First on the murder scene was Euna, Billie Jean Phillips’ sister. As a nurse, she knew immediately they were hours too late as Billie Jean’s estimated time of death was later determined to be around midnight. Euna futilely attempted to keep their brother Robert, the next person to arrive, from the scene.

 

Euna had already seen the murder weapon – the T-ball bat, which belonged to Billie Jean’s son. Broken into two pieces, it now lay on the bedroom floor, while blood splatter stretched upward within feet of the ceiling. It wasn’t evident at the moment that Billie Jean had also been strangled.

 

The victim’s lover, known here as John Smith, was the third person to arrive, even before the first deputy. Euna and Robert would both later say he looked as if he hadn’t slept and was uncharacteristically disheveled. Smith tried to enter the bedroom, but Euna, quickly realizing he might likely be both prosecutor and suspect, stopped him. The first arriving deputy made all of them vacate the house.

 

Meanwhile Randy Baker, 40 miles away, had been notified. He, too, grasped the situation immediately, calling the Arkansas State Police criminal investigator at home. The latter, who was also the officer involved in the Sharp death investigation, didn’t quite get what Baker was trying to tell him. The same Billie Jean, Baker emphasized, who was the longtime lover of Smith. How, he wanted to know, do we keep him out of the crime scene?

 

They didn’t. And even though other officers on the scene pointed out blood on Smith’s shoes, Baker and the state patrol investigator supposedly did not confront him about that. According to Euna and Robert, Smith was in and out of the house for over four hours that day.

 

The scene played out for the investigators, noting that although Billie Jean’s body was slumped against her dresser, the attack had begun on her bed. A part of her finger and two fingernails ripped from the base gave evidence to that, as it appeared she had been dragged across the floor by her T-shirt, which was still pulled up, exposing her badly bruised stomach. Her body had been left on her back against a far wall with her head leaning against her dresser. Though bloody, her underwear was still in place, suggesting what the autopsy later confirmed, that this had not been a sexual assault. Based on the fact that most of her blows were on her right side, investigators also deduced the killer was left-handed.

 

The crime scene was one of puzzling contradictions. What was the perpetrator’s point of entry? A screen was taken off a window, yet on no part of the windowsill was dust disturbed. A slice had also been cut in the screen outside her French doors, as if an attempt had been made to reach the deadbolts, but they were secure. Had she opened the door to someone she knew? Was the front door unlocked when her son went in?

 

Trained to be observant, Euna contributed much to the investigation. However messy Billie Jean’s personal life might have been, nothing, Euna told investigators, would be left out at her house. Her tidiness was such that even in her rush back to Billie Jean’s bedroom, items left out on the kitchen counter had momentarily grabbed her eye. Candy wrappers, but not the kind Billie Jean ate, sat out along with a card. Smith, it was later revealed, had given her that birthday card, but it had been quite a while ago.

 

Billie Jean was dressed for bed, but Euna knew she had to have been awake. All her jewelry was still on her, including the wedding ring once worn by Smith’s grandmother. Her wallet, with several hundred dollars in it, was there, too. And someone who’d come with the intent of taking items would have seen the black case, the corner of which was showing beneath the dresser. Nobody in the family had seen this item before. Was this the briefcase holding the secrets Billie Jean had threatened to expose? It was never given to the family, nor were its contents ever openly revealed.

 

One thing that was truly baffling, Euna noticed Billie Jean’s vacuum cleaner was left in the middle of the bedroom floor. That alone wasn’t like her sister, but even more odd was its bag was gone, never to be recovered.

 

Euna was also sure that Billie Jean had had company; the music was on low, where her sister alone would have set it loud. And the one thing that Euna really couldn’t shake was the way Billie Jean’s closet looked. Half of it had been filled with clothes belonging to Smith. Now that side was bare except for a single hanger from which dangled the clothes Billie Jean had last worn.

 

And so it began, an investigation that would span years. The crime scene had spoken of this event as a crime born of rage, proven by the nature and extent of her injuries. It was, in law enforcement vernacular, overkill, an indication that this was personal.

 

The use of the T-ball bat as murder weapon was also instructive because it meant someone had not come armed to kill, but merely grabbed what was available, a weapon of opportunity. And the fighter that Billie Jean was had provided investigators with DNA under her fingernails.

 

While Smith had the advantage of being the deputy prosecuting attorney, he also had a boss, by the name of Terry Jones of Fayetteville. At what point Jones became aware of Smith’s relationship with Billie Jean is not known, but once the murder occurred, Jones made one thing clear to Smith – there would be no crossing the line on his watch. Smith was to stay out of the investigation.

 

It took all of a week for Jones to prove he meant it, firing Smith after discovering he’d called the state crime lab for information on the case. Smith, no doubt, was anxious; he was a prime suspect and this had been a long-term affair that was common knowledge in the area.

 

Meanwhile, Smith’s wife was a suspect as well. Two weeks prior, upon catching her husband with Billie Jean, Jane Smith had, in front of witnesses, resorted to violence, slugging her husband’s lover. Things were exceptionally tense among the three because, it was rumored, Billie Jean was now pressuring Smith to leave his wife to marry her.

 

There was also another ugly aspect to this whole situation. Officials had confirmed that Billie Jean had at some point had sexual relations with one of the Smith couple’s sons. Was that motive for one or the other parent to confront her, ending in her murder?

 

Both father and one son passed DNA tests, while neither Jane Smith nor the Smiths’ other son were tested. Jones, however, threatened Jane Smith with perjury charges, based on some of her statements to law enforcement. Her attorney immediately claimed spousal privilege for her as well as invoking her right to not self-incriminate. Ultimately, none of the Smiths were ever charged with the crime.

 

Not that the list of suspects ended there; there was a line of people, both men and women, who found themselves under suspicion. Billie Jean had left an abundance of motive in her wake, resulting in hundreds of interviews given, polygraphs submitted and DNA taken from both locals and in criminal databases being checked. At times, investigators from different agencies were assigned to the case to give it fresh eyes, all apparently for naught.

 

Years were passing and the distraught McKnight family hired their own private investigator and offered a $25,000 reward. But the investigation remained a maze. There were lots of directions to go; you just had to find the right one. And it wasn’t happening.

 

Seven months after her death, Billie Jean was even indirectly involved in a third death. A young Huntsville man told his stepmother he feared for his life because he “knew things” about Billie Jean’s murder. Within a few weeks, he was found dead in his burning truck, the fire so intense it melted the ignition.

 

The body was found by the man’s close friend, by coincidence a firefighter, whose professional take was the fire had been intentionally set. It was, in a word, murder. But the case faded away with no resolution.

 

Then, nine years after Billie Jean’s murder, there was another Phillips in the headlines as Clint Phillips, 27, was acquitted of Billie Jean Phillips’ death. Clint, no relation to Billie Jean’s former husband Chic Phillips, had first been charged on a sexual assault case. When his DNA was put into the system, it matched the DNA found under Billie Jean’s nails. Immediately, he faced charges for Billie Jean’s murder, and with the DNA, many thought his conviction would be a slam dunk.

 

Well, of course his DNA was under her nails, his attorney said. They had sex that night, and in doing so, Billie Jean scratched his back.

 

Jones countered to the jury that Clint had killed her in a rage after Billie Jean taunted his performance that night, one Clint admitted was hindered by overdrinking. During Clint’s attack on her, Jones posited, Billie Jean fought back, hence the DNA under her nails.

 

Not true, said Clint’s attorney, because the two had had sex much earlier in a church parking lot. Not to mention, Clint had an alibi for the time of her death and was never in her home that night. What’s more, the DNA argument was further diluted by the fact that there was no DNA under the two nails broken off.

 

Undeterred, the prosecution brought to the stand three women, each of whom claimed Clint had gone into rages, assaulting them. One even claimed he had choked her. But, his defense countered, Clint had been on meth when those assaults occurred, while at the time Billie Jean was killed, Clint hadn’t started using the drug.

 

No, his defense said, the truth was he was being scapegoated to protect the true killer. And while he made a point of saying he wasn’t accusing John Smith, Clint’s lawyer did suggest to the jury that Smith certainly should be considered a viable suspect instead of his client.

 

The jury rendered a non-guilty verdict, leaving the family and the community with the haunting realization that a killer was still in the community. Since then, no one else has been charged, and the case became cold as winter.

 

That’s changing. Recently there have been three podcasts about Billie Jean’s murder. As is the case with this article, each podcaster has acknowledged their work is based on the incredibly thorough and detailed work of one man, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Michael Whitely.

 

Arkansas native Catherine Townsend, a podcaster and private investigator featured in AY About You’s May 2022 edition, now has two true crime podcasts, “Hell and Gone” and “Blood Money.” On the latter is an episode titled “The Maneater Murder: Billie Jean Phillips.” Whenever she came back home for visits, Townsend said, people would bring up the case to her, as people still want to know who killed Billie Jean. It may very well be time, Townsend suggests, to retest materials using the more advanced forensic technology now available.

 

It should be noted that a key piece of evidence that could have yielded DNA and/or fingerprints – the T-ball bat – has been destroyed, supposedly by an official order made mistakenly.

 

It remains to be seen if Billie Jean Phillips will prove to be the fighter in the hereafter that she was in life. Maybe it’s time for the music to stop for the killer who walked out of her bloody bedroom and blended back into the community, another dancer on the razor’s edge.

 

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