By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
Billy Ray Cobb, and Wanda June and Guy Lester Phillips were brutally executed, shot multiple times in the head at close range. Their bodies were found at Windmill Park, lying face up in the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 1974.
None of that is disputed.
The questions of who committed the murders, why and even where were addressed as the trial of Eddie Jack Washington got under way Monday at the Marion County Courthouse. He is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit a felony.
After the jury visited key sites important to the trial, they returned to the courthouse for opening statements before Marion Circuit Judge Michael Aloi.
Marion County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick N. Wilson called the slayings “horrific ... deliberate, willful, premeditated.”
Cobb had been shot three times in the head; Guy Phillips, four; and Wanda June Phillips, two.
“There was no justification for them to have been murdered,” Wilson said.
Their murders spurred a “massive investigation” involving city, county and state police, prosecutor’s office and county coroner.
Even then, it was not clear if the trio had been shot where they were found or elsewhere and taken to the park known as the Old Fairgrounds.
“But Eddie Jack Washington’s name came up pretty quickly” as a suspect, along with that of Phillip Bush, Wilson said.
He had connections to Guy Phillips, who had been seen with Washington and Bush the night before the murders.
Wilson said Washington prepared a story to tell police that he’d stayed with his girlfriend, Patty West, then driven to Morgantown and then back to Fairmont.
The problem was, Wilson said, that over the years, Washington has both admitted and denied being involved.
There were other leads, but they led nowhere, he said. And there was never enough evidence to charge Washington.
Testimony earlier this year from an eyewitness, John Ford, gave police what they needed, Wilson said, and on Feb. 8, Washington was arrested in Tampa, Fla.
Ford said he had been with Bush and Washington, along with Virgil Keener, when they drove to the Phillips’ residence that night. Washington drove to Conley Farm, behind Hill’s Department Store, where he and Bush shot the man and wife. He said he didn’t know the homicides would take place.
He ran and hid as the car passed up Pennsylvania Avenue, and ran back to West’s apartment. Washington later showed up and the two came up with alibis.
Why pursue the murders more than 39 years later?
“Three people are dead,” Wilson said. “There is no justification. They deserve justice, whether it’s 1974 or 2013.”
“This is not a trial of Phillip Bush,” said Neal Jay Hamilton, Washington’s defense attorney. “This is an interesting and convoluted case with lots of speculation and innuendo, theories and stories.”
He said that evidence has been lost over the years, while some evidence was never logged in in 1974. He said the state cannot provide why Washington would murder the victims or even where the crime took place.
“The state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hamilton said. “This was a heinous crime.”
He questioned why Washington would be seen with John Ford, a man Washington suspected was involved with his girlfriend.
He said Washington was seen driving alone by a city police officer that night and by a cab driver in Morgantown. He went to work the morning of Aug. 2 and was later picked up by police for questioning.
Detectives took fingerprints, samples from his clothing and shoes, paraffin casts of his and the victims’ hands, and searched his residence and car.
“There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. And they didn’t arrest him until February 2013,” Hamilton said.
“Ask yourself what new evidence they had. Detective (Doug) Yost didn’t take the case until December 2012. Yet on Jan. 31, 2013, he interviewed John Ford and less than seven days later, Mr. Washington was arrested.”
That interview went from Ford’s not remembering Washington being there to being scared and running back to West’s apartment to remembering that he didn’t leave, that he helped take the bodies to Windmill Park.
“John Ford simply is not credible,” Hamilton said.
The first witness in Monday’s proceedings was Dr. Robert Thompson, licensed physician, former ER doctor and former assistant medical examiner for Marion County, who reviewed the 1974 autopsy report made by the late Dr. Milton Hale, medical examiner.
The report included ballistics, toxicology and forensic pathology test results. Neither drugs nor alcohol was found in any of the victims.
Both males died almost instantly; Wanda June Phillips survived “a few moments,” Thompson said.
Hamilton showed Thompson color crime scene photos taken of the three victims.
Cobb was lying on his side in an almost-fetal position. He suffered three gunshot wounds, with only one exit wound.
Wanda June Phillips was lying on her back, head tilted to the right, right leg up and bent at the knee. She suffered two gunshot wounds, once in the oral cavity, with one exit wound. Thompson said she lived long enough to aspirate or regurgitate on blood from that wound. She had not been assaulted.
“It was not a pretty sight,” he said.
Her husband was lying flat on his back. He had been shot four times, twice on each side of the head. There were no exit wounds. Grass clippings on his shirt indicated he had been turned from one side to the other.
Thompson said the wounds were consistent with a small caliber handgun, and not a shotgun as John Ford had told police.
It was his opinion that the three had been shot where they were found, he said.
Given the severity of the wounds, Hamilton asked, would it be reasonable that blood would have leaked into the car, if they had been shot and then driven to the park?
“It would not be unreasonable,” he said. “You would find blood in the car.”
Thompson told Wilson he’d been asked by Hamilton, with whom he was friends, to testify about a month ago.
He said he had experience with death and dying as a former ER doctor, although he has had no training in forensic pathology.
He and Wilson agreed that the deaths had been due to gunshot wounds from a small caliber handgun.
“Homicides?” Wilson asked.
“Yes,” Thompson said.
“If you hold a gun to someone’s head and pull the trigger, would you call that malicious?”
“Would you call it premeditated if you go from one to the other to the other?”
These are all conditions of first-degree murder.
Thompson also admitted that until Monday, he’d seen only black-and-white copies of the crime scene photos. He’d also not consulted with any medical professionals with expertise in forensic matters, such as blood splatters, or any other medical doctors.
Thompson will continue his testimony today at 9 a.m. in Division I Courtroom, Marion County Courthouse.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at email@example.com.