Columbus’ latest homicide victim of 2017 was a key witness this year in the murder case against Kevin Babe Henderson, a gang member convicted in the Nov. 12, 2014, execution-style killing of Chad Herring.
Steve Phillips, 30, was found dead from a gunshot wound in the woods off Winston Road Thursday morning, Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan confirmed. His body will be transported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Decatur for an autopsy.
Columbus police were called to the scene around 9 a.m. Thursday after someone found the body in a wooded area trail near Winston Road and Benning Drive. Officials are still working to determine when the shooting occurred and the events that led up to it.
“It’s very common here to hear shots to the point where a lot of people don’t even call it in,” said Lt. Greg Touchberry, who confirmed no arrest warrants have been issued in the case.
The Muscogee County Coroner’s Office marks Phillips’ death as the 37th homicide in Columbus this year, while police list it as the 30th. The coroner’s office does not differentiate between a homicide that police consider a murder and one it categorizes as manslaughter or a justifiable shooting.
Phillips testified June 6 that he was driving the car in which Henderson shot Herring through the back of the head for no apparent reason. Herring was sitting next to Phillips in the front passenger seat, with Henderson in the back seat right behind Herring, Phillips said.
Phillips’ testimony was particularly graphic, as he described hearing a gunshot and a “glug-glug” sound like milk pouring out of a gallon jug. He said he looked over and saw blood pouring out Herring’s forehead.
Pete Temesgen, the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted Henderson, said Phillips knew he was placing himself in danger as a witness in Henderson’s murder case.
“He was always fearful of testifying,” Temesgen said. But Phillips was close to Herring, and felt he owed it to his friend to tell what happened.
“He felt very strongly that he wanted to help the family of Chad Herring,” the attorney said. “He was our star witness, because he was the only eyewitness to the murder.”
Temesgen said he does not believe Phillips’ homicide is connected to his testimony in Henderson’s case. Henderson would not have the influence or connections to order that from prison, he said.
On the witness stand, Phillips faced a strenuous cross-examination challenging his honesty because of his own criminal offenses. Phillips had been convicted of child molestation and failing to register as a sex offender. The coroner said Phillips was found wearing an ankle monitor Thursday.
Despite the cross-examination, Phillips gave “credible and thorough testimony” describing how Henderson shot Herring in cold blood, Temesgen said.
Temesgen said Phillips’ parents stood by their son throughout Henderson’s trial.
Phillips had two children, an infant and a toddler, Temesgen said.
Henderson had a previous felony, having been convicted Sept. 10, 2014, of aggravated assault. He at age 18 had been accused of beating a 16-year-old homeless girl with a pistol and raping her on Dec. 23, 2012. His rape and aggravated sodomy charges later were dropped. He pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to seven years’ probation, which was revoked after his subsequent arrest.
Temesgen also prosecuted Henderson for the armed robbery of a Circle K at 3274 Victory Drive. That was on Nov. 11, 2014, the day before Herring’s murder.
On Feb. 22, jurors in that trial found Henderson not guilty after public defender Nancy Miller persuaded them Henderson had been misidentified, even though the store clerk identified him and the robbery was captured on store video.
Phillips initially lied to police about what happened, and later said he misled officers because he was afraid of Henderson. “I was scared,” he said.
Still, he agreed to testify against the killer. When asked why, he told the court: “I just want justice for my friend. To this day, I can’t get over it. ... I don’t want my friend gone with no justice, no nothing.”
The abrupt murder, apparently unprovoked, left him bewildered, he said: “I don’t know why it happened. ... I still don’t know, to this day.”
Phillips said he, Herring and Henderson had spent much of the day together traveling around Columbus. Phillips was driving a Chevrolet Impala belonging to Herring’s girlfriend as Herring and Henderson drank.
Around 8 p.m., Phillips’ girlfriend called to ask him to pick her up on Evergreen Street, where she was visiting family. When Henderson got out of the Impala’s front seat so the woman could sit next to Phillips, he saw two teenagers walking up the street.
They exchanged words, and Henderson pulled a 9 mm pistol and starting shooting, wounding one of the teens.
Phillips said the teens were wearing black, the color associated with the Gangster Disciples, and Henderson was a Crip. But Henderson in 2015 also was indicted in a case involving allegations of robbery and assault on another Muscogee County Jail inmate, and that indictment accused him of being a Gangster Disciple.
After the Evergreen Street shooting, Phillips, his girlfriend, Herring and Henderson dropped by a store to get beer and cigarettes, then went to the Middleton Place home of Phillips’ parents, where Phillips and his girlfriend lived.
They were there when Herring’s sister called to say her home burglar alarm was going off, and Herring and Henderson took the Impala to check on the house. When they returned, Herring looked terrified, as if he were holding back tears, Phillips said.
Around 10 p.m., another friend of Phillips called to ask for a ride, and Phillips started driving from Middleton Place down St. Marys Road to Buena Vista Road, with Herring sitting next to him and Henderson in the back seat.
He was stopped at Buena Vista Road when he heard the gunshot and the “glug-glug” noise, looked over and saw blood pouring from Herring’s forehead, he said. He looked back at Henderson, who pointed the gun at him and told him to keep driving.
He drove to the dead end of Roosevelt Street near Brewer Elementary School, stopped the car, turned to Herring and in shock said, “Come on, brother, we’ve got to go.”
Herring had slumped forward when the car stopped, he said.
His car door opened, and Henderson leaned in, pushed Herring upright and ordered Phillips out of the car. When Henderson threatened to kill him, too, Phillips told the gunman, “Do what you got to do,” he testified.
They started walking across a vacant lot, where Phillips called a friend to pick them up. They dropped Henderson off on Steam Mill Road and drove back to Middleton Place.
A police officer on special assignment found Herring’s body in the Impala about 11:45 p.m. Herring was 32 years old and had a 9-year-old daughter.
After Herring’s murder, Henderson left Columbus and returned to California, where he arrested on Jan. 20, 2015, and returned to Columbus.
The jury convicted Henderson of murder, aggravated assault and using a gun to commit a crime. Judge Frank Jordan Jr. sentenced him life without parole. He is serving that sentence in the Smith State Prison in Glennville, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Staff Writers Sarah Robinson and Mike Haskey contributed to this report.