On November 3, 1998, 8-year-old Maddie Clifton disappeared from her neighborhood. Despite a potential suspect in a neighborhood sex offender and over 400 volunteer searchers, Maddie wasn't found.
A week later, the mother of a neighborhood 14-year-old boy found the child's body in her son's bedroom. She called the police, and her teenaged son was arrested for the murder.
Maddie was 8 years old, and best friends with her 11-year-old sister, Jessie. It was election day in 1998, and Sheila Clifton, the girls' mother, had just come home from voting. Maddie asked if she could go play in the neighborhood, promising to be home before dinnertime. Sheila agreed. It was the last time they would see her alive. The next hours and says would be spent searching for her, Jessie racing through the neighborhood on her bike calling out her beloved younger sister's name when she didn't arrive home that night.
The first suspect in the disappearance was a neighbor who had been arrested twice, over 15 years earlier, for sexual assault, but charges were dropped for both incidents. When he failed a lie detector test, it seemed possible that the police had found their guy. However, he provided a rock solid alibi, leading the police to a dead end.
After the original search, police called it off, but over 400 community volunteers persisted. A $50,000 reward was offered, which was doubled soon after. Flyers were distributed around her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, and broadcast during a Jaguars-Bengals game on TV. Parents were distraught, realizing this could have happened to anybody. Their safe community was feeling less and less safe.
One of the volunteer searchers was Josh Phillips, a 14-year-old boy who lived in Maddie's neighborhood. But little did anyone know, he knew where Maddie was.
The volunteer search came to halt 1 week after Maddie's disappearance when Phillips' mother went to clean his room and found his waterbed leaking. When she investigated the cause of the leak further, she realized it wasn't the bed: It was 8-year-old Maddie's body, hidden inside the base of the waterbed.
Panicked, terrified and absolutely traumatized, she raced outside of her home and went across the street to alert the police of what she had found. Phillips was arrested at school later that day and placed in a maximum security prison.
Phillips provided the sequence of events that led to the murder of Maddie Clifton. He said the night of Maddie's disappearance, he was home alone and the 8-year-old came over and asked if he wanted to play baseball with her outside. He agreed, even though he wasn't allowed to have friends over while he was home alone.
Phillips' father, Steve, had "dominated" his wife and son with a violent temper. He said that once, he walked into his parents' room and saw his father's first smashed through a wall. This made him terrified of his father. He had strict rules on both his wife and son, on top of being a drug addict and alcoholic. In short, Phillips was terrified of him.
So when the 2 were playing baseball and he accidentally hit a ball back at Maddie into her eye, causing her to bleed, cry, and scream, he panicked. He knew his father would be home soon, and he wasn't allowed to have anyone over. He was reportedly terrified of his father's reaction, and Maddie wouldn't stop crying. And so, he dragged the child into his house and strangled her with a phone cord for approximately 15 minutes to keep her quiet. Then, he hit her over the head with a baseball bat and stuffed her under his bed. When his father came home, he went to interact with him like normal.
When he went back to his room, he discovered that Maddie, against all odds, was still alive, moaning under his bed. Now in way too deep, he removed the mattress and stabbed her 11 times, this time killing her. He left her body under the base of his mattress for a week. Though her clothes were off from the waist down, the autopsy revealed no sign of sexual assault. He said her clothes had come off when he was dragging her into his room.
Phillips' trial was held in Polk County, Florida. Since he was under 16 at the time of the crime, he was not eligible for the death penalty, however, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The motive of the murder was Phillips' fear of his abusive and alcoholic father. In a TV program titled Too Young To Kill, Phillips broke down in tears and said if he could take it back, he would. He got a paralegal degree from prison in 2007 and helps other inmates with their appeals.
In December of 2004, Melissa Phillips tried to seek a new trial for her son. She didn't believe his young age at the time of the crime was taken into account in his sentence. In 2005, a new hearing date was set. All parties agreed that he deserved a significant jail sentence, but that a no-parole life sentence for a teen was a bit harsh. (They were a bit ahead of their time, as in 2012, it was ruled unconstitutional for juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole).
The wheels of justice turned very slow, and it wasn't until November 17, 2017 when Phillips was granted his new sentencing. He was re-sentenced to life in prison, but this time, is eligible for re-sentencing in 2023. Though in 2019 his sentence was upheld, his life sentence would be reviewed again at 25 years, instead of the original mandatory life without parole.
Life as they knew it stopped dead in its tracks for so many involved that day. Jessie, who was 11 at the time, said her entire identity shifted after Maddie's death. She said she was a nerdy, uncool geek in school, but after the death of her sister, everyone wanted to know her. She felt she was no longer Jessie Clifton, but "Maddie Clifton's sister". She was dealing with this on top of her heartbreak at losing her sister.
"Having to wake up every day in the circus around my house hat was supposed to be Mom, Dad, Maddie going on vacations, going fishing, going skiing was spent for 7 days waking up in fear and not knowing the unknown," Jessie said during his re-sentencing when she was 30. "What that did to me as an 11-year-old is very hard to explain."
Jessie tried to stay strong for her family, knowing if she broke down, they would, too. Which is an insane amount of pressure for an 11-year-old. She tried to keep things normal, setting the table for dinner. Correcting herself when she would get 4 plates and 4 forks and 4 knives out, forgetting she only needed 3 now.
By the time Jessie was 14, she was getting through it. She was grabbing 3 plates, getting used to life as the 3 of them. But then, Sheila was haunted by what happened at the house across the street. She couldn't bear to be there anymore. And she left. She had just gotten used to there being 3, and then there were 2. They ultimately divorced after 25 years of marriage after the trial.
"Everything stopped when my parents divorced," Jessie said. Her father, Steve, shut down. Her mother wanted to talk about it. Sheila moved out to her mother's house to stay close to Jessie, but away from the neighborhood where her daughter was murdered. Eventually, in 2018, Steve moved out of their family home, and Jessie was in the process of buying it from it. It is a place where she has many fantastic memories of her happy family of 4. "It's always been my home," she said.
Life also began to unravel for Melissa Phillips who was also facing a mother's nightmare. She, too, had lost her child. And she was living with the fact that it was her kid who had stripped the life away from an 8-year-old innocent kid. She tried to withdraw from society, hoping to reinvent herself.
She has experienced kindness, with those in her church, even strangers, embracing her when they find out who she is. There is little ill-will held toward Melissa, as friends and strangers alike know that she, too, is going through hell.
Jessie's kindness has also helped Melissa heal. Jessie recalled how Melissa would not come outside after her son was arrested. So Jessie, as an 11-year-old, helped. She would walk the dog and help her carry groceries inside. Even as a child, she understood that Melissa was not to blame for the crime committed against her best friend.
"She was such a sweet and kind person, she didn't deserve what happened," Jessie said. "I feel like she feels everyone was against her. She found Maddie and I cannot even imagine that and then to realize what her son had did. That is a lot for one person to handle." The 2 of them formed a unique bond, that certainly both of them wish they didn't need, that day.
Melissa's husband, Steve, the abusive father who was part of the root cause of Maddie's death died in a car accident in 2000. Maddie's mom visited to offer condolences. She remarried, but keeps her last name private. She has moved twice to stay anonymous.
In 2007, Melissa was driving 4 hours a month to visit her son in prison. At the time, he was 23, serving life without parole. "I think every mother who has a tragedy of this magnitude, certainly early on... you question yourself: Did I miss something? Did I do something wrong?" Despite being painted as a scared child, during his re-sentencing the jury learned that Phillips had a thing for violent pornography with ambiguously aged girls, that he had books on devil worship, and that he was obsessed with Jessie Clifton. Of course, it is easy to paint someone as needed for a narrative. Despite this, Phillips has always told his mother it was nothing that she did.
Melissa believes that there should be an alternative way of dealing with juveniles "so they don't get their lives thrown away". This was before his re-sentencing, though I believe she would also oppose his life sentence with parole. "That's what the state says - my son's life is worthless."
However, she is always cognizant of what he did to Maddie. "Of course, I'm mindful of Maddie not being here. As close as I am to this tragedy, I can't say I know their pain any more than they know mine. I think of them a lot. I think of Maddie a lot. I'll carry this with me until I die," Melissa said.
This type of case is always shocking to me. A 14-year-old being able to commit murder is just haunting. But does he deserve life in prison? I mean, sure, at 14 you don't know right from wrong in all of its intricacies and nuances. But you certainly know not to kill someone, right?
I think there just needs to be more consistency in sentencing for juveniles. I am immediately reminded of the horrific Shanda Sharer case. The 12-year-old was murdered by 4 girls ages 15-17. She was brutally murdered in 1992, and all 4 of her killers have been released. The girl with the least involvement who testified against the others was released in 2000. The second was released in 2006, and the 2 who were most responsible for the brutal, unthinkable murder of the child were released in 2018 and 2019.
Yes, all of the girls had "troubled backgrounds" and had histories littered with physical or sexual abuse, mental illness, and self-harming behavior. These were certainly mitigating factors. I will not share all of the details of the case with you, but they tortured her. They slashed her, stabbed her, beat her, humiliated her, burned her alive, and then laughed about it with no remorse. That is a little bit different than a kid with a history of abuse at the hands of his father being terrified of getting in trouble and making a series of rash, terrible decisions. And none of the 4 girls were given life sentences. The 2 who committed most of the horror spent between 25-27 years in prison.
I am not saying that I hope Josh Phillips gets out of prison. But I am saying that the Shanda Sharer case is, in terms of premeditation, brutality, and remorselessness, a more gnarly crime. If 2 girls older than him who committed such unthinkable acts against a child and laughed about them don't serve a life in prison, is it fair for a 14-year-old kid who committed the crimes in a spur-of-the-moment panic to spend his entire life behind bars? I don't know.
And don't even get me started on the intersection of race in this conversation. There is a lot to say about it, and it is an entirely different conversation to discuss how juvenile criminals of color are treated differently in this type of situation.
All of this to say, I do agree with Melissa Phillips. There should be a better way of dealing with juveniles. Do I think a 14-year-old who panic murdered a child should get no jail time? Absolutely not. But should his entire life be spent behind bars for it? It is tough to say. It feels unfair for him to continue living his life when he stole another person's. But at the same time, if jail is supposed to be at least partially about rehabilitation, shouldn't there be some concern for if he is likely to offend again? Does it benefit anyone to take another life away? All I'm saying is, I'm glad I'm not the one making the decisions. I can see why Melissa wishes for him to get out, and why Sheila wishes for him to stay behind bars forever.
At 14, you know right from wrong. But he knew what he did was wrong, which is why he hid it. He didn't intend to kill Maddie Clifton, and at least seems incredibly remorseful for his actions. To me, first-degree murder seems like the wrong charge, given that the death wasn't premeditated. However, it technically was because she didn't die from his initial panic blows and strangle. Once he realized he was still alive, he took specific measures to end her life. But again, he was 14. I can see how, under extreme duress and panic that it seemed like the only thing he could do.
Overall, however, an 8-year-old lost her life. Lives unraveled around her afterward, and continued conversations will be had about how to deal with this type of crime. But at the crux, a short, innocent life was lost. And that is the biggest tragedy of them all.