It was *freezing* the day I was there and completely silent except for the wind. Every time a gust came the mannequins blew around on the gallow and the ropes started creaking.  It was definitely creepy, especially since my nearest call for back-up was an hour and a half away.

The property has fallen into severe disrepair. There was debris everywhere. There were two separate trailers…I chose the one closest to the news van to knock on. No answer. There were power cords and wires running from the ground up into the windows and under the doors, furniture pulled apart on the stoop and machine parts all around. Knocked again – no answer.

When I knocked the third time…I kid you not…a group of roosters came from the side of the house in bird formation attack mode. You have never seen a girl run so fast off of a property in high heels as I did!

My nerves were shot. I jumped in the news van ready to fly home when a man’s face appeared in my side window…and I nearly had a heart attack. It was Reese Phipps, Lacy’s son.

I spoke with Reese for a while and he was quite friendly. At first, he did not want to do the story. He said they’d interviewed 100’s of times and they were always disappointed that no one wanted to tell “the whole story.” (note: most people do not realize its almost impossible to tell the “whole story” when you have 2 minutes to do it…such is news)

He gave me the basic gist: he and his Bowden neighbors had fought for land for decades. Reese and Lacy Phipps say that local government officials have wrongly accused them of not paying taxes on their property. It was then confiscated and sold, some of which their neighbors bought. They feel the community and government as been conspiring to run them off their land.

They say they’ve been accused of doing all sorts of evil things to the community – none of which are true (according to them). They also say that local law enforcement has done little to protect and regulate the rural community set so far away from any major area. The result of such neglect, they say, was the murder of William (Lacy’s son, Reese’s brother).

Interestingly, the murder isn’t really what catalyzed the building of the gallows. The land feud is the driving force behind them.

In their interview, it was very hard to understand what their gripe against each person was….each effigy had another 10 minute story behind it. Our legal advisor told me not to include any direct quotes about what they claim each person did…because they are just accusations at this point.

I did try to contact every person who had an effigy on the gallow. I didn’t hear back from everyone. Governor Bev Purdue’s office said that because the Phipps’ had not made any DIRECT threats…its still Freedom of Speech and there isn’t much they can do about it. District Attorney Dewey Hudson said the same.

Not everyone got back in touch with me. I had to chase Sheriff Blake Wallace for a while on the phone. He later said that he “would not dignify the Phipps with a response.”

I really wasn’t after how these official “felt” though…I was more interested in what’s been brewin’ in Bowden and how the community feels about it.

I knocked on many doors and tried to randomly approach people in grocery stores and restaurants to get some feedback. With something like a gallows, you’d think EVERYONE would have an opinion. They did…but NO ONE wanted to share on camera.

Whenever I mentioned “the Phipps” people either laughed, looked terrified OR just looked exhausted. They said they’retired of dealing with  fiasco and didn’t want the Phipps to see them making a public comment. Most people said there were afraid the Phipps would retaliate against them. I mentioned that to the Phipps, who seemed to think that was ludicrous.

So no luck…but back to the “conspiracy”….

I reminded Reese that proving a county-wide conspiracy would take a significant piece of evidence. He started to get frustrated. The he said he had all the evidence anyone needed in the backyard, specifically, inside and oddly placed sea-going container.

In front of the container’s doors he had pushed a large log, clearly to keep people out. He moved it away, broke open the doors and revealed a very old yellow car that had large bullet holes through its windshield.

That’s the car you saw at the end of tonight’s piece.

 That’s the car that William died in.

They’ve kept it hidden for the occasion that somebody wanted to investigate.  Reese said he and Lacy would tell me the story if I could come back another day…

Agreed.

I then headed to The Sampson Independent newspaper in Clinton to try to track down the original news reports on the murder of William, which was a catalyst behind the gallows creation.

Just my luck, the Independent had kept all their old articles from 1995. The name behind each report: Ruthie Pope. Ruthie becomes instrumental in Part III as the reporter who sat inside the court room…stay tuned.

Tomorrow night…you’ll see what happened when I sat inside the car that William Phipps died in…

Tonight at 11: The Effigies

A LOT of work has gone into this one.

Its a 3 part series on the effigies hanging in Duplin County. I *thought* this story would just be about the effigies…but there’s so much more to it….

Tonight at 11!

Back From Africa

2.5 weeks in Africa and now…back in action.

The trip was amazing. Volunteering on the animal reserve was a priceless experience. There are few people who get to wake up every morning to go play with Bengal tiger cubs. However, the most inspiring and enlightening aspect of the trip was the townships. Apartheid and segregation are still very real. It put the definition of ‘poverty’ in perspective. Truely, we have so much here in America.

I’m trying to get back in motion here. I have a list of stories on my wall and I’m trying to see which ones I can actually give wings to. I could use your help…without giving away the actual story…if any of these apply to you…would you drop me a note?:

Do you have children in driver’s education programs?

Do you have a non-traditional relationship or marriage? (really…anything goes here….)

Do you live or have friends that live in Creekwood?

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