Fourteen year old Joshua Phillips brutally murdered his good friend and neighbor, Maddie Clifton on November 3, 1998, in Jacksonville Florida. He concealed and slept over her decomposing body, which lay hidden under his bed for an entire week before her remains were discovered.
When Josh was four, his family rented a house in Rutland, Vermont. He was an active child with an even more active mind. At a young age he enjoyed going to museums, zoos, and learning centers. By the time he was five — they moved again — this time to Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. Sadly, family life would not always be a particularly happy experience.
Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips was born on March 17, 1984, and is the only child of Steve and Melissa Phillips, both IT specialists. He has two older half-brothers Daniel and Benji, who are more than 11 years his senior. Nevertheless, the three were inseparable. Josh was a happy baby and toddler who was loved by his parents and siblings, despite financial struggles. Steve was laid off from his job at Bethlehem Steel due to downsizing, forcing the family to move several times over the years.
Joshua Phillips Troubled Childhood
His father, Steve, was a strict man with a temper. In addition to his short fuse, he had a penchant for alcohol and strict rules. Josh’s father would get angry if he invited other children over when he wasn’t home. According to his wife and all three sons, he also hated young girls for some unknown reason. One day without notice, Steve relocates the family from Pennsylvania to Jacksonville, Florida. The move permanently separated Josh from his half-brothers Daniel and Benjie, who were forced to stay behind.
When Josh reaches his 14th birthday, he is described as being a normal and happy kid. He had a lot of friends and enjoyed making others laugh. He attended the A. Philip Randolph Academy of Technology as a ninth grader and a C- average student, who was said to be somewhat of a class clown, but never a problem child. He was never sent to the Principal’s office, or was ever flagged as someone who could be capable of committing the atrocious acts to come.
And while it’s true he had never been in trouble at school or with the law — he had been in trouble with the Clifton family before. In fact, he was banned from their home. They refused to allow him in the house for talking crudely about sex in front of both girls and their grandmother, Florence Clifton. Additionally, he was caught lurking around their daughter Jessica’s room uninvited.
Behind Josh’s Seemingly Normal Teenage Facade, was a Monster
Neighbor to Josh and the Cliftons, Sam Ilardi, also makes an interesting observation. The young teenager rarely played with kids his own age. Instead, he seemed to prefer the company of the younger children in the neighborhood. Little did they know that behind Josh’s seemingly normal teenage facade was a monster. He hid sinister secrets from his parents and the rest of the world.
When 8 year old Maddie Clifton goes missing, police search the entire neighborhood and surrounding area. They searched the Phillips home three times. They mistook the stench of a dead body with the smell of the birds he kept in his room. With the little girl still missing, a $100,000 reward is offered, and the FBI joins the search along with hundreds of volunteers who scour the nearby swamps and forests.
The Murder of Maddie Clifton
Joshua Phillips’ double life would soon come crashing down in the early morning hours of Tuesday, November 10. While cleaning, his mother sees an unusually large wet spot leaking from underneath his waterbed. She then notices the base was broken but taped back together. That’s when she glimpses of a pair of white socks and legs peeking out from the opening in the busted frame, and frantically runs outside to a team of police who were searching for Maddie down the street.
“I just walked right out of that front door. Everything seemed surreal. I was about to implicate my own son in this horrifying discovery. I remember looking at the Clifton’s house as I walked towards the patrol car thinking, right now they still have hope. In a few minutes, they’ll know.”
Arrest and Recognition
Josh was arrested at school, and taken to the Police Memorial Building in Jacksonville for questioning. His father was the one to tell him why he was arrested: “Joshua, your mother found Maddie’s body under your waterbed this morning.” Cornered by the authorities, the young man quickly confesses. He admits to murdering the Clifton girl when she came over to play on November 3, 1998. Phillips claimed he accidentally hit her in the eye with a baseball while they were playing, and she started sobbing.
Out of fear of being caught by his father, he tells officers he first carried the young girl to his bedroom and tried to get her to stop wailing by putting his hand over her mouth, but she continued to cry out. To shut her up, he took his baseball bat and bashed her in the head three times. According to the coroner, the head injuries alone would have eventually killed her, but since she didn’t die immediately, she continued to moan in pain.
Horrific Details of Maddie Clifton Death
Knowing his parents would be home any minute, he panics and quickly prys the wooden side panel of his waterbed open, and shoves Maddie into the cramped cavity underneath the mattress. Noticing his blood covered hands, he goes to the bathroom to clean himself and the crime scene. As he walks by his bedroom, he can hear Maddie still moaning under the bed. He reopens the already loosened wood panel, rips her out from under the bed and stabs her another nine times in the chest to make sure she stays quiet. He then shoves Maddie back under the bed using his feet, and closes the panel.
It takes police 6 days to find Maddie Clifton after she goes missing. In his statement, Josh said he slept the entire week following her murder in his bed. She was murdered on Tuesday and by Wednesday night he had to re-tape the frame because he was already starting to smell her. He used clear packing tape to seal the corners of the bed frame, then went over that with black electrical tape in hopes of concealing the rotting odor. He would periodically burn incense and invested in several cans of aerosols and gel plug-in air fresheners to mask the increasingly putrid stench.
What Went Wrong?
Josh Phillips’ brother Daniel is still haunted by the decision his father made to separate the family years ago. “I wish Joshua had never left Pennsylvania, but I could say that a million times and that’s not going to change anything. Our father took Joshua away from me. He would have had me; he would’ve had Benjie. He would have been an uncle to my kids and he would have assimilated into my life here.”
Daniel believes the abusive environment coupled with the recent separation isolated his brother to the point it caused him to mentally snap.
“When they went down there he had nobody, and that was my fathers choice. It didn’t matter, you know, how much we begged him not — my father did what he was going to do and nobody would have had anything to do with it.” According to Josh Phillips, he would put himself “in a fantasy world that nothing had happened. That was my defense mechanism for everything when I was a kid. I never made the decision to ignore it. I just did.”
Another theory to help explain how this could have happened came from the defense team.
Nevertheless, these findings were ultimately ruled as inadmissible and weren’t used during the trial or examined further.
Sentencing & Appeals of Joshua Phillips
Joshua Phillips’ first court hearing was held on Wednesday, November 11, 1998. Donning a bright orange prison issue shirt and black, drawstring pants complete with ankle and wrist shackles, he is asked why he killed Maddie. He responds with a clueless shrug, and says “I don’t know. I don’t think I have the answer. Maybe I should get some kind of counseling or something, to find out what’s wrong with me.” On November 16, 1998, Shorstein announces the state will be trying 14 year old Phillips as an adult. He would be facing a first-degree murder charge. The trial officially begins July 6, 1999 and lasts just two days due to the defense not calling any witnesses. It only takes jurors two hours to convict Joshua Phillips of first-degree murder.
According to prosecutors, the murder was sexually motivated since Clifton wasn’t wearing all of her clothes when police found her. The defense argues her clothes came off when Phillips dragged her into his room, however her body showed no signs that she was sexually assaulted. A guilty verdict is reached, and Josh shows no signs of remorse as Maddie’s parents both fight back tears. After Josh’s imprisonment, his father Steve Phillips dies in a car accident on June 27, 2000. Josh continues to pursue his education, earning his high school diploma and taking college courses through mail correspondence. He eventually lands a prison job tutoring other inmates and helping them with their appeals.
Appeal was Rejected
In 2008 he was asked if he thinks he deserved a second chance, in which he responds “I’m not sure I deserve one, but I desperately want one.” That same year, Phillips verbally declined to write the Clifton family a letter of apology when asked. He claimed they deserved an apology from him in person. However, Maddie’s mother Sheila responded that she had no interest in talking to him. Josh Phillips became eligible for a resentencing hearing on August 17, 2017, 19 years after the murder. During the hearing, he publicly apologized to the family of Maddie Clifton, who were present. “I did something horrible and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Even now after all these years, it is just so unfathomable that all this could have occurred.”
The 2017 appeal was rejected, and Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips is still imprisoned at the Taylor Annex Correctional Institution in Perry, Taylor County, Florida. That being said, he is still eligible to be freed. In 2019 he was granted a new sentence hearing — and will be reviewed in 2023, which could lead to his possible release.