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Grand jury takes up puzzle of who killed Billie Jean Phillips

By PAMELA HILL

This article was published February 25, 1999 at 8:57 p.m.

— Roger Harper looked across the square Wednesday as he took a break from his work at Basham Tire & Auto. Less than four blocks away a grand jury began investigating a murder mystery a legion of trained law officers and legal officials haven't solved in four years.

Harper didn't know Billie Jean Phillips personally, but her story hasn't escaped him.

"It gets brought up pretty regular," Harper said, sipping coffee from a foam cup. Customers talk about it, as do others he runs into around town.

People here talk a lot about Billie Jean Phillips: who she was, how she died, who did it, and why there have been no arrests. Some people drive cars with bumper stickers asking "Who killed Billie Phillips?" and a billboard with the pretty blonde's picture asking the same question greets people entering the Madison County town from the east. People haven't forgotten.

In fact, more than 4,000 people in the county signed a petition asking that a grand jury investigate the case.

Phillips' father, Earl McKnight Jr., presented the petition to Circuit Judge William Storey, who earlier this month authorized empaneling a grand jury.

McKnight has said he believes that evidence in the case has been hidden and destroyed and the only way to find the truth may be an impartial grand jury.

Phillips, 35, was found strangled in her Alabam home Sept. 2, 1994. She also was beaten and suffered a skull fracture, investigators said.

Storey, who handles most criminal cases in Washington and Madison counties, said 16 jurors and four alternates had been selected by 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, just 90 minutes after Special Prosecutor Ron Fields of Fort Smith began questioning 50 potential jurors about their fitness to serve on the investigative panel.

"I hope it works. I doubt it will," said a Huntsville business owner who didn't want to be named. "I don't think they will ever find out who did it. I think it would be too good to be true."

Phillips' death has been a landmine of sorts for Madison County and those who govern it.

Howard "Rusty" Cain Jr. was a deputy prosecutor for Madison County when Phillips was killed. He also reportedly had been involved in a long-standing affair with Phillips. Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones fired Cain just days after the murder because Cain had continued to gather information on Phillips' death. Jones wanted him to stay away from the investigation to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Jones, prosecuting attorney for Madison and Washington counties, named a special prosecutor in March 1996, Fayetteville lawyer John Everett, and a private investigator, former FBI agent Jack D. Knox, to investigate Phillips' death. They resigned in August 1997 because of pressure from then-Madison County Sheriff Ralph Baker, they said. Everett and Knox had begun looking into drugs as a motive for the killing and into the possible corruption of a law-enforcement officer.

Jones said at the time he became concerned that Knox's pursuit of possible corruption might undermine his search for Phillips' killer.

A brief squabble ensued over whether Knox could turn over some of the information he'd gathered to the FBI. It was resolved a few days later when Jones said he was free to do so.

The appointment of Everett and Knox transferred control of the investigation away from Baker and the Arkansas State Police.

Baker drowned in January 1998 when his car was swept off a water-covered bridge and overturned.

Jones has recused from guiding the grand jury. Jones asked that a special prosecutor be named because of animosities between himself and Phillips' family, who have been critical of his investigation.

"I'd like to see whoever beat her to death get what's coming to him," Harper, the service station worker, said. "That's why we have prisons, to do something to those people. Society just requires it."

Nathan Walden was one of Phillips' neighbors. He lived about a mile and half from her in Alabam.

"I think it's good [to have a grand jury]," Walden said, discussing the case over lunch at Troy and Dixie's Y Cafe. "There's too many things that go unsolved in this town."

Walden, 28, said he couldn't believe it when he learned of Phillips' brutal murder.

"I'd known her all my life. Her family and my family knew each other for years. She went to school with my brothers," he said.

Fields, the appointed special prosecutor, said the grand jury will next meet in a couple of weeks, after certain laboratory tests have been completed.

Fields wouldn't comment on the approach the grand jury will take. A review of the evidence, including new test results, will certainly be a part, as will the investigations already done.

"There's been a lot of good police work, a lot of good investigation," Fields said.

A multiagency panel organized by the Arkansas State Police reviewed Jones' investigation last month. The panel reviews murder and corruption investigations at a prosecutor's request, said J.R. Howard, a state police sergeant who leads the panel.

The panel also recommended that Jones have some evidence tested again and ask some new questions of the state medical examiner.

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