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Phillips enters formal plea in SF murder case

by Alex Madison

Murder defendant Michael John Phillips
Murder defendant Michael John Phillips  

In handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit, Michael John Phillips, a gay San Francisco man, pleaded not guilty to murder, robbery, and other charges related to the death of an elderly man he was reportedly caring for at his arraignment in San Francisco Superior Court Thursday (April 26).

He remains in custody on $3 million bail and his trial was set for June 8. Phillips is being represented by Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof. (Maloof is a candidate for San Francisco judge in the June 5 primary election.)

Phillips, 65, was arrested in late November in connection with the death of James Sheahan, 75, a gay man who was found dead August 14 in his Nob Hill apartment. Phillips is also charged with first-degree robbery, elder abuse and fraud, two counts of first-degree residential burglary, possession of fraudulent financial documents, theft of an access (ATM) card, and felony of possession of stolen property according to the San Francisco District Attorney's office.

At his preliminary hearing in December, which concluded April 12, Phillips pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, authorities allege Phillips brutally killed Sheahan with a sharp object, made it look like a suicide, and then stole thousands of dollars from him.

A report released last December from the medical examiner's office lists the manner of death as homicide, the method as "sharp injury," and the cause of death as "multiple traumatic injuries."

Prosecutors in the case claim, "Phillips befriended Sheahan, seeking to act as a sort of caretaker, and tried to get money from him before killing him when he refused," and that Phillips also "has a history of preying on sick elderly men in the gay community," according to Bay City News reporting.

Officials say Sheahan, who had Stage 4 lung cancer, was last seen alive by a hospice nurse August 11. Over the next two days, Sheahan's brother tried to call him but got no response, and police went to the apartment August 14 for a well-being check. Sheahan was "beyond resuscitative efforts" and pronounced dead at the scene, according to the medical examiner's office.

Prosecutors and police say surveillance footage shows Phillips repeatedly coming and going from Sheahan's building in the hours after he was last seen alive, at times carrying Sheahan's belongings with him. Phillips also tried unsuccessfully to use Sheahan's ATM card and forged numerous checks. A broken knife was found in Sheahan's apartment.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Swart acknowledged at a hearing in late December that "this is a circumstantial evidence case," but he said, "we have the motive," since Phillips had been "desperate for money," and he'd been asking Sheahan and others for financial assistance.

Swart said that footage showed Phillips' pants were clean when he first entered Sheahan's building on August 12 but there was a bloodstain on them when he left. Prosecutors haven't been able to find the pants.

Maloof said that there wasn't sufficient evidence to show that Phillips had committed any of the crimes. He noted surveillance footage only shows him entering and leaving Sheahan's building, and he said no blood has been found in Phillips' home, car, or storage units. Maloof also noted there hadn't been any testimony about Phillips' pants being bloodstained.

"There is a whole lot of speculation here," he said at the time.

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