The True Story Of The Teen Boy Who Stashed A Dead Body Under His Bed For A Week

On November 3, 1998, 8-year-old Maddie Clifton went outside to play in her Jacksonville, Florida neighborhood (via CBS News). When she failed to return home, Clifton's concerned parents, Sheila and Steve, quickly reported her missing and formed a local search party. According to News4JAX, Joshua Phillips, the Cliftons' 14-year-old neighbor, was among those who searched for the missing girl. For seven days, volunteers combed the area in hopes of finding Clifton. Unbeknownst to them, Phillips knew exactly where she was.

Per All That's Interesting, Phillips and his parents had recently moved to Florida from Pennsylvania. By all accounts, he was a loner and had developed a habit of watching pornography. Moreover, The Florida Times-Union writes that his home life was anything but ideal. Phillips' mother was depressed, while his father, who experienced alcoholism, was reportedly extremely abusive. In Pennsylvania, he lived with his two older half-brothers, Daniel and Benjie (via First Coast News). The brothers all had a close bond and spent time together watching movies and attending concerts.

The move to Florida promptly isolated Phillips and increased the abuse he received from his father. However, he did make a new friend in his new home — Maddie Clifton. Born on June 17, 1990 (per Find a Grave), Clifton had an ideal childhood until her life was viciously cut short.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Maddie Clifton's cruel death

Those who knew Joshua Phillips described him as being a regular and friendly teenage boy (via CBS News). There was no indication or warning signs of the horror that was to come. On the day she went missing, Maddie Clifton left her home at 5 p.m. (per another article from CBS News). Her father, Steve, later stated, "It was like she shut the door and just, poof, vanished off the face of the earth." While Clifton was out, All That's Interesting reports that she and Phillips crossed paths. Clifton asked to play baseball, to which Phillips agreed. However, he did this knowing he wasn't allowed to — his father prohibited him from having friends over if he wasn't home.

News4JAX reports that while they played, Phillips accidentally hit Clifton in the eye with a baseball, causing her to bleed and scream. Scared that his father would be home any minute and stumble onto the scene, he took her inside of his room and proceeded to hit Clifton on the head with a baseball bat to silence her. Per The Florida Times-Union, Phillips then hid the girl under his water bed. When he could still hear moaning, he pulled Clifton out, slit her throat, and stabbed her multiple times before placing her back under the bed. Phillips then left her there for a week.

Joshua Phillips' mother found the body

While the community searched for Maddie Clifton, News4JAX states that Joshua Phillips stayed quiet and joined the search. His mother, Missy, believed his silence was out of fear. As she explained it, "Someone he knew, someone in the neighborhood disappeared." The Florida Times-Union writes that on the seventh day of searching for Clifton, Missy returned home from handing out fliers when she made an unthinkable discovery. According to CBS News, she walked into Phillips' room and saw what she believed to be the waterbed leaking. The room also had an odd smell. When Missy went to check the bed, she stumbled upon Clifton's remains. Horrified, she ran out of the home, found a police officer, and led them back into her son's room. Missy later said, "I didn't want to believe what I was seeing" (via News4JAX). When they walked into Phillips' room, police saw Clifton's feet hanging from the mattress.

Per CNN, Phillips had attempted to mask the smell of decomposition using incense. He had also slept in the bed up until the body was discovered. Phillips, then a 9th-grader (via a different article from CBS News), was immediately taken out of school and questioned by authorities. With his father by his side, he recounted his version of events and confessed to the murder. Phillips was subsequently arrested, and Clifton was finally laid to rest days later.

He was tried as an adult

According to The Ledger, Joshua Phillips was charged with first-degree murder, and his trial began in July 1999. Despite only being 14 at the time of Clifton's killing, the prosecution decided to try him as an adult. There was a mountain of evidence against him, including bloody shoes, the baseball he used to hit Clifton, and the knife he stabbed her with (via News4JAX ). Most importantly, Phillips had confessed to the murder (per All That's Interesting). Ultimately, the prosecution believed that Clifton's killing had been for sexual reasons.

The Florida Times-Union states that Phillips had watched pornography before and after the murder. When her remains were found, Clifton was nude from the waist. However, she had not been sexually assaulted. Phillips explained that her clothes had fallen off because he had dragged Clifton into his room. CBS News reports that Phillips also maintained his story — he accidentally hit Clifton and was scared that his father would find out that he had disobeyed him.

At the trial, Phillips' lawyer, Richard Nichols, stated (per News4JAX) that her death was the result of an "act that began as an accident and deteriorated through panic that bordered on madness." Another article from CBS News writes that a psychologist was hired to help Phillips' case. He argued that Phillips was not a sociopath and was simply "very terrified of his father." In the end, Phillips, then 15, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He is remorseful

According to The Florida Times-Union, Joshua Phillips has managed to turn his life around in prison. He found religion and received his high school diploma. Now in his 30s, he also became a legal clerk and a paralegal. His behavior while incarcerated has also been outstanding. Phillips is a model prisoner and has only a few insignificant transgressions, including using newspapers to block out a window. In a 2017 interview with First Coast News, Phillips' older half-brother, Daniel, blamed their father for the tragedy. He went on to say that if the family hadn't moved to Florida, he believes that Phillips would have had the support he needed to live a successful and crime-free life.

Daniel, however, also added that as a father, he is still appalled by the killing. Despite this, he admits in telling Phillips (via First Coast News), "What's happened is horrible but I love you and I'm going to be here for you, and I'm going to be a presence whether you're in there or wherever you are." He also believes that Phillips has changed and is truly sorry for his actions.

Phillips himself has stated that he is guilt-ridden. The Florida Times-Union reports that he has gone on to tell Maddie Clifton's family, "It tears my mind to know that I stole such a precious life from you — from the world. I wish I could take away your pain."

Joshua Phillips' life sentence has been upheld multiple times

News4JAX writes that in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence minors — like Joshua Phillips — to life. The Florida Times-Union explains that judges were later given the power to hand life sentences if they deemed it necessary. According to All That's Interesting, this resulted in Phillips being given a resentencing trial. At his resentencing trial, Phillips profusely apologized to the Cliftons (via The Florida Times-Union). He explained that 14, "I had no clue what life meant — what death meant — nor the depths of suffering that would follow one act." Phillips cried throughout the trial and added that he had "become quite intimate with suffering" throughout his time in prison.

James Garbarino, a psychologist, testified that he believed Phillips was remorseful and could be reintegrated into society. Additionally, Phillips' priest was also brought in as a character witness and praised his growth. Despite this, his life sentence was upheld in 2017 and again in 2019 due to the nature of Clifton's murder (per All That's Interesting). However, in 2019, Judge Waddell Wallace stated (via The Florida Times-Union) that he would give the court an opportunity to review his sentence after 25 years "based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." This means there is a real possibility that Joshua Phillips could be a free man by 2024.