Love triangle tragedy

The murder of Damion Philipps

The trial of James Murray Reaves III, charged with the premeditated murder of Damion Philipps and aggravated assault of his ex-girlfriend, Amanda Turner, ended just before noon on Thursday. Reaves admittedly stabbed Philipps 17 times in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2017, on South Sheila Avenue.

After the stabbing occurred Reaves left the scene and went to a nearby Circle K where he took off his bloodied shirt and tossed it in a nearby dumpster. He then went into the Circle K and told Manny Sanchez, the on-duty employee whom he was familiar and friendly with, that he just stabbed a guy to death and proceeded to the back of the store where he used an industrial strength cleaner to wash his hands and arms of Philipps’ blood.

Knowing that the surveillance cameras were in operation, Reaves looked up to the nearest one and smiled into it.

He left the Circle K with Barbara Relitz, who accompanied him during the incident, and they eventually ended up in Whetstone, a town north of Sierra Vista. Reaves claimed he was not evading arrest but rather was “trying to gather my thoughts.”  

He said he contemplated suicide before he turned himself in a few days later. When his lawyer asked why he didn’t kill himself he answered, “I chose otherwise.”

Sometime while he was in Whetstone, Reaves made a video on his cell phone, in effect a confession, and in it gave his reasons for murdering Philipps, at one point he addressed Philipps’ family, “To Damion’s parents and family members, your son was a jackass.”

Premeditated murder…

The big question before the jury, under the guidance of Pima County Superior Court Judge Howard Fell, was whether or not this was premeditated murder, the result of a heat-of-passion quarrel or self-defense.

“This is a real situation with real people and real emotions…essentially a love triangle,” Leo M. Masursky, of the Pima County Public Defender’s Office, said in his closing arguments to the jury.

Masursky argued this was the result of Turner “dating two guys at the same time.”

“Everybody has a breaking point. James reached his breaking point,” Masursky said.

Masursky attempted to paint his client as a “normal person” reacting in the same way anybody would if faced with what Reaves perceived as the threat of Philipps.

Reaves took the stand on Wednesday, Aug. 28, and testified Philipps threatened him, Amanda and her family in a phone call on Jan.3, 2017, “He said, ‘I’ll kill you, your family and anybody it takes to get to you’,” Reaves claimed.

“I was scared sir … he was a dangerous person under my knowledge [at the time],” Reaves testified to Masursky.

Reaves claimed that on the night of the incident he was concerned about Philipps killing everyone in the house on Sheila Avenue due to the alleged threats. Turner lived there with her grandmother and an uncle.

Reaves and Turner had been on-again, off-again over the course of their seven-year relationship and initially met while serving in the U.S. Army. They lived at the Sheila house for approximately a year before the relationship soured.

On December 26, 2016, Reaves said he caught Turner “blatantly lying” to him. He discovered communications between Philipps and Turner on her cell phone and confronted her about them, she allegedly slapped him before kicking him out of the house.

But, Turner did not cutoff contact with Reaves.

Two days prior to the killing, Reaves, a truck driver, was in Nogales for work and Turner met with him there for four or five hours at a pizza restaurant. Reaves claimed Turner gave him a “possessory right” to enter the Sheila house when she allegedly said, “‘The house is still your home because I do not trust [my uncle].’“ Reaves claimed Turner had an issue with her uncle and she wanted Reaves to be able to check on her from time to time, he said neither of them trusted her uncle.

However, when Masursky had previously called Turner to the stand and questioned her about the Nogales meetup, she could not remember ever discussing Reaves’ moving back in or saying he could come back to the house, “He was supposed to get a place of his own,” she testified. She was also under the impression that Reaves had returned his house key to her.

Reaves contacted Philipps numerous times after being kicked out of the Sheila house in December and claimed he caught Philipps fabricating lies. “He told me his parents were dead, at one point,” Reaves said, “… he was the one that told me he was a Marine.”

Reaves testified that on the evening of Jan. 8, 2017, he went to the Sheila house, while Turner was out with Philipps, and watched television with her grandmother and uncle for a while. He said he then went to take a nap in his car because he had to leave for Phoenix early the next morning.

But, prior to that Turner had told him not to come to the house, she did not want any “drama.”

Turner and Philipps eventually arrived at the house where Reaves told Turner he did not want Philipps spending the night or sleeping in the same room with her and, he said, expressed concern over the alleged threats Philipps had made against her.

Reaves returned to his car and later looked into the house through a bedroom window to see if Philipps was still in the house, he was. Reaves then went to Circle K, called Relitz and vented to Sanchez about Turner and Philipps sleeping together.

He showed Sanchez a 15-pound steel bar he called “the intimidator” and other items he said he would use to damage Turner’s car.

In a text message exchange with Turner, Reaves “attempted to coerce” her to tell him flat out that she was sexually involved with Philipps. As the tone of his texts became more graphic, Reaves communicated to Turner that he was coming to kill Philipps and that she better say her goodbyes to Damion.

Reaves, with Relitz in tow, then raced back to Turner’s house, grabbed ‘the intimidator’ and entered the back door with a spare key he had kept.

Turner was in the main living area and Philipps was back in the bedroom. Reaves told Turner she better get her gun and then proceeded to put ‘the intimidator’ down on a bar in the living room and grabbed two knives from the kitchen.

Reaves went back to the bedroom and confronted Philipps. Reaves said Philipps smirked at him, cocked his head to the side and extended his hand out. Reaves took this as a threatening move by Philipps.

“He put it in my face essentially,” Reaves testified, “My perception was he was trying to shake my hand, and possibly do something worse at the same time.”

At that moment Reaves “snapped” unleashing a barrage of strikes with the knives in each of his hands. In total, he stabbed Philipps 17 times including two to the back of his head, four to his back and five in his shoulders.

“There was no blood in that body,” Ricks said as he argued the case for premeditation in closing arguments. “Did he have time to think, should I stop? Of course he did.”

When Reaves testified the day before, Ricks pounced on the opportunity to substantiate the state’s evidence presented to the jury over the course of the trial: the breakup and others’ testimony to that effect, Reaves’ contacts with and increasing hostility towards Philipps and Turner, and the days and hours leading up to and after the killing occurred.

Reaves admitted to just about everything. And he tried to whitewash his threats towards the victims as “bluffing,” “sarcasm,” and concern over Philipps’ character and threats.

“Today you’ve come up with a whole bunch of information,” Ricks said, implying that Reaves had changed the story as presented by evidence such as his cell phone confession and surveillance footage from Circle K.

Reaves replied, “Yes.”

Reaves became visibly flustered by Ricks’ barrage of questions and at one point refused to answer. Judge Fell had to remind Reaves a number of times that he had to answer the prosecutor’s questions.

Ricks asked if Damion had any weapons during the confrontation. “I can neither confirm nor deny,” Reaves responded.

“Were you acting in self-defense?” Ricks asked.

“If I answer it’s a loaded question,” Reaves responded.

He eventually answered, “Partially, yes [it was in self-defense].” Ricks asked what he meant by partially. Reaves argued he felt threatened by Philipps and responded accordingly, “Until the threat was no longer a threat, sir,” Reaves said.

“Do you believe Damion deserved to be stabbed?” Ricks asked. Reaves did not want to answer but eventually said no.

Reaves and Philipps were the only two people in the room in the moments before the stabbing. At some point Turner went into the room and attempted to stop Reaves, she was unsuccessful and received two slashes on an arm and hand in the process. Reaves said he was at first unaware that he’d injured her and said once he had started attacking Philipps it was like trying to stop a bowling ball that’s already been thrown.

Reaves eventually stopped as Relitz pulled him away from dying Philipps and the two of them drove to Circle K.

The outcome

In closing arguments, Ricks walked the jury through the evidence presented.

“He said he was coming to kill that man and he stabbed him 17 times,” Ricks argued. “Who doesn’t know that that was going to kill a person?

“On the stand he [Reaves] said he was smiling because he had survived … He said this had nothing to do with jealousy … yet, Damion did nothing to him.”

Point by point, Ricks stacked up the evidence.

Masursky countered by attempting to explain the emotions that consumed Reaves up to and during the killing, and maintained Reaves had a right to be in the house. “James comes into his bedroom … there’s a man in his bedroom who he has spoken to … that person reaches out their hand with a smirk on his face,” Masursky said. “What word does a normal man … put to that emotion?

“He said no it wasn’t jealousy … he couldn’t boil it down to one word … what he’s saying is, ‘I wouldn’t call it jealousy.’”  

Masursky then highlighted Reaves’ admitted remorse for killing Philipps and injuring Turner.

“A person snapping in those circumstances … is heat-of-passion,” Masursky argued, “There’s no question that these emotions were out of control.”

Masursky then attacked the Sheriffs’ investigation as biased. “What we had here is cops who rushed to judgment,” he argued, “They didn’t take a step back … They took what Amanda said at face value.”

Masursky questioned why investigators had not collected a presumably loaded gun Turner owned, which was in the bedroom in an unlocked case, for evidence. He also questioned why they didn’t find any marijuana in the house, Turner admittedly used medicinal marijuana.

“Was there a whitewash, so to speak?” Masursky asked the jury.

On rebuttal, Ricks argued against Reaves’ concern over Turner’s safety, asking why he’d never notified the police of the alleged threat.

“He told two separate people on the drive to the house that he was coming to kill Damion,” Ricks argued, “Stabbing someone 17 times is not reasonable.”

The jury deliberated for approximately an hour and a half before reaching their decision. When they returned the verdicts of guilt on all charges, finding Reaves committed both premeditated and felony murder, Reaves stared straight ahead and shook his head in disbelief.

After the trial a juror said when Reaves took the stand, he only made his case worse.

The juror said only one of her peers was on the fence about the premeditation charge but that was due to initial unclarity of what the jury instructions called for. She said that once the juror was clearer on what the instructions required, he’d determined the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Reaves intended to kill Philipps long before he entered Turner’s bedroom and followed through with the fatal stabbing.

James Reaves is scheduled for sentencing on October 3.