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The News Virginian
Tuesday, April 27, 2010 6:08 pm
STAUNTON – For three days, the demons of loss, depression and alcohol soured in Timothy Aaron Wilkins’ head.
But even the suicide attempts he revealed on the witness stand Tuesday couldn’t erase the crime.
An Augusta County Circuit Court jury convicted, Wilkins, 40, of Churchville, of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of his girlfriend, Misty M. Phillips. The jury recommended the maximum sentence for manslaughter: 10 years in prison.
“I had no reason to kill Misty,” Wilkins testified. “We loved each other very much – I don’t know how it got to this. I wish I could take it back.”
Augusta County Sheriff’s deputies found Phillips, 36, of Staunton, in the rear cargo area of Wilkins’ Toyota 4Runner at 11:30 p.m. June 12. A 911 caller a short time earlier reported Wilkins’ erratic behavior in the parking lot at Food Lion in Verona.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Rupen Shah laid the groundwork for his case against Wilkins using the defendant’s statement during a recorded police interview.
“He strangled her to the point where there’s no return,” Shah said. “He kills her. Misty Phillips was choked to death by his bare hands.”
More than 30 people watched as Shah called a deputy, three detectives and an assistant medical examiner from Roanoke to the stand. They reconstructed the case for the jury, using photographs and video of the police interrogation.
Public Defender Peter Boatner argued the case, at its roots, was an uncomplicated one.
“Both sides agree on the basic facts here,” he said. “At some point he gets on top of her and it goes too far.”
Boatner argued the killing occurred in the heat of passion, fed by the pair’s alcoholism.
He cited Wilkins’ suicidal thoughts after the murder and the defendant’s strong feelings of remorse. Investigators said they found a suicide note sitting on Wilkins’ computer desk. The defendant said they would have found another typed out in a document on the computer, had they looked.
Wilkins, a lifelong Augusta County resident, said he graduated from Buffalo Gap High School in 1988. He joined the military after school and rose to the rank of sergeant before receiving an honorable discharge in 1993, he said.
He’s lived throughout the area. For the last 15 years, Wilkins said he worked in industrial maintenance as a mechanic, most recently the third shift at White Wave Foods in Mount Crawford.
Wilkins said he shared a relationship with Phillips for seven of the eight years he knew her. He said they supported each other, spent time together and fell into alcoholism together. Wilkins said most of their arguments were about finances and occurred while drinking.
“She would usually get gin, a large bottle of gin,” Wilkins said. “And I’d get a large bottle of vodka. We drank very excessively. We saw the problems it created in our lives.”
In 2004, Wilkins was charged with driving under the influence. Once they realized their problem, Wilkins said he and Phillips sought help at several organizations, including Alcoholics Anonymous.
The day he killed his girlfriend started like many others, Wilkins said. They ran errands in Staunton, bought alcohol and drove home to work in Wilkins’ yard. When they arrived, they opened their bottles, he said. As the sun set around 8 p.m., Wilkins said they finished their yard work and continued to drink.
From Wilkins’ spotty memory of the night, he said he remembers starting to argue.
“At some point the verbal argument began to escalate,” he said. “It got more heated and more heated.”
He got up and began to exit the patio where they sat, he said.
“She more or less attacked me from behind,” Wilkins said. “We were pushin’ and shovin’. At some point I snapped. I lost control. The next thing I remember is being on top of her, strangling her – it’s very vague, but I remember.”
He said it happened quickly.
“She stopped fighting,” he said. “I stopped fighting. I don’t think I yet realized what had happened.”
He staggered into the house and passed out, he said. Then his memory faded. When he woke up, he said he expected to find her in his bed. Instead, he found her body in the backyard.
“I had a bad feeling about it. Something came back to me,” he testified. “And I realized something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t know what to do.”
Wilkins said he fell into a cloud of suicidal thoughts, gathered his anti-depressants and contemplated his demise. He swallowed some with beer, fell asleep and woke up the next morning.
“I was thinking it was all a dream, really,” he said. “I was expecting to find her in the bed again.”
Faced with the truth, Wilkins said he tried suicide again with pills. It didn’t work, so he retrieved a shotgun and went into his bathroom to rig a way to end his life.
But he couldn’t do it, he said.
“I knew somebody was going to come up there and I didn’t want Misty’s family to find her like that, or my family to find me like that,” he said. “I finally decided I was going to load her up into the 4Runner and drive her into town at the sheriff’s office. I took my dog, too, because I wanted him to be taken care of.”
He drove to Food Lion grocery store instead and sat in the parking lot drinking beer and swallowing pills. A few feet behind him, Phillips lay under a tarp.
A passer-by in the parking lot called authorities.
“Misty was a mother and a daughter and a sister,” Wilkins said. “I wish I could take it back. I apologize to the families. Both families.”
During his closing argument, Shah argued the jury should find Wilkins guilty of first-degree murder.
“In her struggle she was scratching him, holding his arm and pushing him away,” he said. “There were bruises on his arms. She was struggling. There is no question in my mind, and surely not in yours, that this is premeditated first-degree murder.”
Boatner argued otherwise.
“This is not a murder case, this is manslaughter at best,” he said. “They had a common flaw and that common flaw was alcohol. Alcohol was at the heart of this case. In the midst of a drunken fight there was an action and reaction. A mutual fray. A fight. It’s devastating, it’s a tragedy. The evidence does not support that this was done in malice.”
After the trial, Wilkins was taken to Middle River Regional Jail in Verona.