Joseph “J.J.” Phillips was remembered by family members as a man with plenty of interests and a great love for family and friends. The man convicted of killing Phillips, Jimmy Lloyd Bentley, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday. (Courtesy photo)
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Almost a year has passed since their loved one perished Christmas Eve. They find Clovis, a town once foreign to them, now beckons them for court proceedings as they await closure in the death of a son and brother.
Family members cling to memories of Joseph Phillips Jr., known by those closest to him as “J.J.,” or “Jay” to his mother.
His passions were plentiful, with a love for history, long philosophical conversations, reading, bicycling, playing the piano, cooking and spending time with those he loved, they said.
Phillips’ fervor for sales was fueled by his love of people. Family members recall a boy that grew into a man with a lust for life who approached everyone he met with an easy, trusting warmth and ready smile.
The 48-year-old photo salesman from Guthrie, Okla., was shot and killed outside the Econo Lodge on Mabry Drive on Christmas Eve. A Clovis jury convicted Jimmy Lloyd Bentley, a 72-year-old Farmington man, of second-degree murder in August. Sentencing is scheduled to take place Monday before 9th Judicial District Judge Joe Parker.
Bentley testified at his trial he shot Phillips in self-defense, feeling threatened when Phillips approached him in the hotel parking lot.
Phillips’ mother and two sisters are traveling to Clovis from Oklahoma today to attend the hearing.
He was the oldest son of four children. His youngest sister, DeLaine Brewer, said she shared a special bond with Phillips.
Once during a road trip steeped in a deep conversation about life, the siblings were suddenly yanked to awareness by a strange sound.
“We were talking so deep and all of sudden the car started making this funny noise and my brother said, ‘We’re out of gas, we’re out of gas!’ We rolled into the gas station, and he had to push us the last (few) feet,” she recalled, laughing at the pleasant memory. “We were just in another world (and didn’t notice we were low on gas) — he was my buddy,” she said.
“J.J. was somebody who I knew would always love me, always accept me. He was always my big brother and I was always going to be his baby sister, and he treated me like that. He was somebody I could talk to,” the 39-year-old mother of two said, struggling to put her brother’s memory into words.
Many qualities come to mind when his sisters and mother think of Phillips, mostly a kind and giving nature. He had planned to stay in Clovis through Christmas in part because he didn’t want his coworkers to be alone for the holidays even though his family tried to convince him to come home.
“J.J. had such a big heart like that. He would forgo coming home to Mom’s house and have ham and turkey and a big old feast so he could stay with his friends,” Brewer said.
Perseverance is another quality of Phillips’ that stands out to his mother, Sarah Phillips, who laughs when she thinks how as a teen in 1972 he memorized a Beethoven sonata so that he could play a pop song in a piano recital.
It was a deal she had made with him thinking he’d never pull it off.
“He was just enamored with Elton John’s ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and he wanted to play it in a recital so I told him, ‘If you get the Moonlight Sonata memorized then I will let you. I’ll be darned if he didn’t get it memorized and I had to keep my word. I’ll be darned if we didn’t get the Moonlight Sonata and Elton John programmed (in the recital),” she chuckled.
“He was very determined with anything he wanted to do, and I think that’s what made him a good salesperson — he just wouldn’t give up.”
A self-described strong disciplinarian, Phillips laughed again when she remembered her son’s youthful days.
“He got into his usual bit of mischief. The stuff he got into were things you would expect a young person to do and he got his share of whippings. One time on the getaway from me he leaped over the dinette table … he’d laugh about it later.”
The months since Phillip’s death have been difficult for the mother and her children as they wrestle with their loss and try to come to terms with one of the most difficult experiences they have ever faced.
Brewer said she battles with self-blame — the Christmas lights on her house had shorted out. Trying to find the short, Brewer said she missed her brother’s call. He died about an hour later, she said.
“When I got in I saw the call on the phone and I was wrapping presents. I thought, ‘I’ll call J.J. in the morning and wish him a merry Christmas.’ Now I think, what if we might have gotten into a deep conversation or something, maybe he wouldn’t have gone out,” she said, her pain still raw, her voice wracked with tears.
“You hear people say this but now I’m living it. There is not too many days at all that I don’t think about him. It has made me look at people and things and what I’m doing more,” she said.
DeNatalie Phillips, the second oldest child in the family, said the months since her brother’s death have been like a “fog.”
“There are times when you don’t think about it but it comes in waves,” she said.
“Anytime I hear a Christmas …,” her voice dropped off before she resumed. “He was happy. He was coming home two days after Christmas.”
Sarah Phillips said, like her daughters she struggles daily to adjust to her son’s absence. A couple of months after he died, she found some keys he had lost and realized she couldn’t call and tell him, she said.
As they gather to witness the sentencing of the man convicted of Phillips murder, they are hopeful the value his life had to them is weighed in the decision.
“Being that this was a senseless, unnecessary killing, I want justice to be done because it didn’t have to happen,” Sarah Phillips said. “This is very permanent. Jay is gone — it’s permanent. With (Bentley) being in jail, at least his people have a person; all we have is a picture.
“As far as Mr. Bentley is concerned, he has to be resolved to his maker for his deed. (The Bentley) family will never be the same and we’ll never be the same because our circle has been broken.”