8-year-old Maddie Clifton was murdered by her neighbor Joshua Phillips on November 3, 1998. Phillips, who was only fourteen at the time of his grisly crime, stuffed Maddie's body under his waterbed, where he slept over top of it for six days. Joshua's mother eventually noticed the stench of decomposition emanating from her son's room and alerted the police. Joshua Phillips is serving a life sentence for the murder of Maddie Clifton.
An Angel Is Missing
November 3, 1998, was like any other day for the 8-year-old Madelyn Rae Clifton. After school, Maddie (as she liked to be called), came home around 4:30, put down her books, and hopped onto the piano bench where she practiced for at least an hour.
Not only was Maddie Clifton extremely gifted in music, but she was also an avid sports fan, basketball being her favorite, but could hold her own at football too.
“Her innocence sort of drew her to your heart,” a family friend lamented over the sudden death of 8-year-old Madelyn Rae Clifton. Maddie, as she liked to be called, “was an amazing little girl,” said one neighbor, “She could be a little ballerina at one time and tough football fullback at another.”
Maddie finished up her piano practice and headed outside. It was still daylight, and she wanted to make the most of it. Mrs. Clifton, Shelia, started dinner, spotting Maddie laughing and playing in the neighbor’s yard. This time it had been a new hobby for Maddie, hitting golf balls, which she would come back home to get another handful.
“My little angel,” she thought.
Shelia looked at the oven clock. It was 6:20, and she was sure that her daughter would come through the door any minute, an appetite gained from an hour in the sun.
However, Maddie was nowhere to be found. Mrs. Clifton called and called out her name, even stepping outside, but her daughter never responded.
Within an hour, the entire neighborhood would come together for a massive search that lasted several days.
Mrs. Clifton’s angel was missing.
The Neighbor Boy
The Phillips family had moved to the neighbor eighteen months ago. The family of three included 14-year-old Joshua Phillip who, according to neighbors, was “a nice but quiet boy”. None of the family appeared to be too social with neighbors, but there were no problems. The Phillips just kept to themselves, everyone thought.
Inside the Phillips home there was family strife. Phillip’s father, Steve, was a computer programmer who moved his family often. Perhaps Steve had trouble keeping steady employment because of his excessive drinking and abusive nature. Both Joshua and his mother were terrified of the father, and did the best they could to keep a low profile in the home.
It had been Election Day when Maddie went missing. Joshua had seen her once, but told detectives he didn’t interact with her on this day.
His story, though, conflicted with another neighbor’s report, an elderly woman who saw Maddie playing and noticed Joshua Phillips “creeping up” on her. She brushed it off as a child’s play and went back inside. Surely, she thought, he wouldn’t harm the 8-year-old girl.
Joshua was in fact banned from interacting with the Clifton girl, and not just because of the large age difference. One month before Maddie’s disappearance, the Clifton’s came home to find the Philips boy uninvited and inside Jessica’s, the other daughter, bedroom.
Joshua Phillips blended in with the rest of Maddie’s searchers, although he could barely contain his harrowing secret. Only he knew where Maddie Clifton really was, in his room and under his bed.
Joshua recalled the day. “We came on back to the house. I actually stood in our front yard and urinated in my shorts, I was so upset screaming her name. Then the helicopters came. It was like a circus; there was everybody going in every direction possible trying to find her.”
Still Maddie’s killer blended into the search party. One neighbor remembered seeing him “acting normal”, although he appeared “freshly showered”.
Throughout the week detectives would search for several neighboring homes. The Clifton’s, desperate for the return of their daughter, posted a $50,000 reward. That sum would eventually be doubled.
Detectives searched the Phillip’s home as well, even noticing a strong odor emanating from Joshua’s room. When asked about the odor’s origin, Joshua’s mother told police about the two birds her son kept and that the stench was normal.
However, as the days passed, the stench grew stronger until even Joshua’s mother wondered about it. She waited until her son was at school and then followed the smell to her son’s room.
She pulled off a small piece of plywood at the front of Joshua’s waterbed, looked in, and saw two tiny feet sticking out.
She noticed a “liquid oozing from the waterbed.”
It was Maddie Clifton, deceased, wasting away in the fetal position. Her own son had been sleeping over the girl for the last seven nights.
The officers and Mrs. Phillips went to Joshua’s room and opened the door. There they saw two small feet with white socks sticking out from the bottom of Joshua’s waterbed, along with liquid coming from underneath the bed and tape on the floor. A strong odor emanated from the room, which was immediately sealed as a crime scene. One detective then picked up Joshua at school and took him to the police station.
It would over a week before Maddie’s distraught parents and the concerned public to know how the little girl ended up dead and stuffed under the neighbor boy’s waterbed.
Joshua remembers Maddie playing baseball in her backyard when he joined her play (a stark contrast to the neighbor’s recount of the boy “creeping up”).
He hit the ball hard once and sent the ball barrelling towards Maddie Clifton’s face, smacking her left eye. According to Joshua, she cried. And then hollered.
The teen knew he had to do something. His father would be home any minute and would hit him, and possibly his mother, when he saw his son was playing with her.
Joshua took Maddie Clifton up to his room and struck her twice on the head with a wooden baseball bat.
“There,” he thought, “now my father won’t find out.”
The medical examiner noted that Maddie Clifton suffered three separate attacks. Josh hit her three ties on her forehead. Any of those would had been fatal after abut thirty minutes.
Maddie hadn’t died yet, and now Joshua could hear his father enter the house.
Terrified that his father would hear the dying girl’s labored breathing, he ran back up to his room. Grabbing the girl by her hands, he dragged her back out from under the bed. Using a “pen knife” (a Leatherman-style tool) he began stabbing at her chest.
The medical examiner later saw these wounds. There were nine stab wounds to her chest and abdomen. The knife pierced her neck, slicing all the way through her windpipe.
Maddie’s cause of death was drowning in her own blood. Her little hands still grasping the edge of the waterbed.
During the trial of Joshua Phillips, the State walked the jury through the day of the murder, including computer history and records.
What police found was that thirty minutes before Maddie Clifton’s murder, Joshua had been using the family computer to browse hardcore and “violent” pornography.
Although the medical examiner found no evidence of a sexual assault, Maddie Clifton’s pants and underwear were removed from her body.
Joshua claimed her clothes came off when “he had attempted to drag her from outside” and up to his room.
Should Joshua Phillips Be Released?
Joshua was fourteen when he killed Maddie Clifton, but because of the seriousness of the crime, was tried as an adult. There was no chance of death row because of his young age, but the State pursued the maximum punishment that comes with first degree murder.
Phillips has been in prison since he was fifteen and claims that he excelled in prison, only having four minor discrepancies, and claims that he has been rehabilitated.
"I did something horrible. I am so sorry, so sorry for what happened," Josh Phillips said. "I wish to God that I could have known this or understood this when I was 14. Had I then, none of this would have come about. I had no clue what life meant, what death meant, nor the depth of suffering that could follow one act."
A psychiatrist assigned to the case claims that more weight should have been added to Joshua Phillips background and family history. Had it been, the jury would have heard that he was sexually abused as a child, had an abusive father, and a mother dealing with extreme depression.
The State of Florida claims that Joshua Phillips deserves to stay in prison, at least for another twenty-five years, or until his next review board appearance.
What do you think?
Miami Herald (16, Nov, 1998)