Testimony in the Doris Phillips’ capital murder trial indicates the 81-year-old spent the last several weeks of her life uneasy and nervous.
Phillips disappeared from her Reagor Springs home July 25, 2006, with her body found several weeks later, Sept. 8, in an abandoned house north of Bardwell.
Miguel Arciba, 50, is on trial in the case, which alleges he killed Phillips in the course of committing either kidnapping, robbery or burglary. The son of a former farm worker for the Phillips family, Arciba faces an automatic sentence of life without parole if convicted. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in the case.
In the days preceding her disappearance, Phillips had told more than one of her friends she felt she was being watched, but they testified Tuesday she never clearly identified anyone she was scared of nor had she indicated she felt a need to contact authorities.
They all noted Phillips’ independence and desire to be in her own home – even though she was alone after her husband’s death about 20 months prior.
Neighbor and close friend Chong Bryant said she visited with Phillips several times a week and saw her a day or so before she disappeared, with Phillips telling her, “I feel like someone’s watching me again.” Bryant said she offered for Phillips to come stay with her or that she could bring her dogs over to stay with Phillips, but the offers were declined.
“She said, ‘No, I like to stay here by myself,’” Bryant said. “She was very independent.”
Robert Horning of Waxahachie testified he last saw Phillips on July 19 and said she told him of a Hispanic man who had come by her house to inquire about a camper-trailer she had. Horning testified he didn’t recall Phillips mentioning a name but said she did refer to the man as the son of someone who used to work for her and her late husband on their farm.
“She said, her words … ‘Rob, there are some bad people in this world and this person is one of them. … He’s truly a bad person,” Horning recalled from his conversation with Phillips. He said he felt she was afraid of the man, whom Phillips also believed had later called her house and attempted to disguise his voice.
Another friend, Jane Mullican, testified she had called Phillips the morning of July 25 and that Phillips interrupted their call momentarily to check on something before getting back on the line. Phillips never said what the interruption was about, however, and Mullican testified she then had to cut her own end of the conversation short.
Mullican said when she called back the next morning to continue their talk, Phillips’ son, Jim, answered the phone with word his mother was missing.
Focus on Arciba
Texas Ranger Mark Reinhardt took the stand late in the afternoon to provide additional details as to how the investigation came to focus on Arciba.
The Department of Public Safety was among several agencies contacted by the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office to provide assistance with its exhaustive efforts to locate the 81-year-old when she went missing. Hopes for Phillips’ safe recovery were dashed however after Arciba, who was arrested Sept. 3, 2006, on a charge related to the case, led authorities to her body.
Arciba’s name had come up early on during the investigation and he was asked to come in for an interview, Reinhardt said, saying he interviewed Arciba on Aug. 7 to see if he had any information that could help determine where Phillips was.
Reinhardt said Arciba acknowledged he’d had some contact with Phillips in asking her about a pickup and a camper-trailer she had – and that he’d also had his family at her place on occasion to pick up pecans.
Arciba told two different stories, though, as to how long he had known Phillips, Reinhardt said, saying, “I remember when talking to him, he was shaking. … He was nervous and his hands were shaking the entire time.”
Reinhardt, who had interviewed Horning about his conversation with Phillips, said he was suspicious but couldn’t be sure Arciba was the man Phillilps had expressed concerns about.
“At that time, did you have sufficient evidence to hold Miguel Arciba?” chief felony prosecutor Don Maxfield asked Reinhardt.
“No,” the Ranger answered, noting investigative and search efforts continued.
A break in the case came when one of Phillips’ relatives saw a shotgun for sale in an antiques booth at Canton that matched the one missing from Phillips’ home at the time she disappeared.
Authorities traced the shotgun through the vendor to a couple who said they purchased it from Arciba, who Reinhardt said he asked to come in for another interview.
“He advised me he had never seen the shotgun I was describing to him,” Reinhardt said of the distinctive antique double-barrel weapon. “He said he had not been in her house.”
“When you finished the interview with Mr. Arciba, did you feel he had lied to you?” Maxfield asked.
“Yes, I did,” Reinhardt said, saying he was aware of – but wasn’t present for – an interview Arciba then did with a Secret Service agent.
“Are you aware he changed his story (when questioned by the Secret Service agent)?” Maxfield asked, with Reinhardt saying he was and noting Arciba’s subsequent arrest.
The several interviews conducted by authorities of Arciba were the subject of pre-trial motions by the defense, which has alleged his statements were given as the result of duress and coercion. During opening arguments Tuesday morning, defense attorney Charles Slaton told jurors his client had even been threatened with being shot if he didn’t cooperate on the case.
On the stand Tuesday, Reinhardt said there were no threats or coercion and that Arciba was not under arrest during the interviews. He had been free to go and had been advised of his rights, the Ranger said, saying Arciba was amiable and voluntarily talked with authorities.
The scene at the house
More than 60 photographs from Phillips’ house were introduced into evidence Tuesday as to how authorities found it the night of her disappearance. The first deputy on scene testified as well as Jim Phillips, who initially discovered his mother was missing from her home.
Jim Phillips testified he drove from his home in Grand Prairie to check on his mother late that night after hearing from others who hadn’t been able to reach her during the day and after being unable to reach her himself.
He said he found all of the lights turned off in the home and his mother’s vehicle in the driveway when he arrived – but the back door was open and the TV was blaring loudly from inside.
After searching through the house and outside, Jim Phillips said he found where his mother had written the sheriff’s office’s number on a calendar pad. He said he contacted the sheriff’s office, which dispatched a deputy. After an additional search by the two men turned up no sign of Doris Phillips, additional personnel and agencies were called out for the ensuing search and investigation.
Testimony indicated authorities were immediately concerned with the circumstances of the disappearance. Although there were no signs of a struggle in the house, Doris Phillips’ dentures – which her friends and family said she never went out without them in place – were located in a cup on the bathroom sink. A card game of solitaire had been left incomplete next to a half-empty coffee cup on a table in the living room – and the coffee pot had been left on in the kitchen.
The antique shotgun had been removed from its rack in the spare bedroom as well as a pillowcase from one of the beds, Jim Phillips testified, noting his mother’s purse also was gone.
Testimony continues Wednesday morning, with the trial expected to last about a week. Arciba has remained in custody since his arrest on a $1 million bond.
E-mail JoAnn at firstname.lastname@example.org