YORK COUNTY — York County convenience store clerks stood behind counters five years ago, fearing for their lives. For weeks, dry cleaners, cashiers at any place that handled cash, were terrified.
Customers buying coffee or cigarettes, six-packs of cold beer after long work days, looked at each other and prayed that the stranger in line was not the gun-toting shooter who had robbed store after store in York County and remained on the loose.
The shooter – Phillip Fleming Watts Jr., a recent parolee – told police after he was arrested and charged with seven robberies and four shootings in late January and February 2008 that he wanted attention.
He wanted the cops to hunt him, and would have taken his road show of blood beyond Rock Hill and Fort Mill.
“I was planning on going to York next,” Watts said in his confession hours after he was arrested in late February 2008. “I knew if I did it in enough jurisdictions, more police would get involved.
“I just act on thoughts that I have, but I’m not crazy, and I want people to know that.”
A veteran sheriff’s office lieutenant named Tim Hager called those words “the most chilling thing I may have ever heard.”
Hager has locked up dozens of killers and shooters in the past 35 years. But only Watts admitted that he wanted more attention and would have shot and robbed until the cops caught him or killed him.
“He said he wasn’t going to stop,” Hager said. “If he had a bigger gun, no doubt there would be four people dead.”
York County would have had a serial killer on its hands, Hager said, if Watts had had a more powerful weapon than a .25-caliber pistol.
Five years later, Watts claims he didn’t get a fair shake in the court system. He has filed court papers claiming his many guilty pleas following conviction at a jury trial were involuntarily given.
He claims he was mentally ill when he scared people to death and shot and stole.
He claims his lawyer didn’t do a good job and that TV cameras should not have been at the one trial in which a jury found him guilty in less time then it takes to make lunch.
Watts wants out of seven life sentences.
A judge ruled that Watts has the right to appeal the jury conviction and guilty pleas, and Watts also can go forward with a lawsuit claiming his lawyer was the bad guy and that the system did him wrong.
Hearings were scheduled for Feb. 4 - almost five years to the day Watts shot two people in Fort Mill, but have been rescheduled for May, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
The people Watts shot cannot appeal anything.
Ping Chen, Charlie Powers, Yen Nguyen and Ida Neal Lord have to live with scarred faces, heads and arms. Lord had to learn to walk and talk again.
“There was no reason for the shootings,” Hager said. “That’s the thing about this. No reason, no struggle by the victims, no resisting the robberies. They gave up the money. He robbed and he shot.”
Charlie Powers was not just some guy. He was the former mayor of Fort Mill, the guy who for decades had brought hot coffee and cold drinks to the town’s road workers digging ditches and to cops at crime scenes.
That awful night of Feb. 5, 2008, Powers stopped at the John Boy station in Fort Mill, to say hello to the Vietnamese immigrant who owned the place and worked unfathomable hours for her American dream. Powers knew her and every shopkeeper in town.
He planned to buy some chewing tobacco, ask about her family.
As Powers approached the door to the store, a young man was heading out. Powers smiled and held the door for the man. He had held a million doors for people in his life.
The man returned the nice gesture by holding a gun to Powers’ temple, then shooting him in the face, tearing a hole through his cheek.
“No way that gun doesn’t go off at my temple,” Powers recalls now, five years later at age 73. “But somehow, it just got my face.”
Powers did not know that Watts had already shot Yen Nguyen twice in the gut after robbing the place. She was lying behind the counter, bleeding.
“I am all about a fair shake, and believe in the system of justice, but it doesn’t seem right that this guy now claims he’s the victim of anything,” Powers said. “He chose to rob. He shot people. And I wasn’t the worst. He could have killed all of them. He could have killed me.”
Watts had no reason to shoot people after robbing them – except that he liked it.
The power of the gun, the hold of life and death over someone begging for his life, and then the thrill of standing over a person bleeding on the ground, gasping for breath to stay alive.
All as the worst serial criminal in York County history drove off in his girlfriend’s truck, or his momma’s car.
Then it was off to look for the next place to rob, the next person to maim.
People in Fort Mill were terrified. When finally caught, here is what Watts told police about that crime as he confessed:
“I fired at her, and she went down behind the counter. Then I leaned over the counter and she was sort of balled up with her hand over her face, and I fired again. I pulled the gun from one pocket, said something to the clerk and fired at her. I don't know if I hit her that time.
“I jumped over the counter and demanded money. She gave me a bank bag, and I shot her again. I got the money out of the drawer and went around the counter.”
Watts told police about a car pulling up to the store as he started toward the door.
“The guy opened the door for me and as I was walking past, I shot him," he said. “I started toward my car, saw a guy in the parking lot, and I shot at him and he ran away. I got over $1,000 with this robbery.”
The Fort Mill shooting and robbery was not the first for Watts, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The robberies started brazenly on Dec. 8, 2007, at an Anderson Road store in Rock Hill. Watts told police after his arrest: “I got out of prison in September and was doing pretty good. One day, I came up on a store, and I decided to rob it.”
Two days later, on Dec. 10, and then again on Jan. 18, Watts robbed a store on South Charlotte Avenue in Rock Hill.
“The guy behind the counter kept looking at me like I was going to rob something so I decided to go ahead,” Watts’ said in his confession. “I pulled my gun and robbed the place.”
On Jan. 20, Watts robbed the One Stop store across S.C. 5 from Northwestern High School. Three days later, he turned 20.
On Jan. 28, Watts went to the Saltwater fish market on White Street just off Dave Lyle Boulevard in Rock Hill. There he shot Ping Chen, a Chinese immigrant who works there, but only after first looking to rob the adjacent beauty salon.
“I went to the hair place first, but they had locked their door,” Watts told police. “I went to the seafood place. I saw a couple of guys in the back and pointed the gun. I got the money and looked back. That was when I decided to shoot her.
“I fired at her, and she went down behind the counter. Then I leaned over the counter and she was sort of balled up with her hand over her face, and I fired again.”
What Watts told the terrified Ping Chen that night after shooting her was: “Do you think I’m joking? Do you think I’m joking?”
Then he shot her again.
On Feb. 5, Watts made his way to Fort Mill, shooting Powers and Yen Nguyen at the John Boy store on Spratt Street.
The worst injuries were inflicted upon Ida Neal Lord, a customer at a check cashing store at the intersection of Heckle Boulevard and Cherry Road on Feb. 14, 2008.
The hospice health aide was first shot in the head, then in the back as she lay in a pool of blood on the floor – left to die in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day.
She did not die.
After five years of rehabilitation and courage, Lord has learned to walk and talk again, leaving a wheelchair behind. She now volunteers at the same adult day care where she was a client for years.
Lord, mother of three, grandmother of nine, prays for Phillip Watts each night.
Here is what Watts said about shooting Lord:
“I got behind her and was going to threaten her and get the clerk to give me the money. I must have cocked the hammer beforehand, and it went off. I saw her hair on fire as she fell to the ground. I turned and shot her as she lay on the ground. I looked at the clerk behind the counter, and then I left."
Only relentless, cutting-edge police work and the toughest, smartest old-school cops using new-school hustle and technology could catch Phillip Watts before he killed somebody. Or a bunch of somebodies.
“We knew we had to catch this person before it got worse,” Hager recalled. “People were scared. They had reason to be.”
Hager and Lt. Jason Dalton of the Rock Hill Police Department were part of the team of investigators from the sheriff’s office and Rock Hill and Fort Mill police working the crimes.
“All of us were working it hard, looking at it as one suspect,” Hager said.
Cops had video from the robberies that showed the two cars – a Durango and a Taurus. At the check-cashing place, video showed the shooter had used a pen to fake filling out a form before he shot Lord.
The pen had DNA on it. A rush DNA analysis at the State Law Enforcement Division gave police Watts’ name, as he had just been released from prison three months before the first robbery.
Detectives matched one of the cars to Watts’ mother, found phone records and tracked the phone to some condominiums near Celanese Road in northern Rock Hill. A woman who turned out to be Watts’ girlfriend answered the door.
It was the afternoon of Feb. 18.
“We asked her if she knew where Watts was, and we knew then he was inside,” Hager said.
The officers pulled the girlfriend out and called for the SWAT team. A few minutes later, Rock Hill officers Lt. Steve Thompson and Capt. Charles Cabaniss, rushed inside. Cabaniss – now retired, but in 2008 a veteran detective who had locked up dozens of killers and shooters – told Watts not to move.
The gun used in all the shootings was on a shelf in the closet.
“The gun that was found in the apartment when I was arrested is the one that was used in the shootings,” Watts told Hager when confessing a short time later.
Watts admitted to police he thought about suicide – but did not want to put his mother through that. He did not talk about what shooting others did to them, the agony, the blood, but he sure took time to worry about not shooting himself.
The public, finally, was safe from a shooter who would have been a four-time killer if the gun he had was a big handgun like criminals use every day.
The next day, Feb. 19, 2008, Hager was at the dry cleaners across from where Ida Neal Lord was shot. The clerk, shaking, thanked Hager and explained how people had been terrified.
“We knew before then people were scared all over the county,” Hager said, “but that moment I knew that it was terror for people.”
Watts fought the cases against him at first. He asked for bond twice, but no judge was about to let this guy out of jail before a trial.
In September 2008, a jury found Watts guilty of the One Stop store robbery. Three months later, Watts pleaded guilty to the seafood market robbery and to shooting Ping Chen. In early 2009 he pleaded guilty, but mentally ill, to the rest of the shootings and robberies.
He was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms.
Now, five years later, Watts claims he is the victim of a court system that didn’t treat him right.
Watts has filed two direct appeals, Attorney General’s spokesman Mark Powell said – the jury verdict and the guilty pleas. He also has filed a civil lawsuit claiming the pleas were not voluntary and alleging ineffective counsel by his lawyer.
It remains unclear what any lawyer could have done after Watts confessed, was captured on videotape and his DNA matches the DNA at the crime scene of the final shooting.
Watts had been committing crimes since he was 12. In 2000, he was convicted of a ruckus on a school bus and given probation and community service. In 2002, Watts he was sentenced to house arrest after stealing a car, driving without a license, and three charges of strong-armed robbery and assault.
From 2005 to 2007 Watts was in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice after a 2005 armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, assault, malicious damage to property and again driving a car with no license.
After South Carolina’s system for young offenders released Watts in September 2007, it took only two months for him to get ahold of a gun and start robbing again.
Some of the court papers Watts has filed are written in longhand, even though he has had several court-appointed lawyers paid for by taxpayers.
He claimed late last year in one court filing that he has rights, “even in light of the U.S. bankruptcy, AKA the national emergency, and that includes the right of redemption,” Watts wrote.
One of the lawyers representing Watts in his claims, Sarah Edgecomb, declined comment.
Charlie Powers has been at almost every court hearing concerning Watts. When Watts pleaded guilty in early 2009, Ida Neal Lord was still in a wheelchair. She wore a helmet to keep her brain inside a skull that was broken by the bullet fired by Watts.
Powers, that cold day, grabbed the wheelchair handles and pushed Lord into the courtroom with the regal bearing of a valet pushing a queen.
“I felt that she deserved to be pushed, after all she had been through,” Powers said. “We share something. We both got shot, but she was worse.”
Powers does not want to go to any more court hearings about Phillip Watts, but he will go. He will be there in May.
Watts, now 25, will likely be in court in May, five years after he terrorized York County with a gun large enough to maim, robbing and shooting people until the cops caught him – before he killed somebody.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org