Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Murder of Wilma Plaster

    After the dismembered body of a woman was found Friday afternoon, October 6, 1989, near Willard, authorities said “the crime was unlike anything ever discovered in Greene County.” The woman’s legs and pelvic area were stacked on top of her torso with her feet pointing skyward. Her head was in plastic bag nearby, and a knife and other items were found in another bag. The woman’s arms had been severed from her body but were nowhere to be seen. The missing arms and a lack of blood at the scene caused investigators to conclude that the woman had been murdered elsewhere and brought to where the body parts were found. Investigators further concluded that the parts had not been tossed from a moving vehicle but rather positioned at the side of the road.
   The time at which the body was placed at the side of the road was narrowed to a fifteen-minute window just before 4:00 p.m., but the time of death was uncertain. No clues to the woman’s identity were found at the scene. Her body was taken to Springfield and then sent to St. Louis the next day for an autopsy.
   On October 8, the victim was tentatively identified as sixty-six-year-old Wilma Plaster of Hollister, Missouri. Wilma was described by acquaintances as a friendly person and a regular churchgoer. Meanwhile, police were trying to locate the victim’s red 1969 Chevy Beretta, in which she’d left her Hollister home on October 3. Witnesses had reported seeing a car matching the Beretta’s description in the Springfield-Willard area on October 6 before the body was found.
   On October 9, Wilma’s automobile was found at a motel on North Glenstone in Springfield, and investigators began combing it for clues. The same day, the autopsy, although not yet complete, determined that the victim had been killed by a small-caliber gunshot to the back of the head. On Tuesday, October 10, investigators learned that someone had forged a check for over $4,000 on Wilma’s bank account about two weeks before her death. Officers theorized that the forgery was probably connected to her death and that she had been acquainted with her murderer.
   Later on Tuesday, a woman from Olvey, Arkansas, contacted authorities after she discovered a number of suspicious items on her property that had apparently been left there by fifty-three-year-old Shirley Jo Phillips, a friend of hers from Springfield who’d visited her on Monday and departed early Tuesday. The woman said Phillips appeared very nervous during her stay and that she had insisted on washing her car. Investigators went to Olvey, and the woman pointed them to items Phillips had stashed beneath a wooden porch adjoining her mobile home. The items, including several canceled checks on Wilma Plaster’s account and bloody floor mats, seemed to link Phillips to the forgery and very likely the murder. Further investigation revealed that Phillips and Plaster had met each other in Hollister about September 20 and that the forged check had been written just a day or two later.
   Phillips was arrested Tuesday night in Springfield and held on suspicion of forgery. Later, the charge was upgraded to first-degree murder. Phillips was charged in Greene County because it was thought Wilma was killed there, although the site of the murder was not definitely determined. Also known as Jo Ann Phillips, the suspect lived on West College Street in Springfield and had recently worked as a secretary. She also served as vice-president of a Branson entertainment fan club, and it was apparently through her connection to Branson that she had met Wilma Plaster.
   About a week after Phillips’s arraignment on the murder charge, her mother, seventy-six-year-old Lela Kyle, was reported missing, and soon after this announcement, Oklahoma authorities contacted Springfield Police to report that an elderly woman’s dismembered and mutilated body had been discovered in the north part of Broken Arrow on May 12. The dead woman was tentatively identified as Lela Kyle, and Shirley Jo Phillips, although not charged, was considered a prime suspect in her mother’s murder.
   Delayed several times, Phillips’s trial finally got underway in January 1992. Much of the prosecution testimony centered around Phillips’s visit to Nora Martin, her Arkansas friend, and the items found under the mobile home porch. Martin testified that Phillips cut a seatbelt out of the front passenger seat of her car during her stay in Arkansas and that she thoroughly washed and vacuumed the vehicle even though it already appeared clean. Phillips seemed very nervous when a newscast about Wilma Plaster’s murder came on TV, and she admitted that police probably wanted to question her about Wilma’s death. Forensics experts linked the incriminating items found under the porch to the defendant and the victim. They testified that a .38 caliber weapon found among the items was the gun that killed Mrs. Plaster.
   Phillips pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but her public defender also tried to shift blame for Plaster’s murder to the defendant’s thirty-two-year-old son, Glen “Buddy” Minster. In addition, the defense called witnesses from the Branson area to try to establish an alibi.
   On February 4, 1992, the jury found Phillips guilty of first-degree murder. The defendant showed no emotion, but, as she was escorted from the courtroom, she told reporters, “I didn’t do it.” The next day, the jury came back after deliberations with a sentence of death.
   Phillips’s subsequent appeals for a new trial were denied, but the Missouri Supreme Court ultimately threw out her death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing. Because of Minster’s refusal to cooperate and other circumstances, such as the fact that at least two witnesses were now dead, the prosecution decided not to pursue another death penalty, and in 1998, Phillips was resentenced to life imprisonment.
   This story is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Lynchings, Murders, and Other Nefarious Deeds: A Criminal History of Greene County, Mo.



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