Opening statements have begun in a murder trial in which a man is accused of beating his elderly cancer-stricken friend to death at the victim’s apartment in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood last year in
order to steal money.
Michael Phillips, 65, has been charged with murder, first-degree robbery, burglary, elder abuse and elder theft.
Prosecutors allege Phillips beat and killed James Sheahan, a 75-year-old former employee of San Francisco’s Health and Human Services Department.
Sheahan was found bloodied and fatally beaten inside his
apartment, located in the 900 block of Bush Street, on Aug. 14, 2017, by the building manager, who had tried calling him several times.
Sheahan was found to have suffered multiple traumatic injuries to his head and neck, which the city’s medical examiner’s office determined was most likely from a blunt object. He also had cuts on both wrists, which were not likely to have been fatal, but it was unclear whether they were self-inflicted.
Sheahan’s body appeared to have been moved and a kitchen window leading to a fire escape was open.
Sheahan was suffering from stage-four cancer and had a private caretaker, who said she last saw him alive on Aug. 11.
“Mr. Sheahan suffered a terrible and painful death… Although he suffered for many months, he expected to die in his sleep. Instead he was bludgeoned to death,” Assistant District Attorney O’Bryan Kenney said in his
Kenney played several surveillance videos for jurors from the Bush Street apartment complex where Sheahan lived, showing that Phillips entered and exited the building several times on Aug. 12 and on Aug 13.
On Aug. 12, Phillips is seen entering and exiting the building five times. He’s buzzed in the first time, but enters on subsequent visits with a key and at one point is seen carrying items out, including a box, a painting and paper towels.
There is also a visible stain on his pants after the first visit.
After that visit, surveillance from a Wells Fargo bank shows Phillips attempting twice to withdraw money from Sheahan’s account using Sheahan’s ATM card. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
Phillips then allegedly deposited a check from Sheahan on Aug. 14 for $7,500, another on Aug. 30 for $3,500 and on Sept. 15 for $4,000.
When Phillips was arrested on Nov. 22, 2017, a search allegedly found him in possession of Sheahan’s wallet and credit card, another undeposited check from Sheahan’s missing checkbook for $2,000 dated after
Sheahan’s death and a piece of art and journals that appear to have been taken from Sheahan’s apartment.
“Everything will point to the fact that he committed a crime and did everything to cover it up,” Kenney told jurors.
According to Kenney, Phillips “had desperate need for money” so that he could bring his lover from the Philippines to the U.S., asking for friends for money on Facebook and even setting up a GoFundMe account.
Kenney said that Phillips’ lover asked him for money and, although Phillips was in debt and had taken several loans from friends, he sent money to the Philippines.
In a message on Aug. 12, Phillips allegedly wrote to his
boyfriend, “I fought hard all day and got money to send you.”
Phillips eventually brought his boyfriend to San Francisco in October and married him. But his new husband left the country the day after his arrest, and allegedly told investigators that Phillips had given him
around $20,000 in total for student loans and travel and visa expenses.
According to Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof, Phillips’s attorney, Sheahan and Phillips had been friends for 14 years.
In his opening statements he showed excerpts from Sheahan’s journal, in which Sheahan called Phillips a “very good friend.”
Maloof said that Sheahan regularly asked Phillips to deposit money from the ATM for him because his private caretaker refused to continue doing it after she was admonished by her supervisors for it.
“Michael was one of the only people that James trusted with his ATM
card,” Maloof said.
“James shared some of his personal and deepest secrets that he shared with no one else,” Maloof said, alleging that the box Phillips was seen carrying out of the building on Aug. 12 was Sheahan’s large collection
of gay pornography videos. Maloof said because Sheahan was sick, he was afraid his family would find the videos after his death.
Maloof said, “He trusted Mike more than his own family.”
Maloof also said that Phillips was carrying out paper towels out of Sheahan’s building because they regularly split groceries and the painting he was holding was a gift from Sheahan.
According to Maloof, Phillips did not kill Sheahan as
investigators found none of his DNA on Sheahan, nor on two separate pairs of bloodied gloves, a broken knife handle and a bloodied landline phone.
Additionally, he said no bugs were reported on Sheahan’s body when officers found him and no one complained of a foul smell in the days leading up to his discovery.
Maloof said that in the early morning of Aug. 14, someone reported hearing a loud scream and around the same time, outside surveillance video shows what appears to be a cigarette butt being tossed out from the direction of his apartment window.
Sheahan did not smoke, nor does Phillips, Maloof said.
A bag that belonged to Sheahan was allegedly found in Phillips car after his arrest, containing blood belonging to Sheahan. But, Maloof said that Sheahan regularly coughed up blood because of his sickness and isn’t proof that Phillips killed him.
Maloof also said that the stain that appeared on surveillance video on Phillips’ pants was cranberry juice, which he said evidence shows had spilled recently on Sheahan’s kitchen floor.
“The scientific evidence is not going to lie to you… Somebody else was there,” he said.
The trial is set to continue on Monday.