Trial Begins for Man Accused of Brutally Killing Elderly, Sick Friend

James Sheahan, 75, was found beaten to death in his Nob Hill apartment last August.

(Courtesy Image)

A bizarre homicide that took place in Nob Hill last year has finally hit the courts. On Thursday, opening statements painted a grim picture of a series of events that led to the violent death of James Sheahan, a 75-year-old man who was seriously ill with cancer. The defendant, 65-year-old Michael Phillips, is accused of stealing money from Sheahan over a span of several weeks before killing him.

Sheahan was suffering from stage-four cancer and had a private caretaker, who said she last saw him alive on Aug. 11. “Mr. Sheahan suffered a terrible and painful death… Although he suffered for many months, he expected to die in his sleep. Instead he was bludgeoned to death,” she said.

Sheahan’s body was found in his apartment on the 900 block of Bush Street on Aug. 14, 2017, after a building manager entered his unit to check on him. The city’s medical examiner determined that Sheahan had a number of traumatic head and neck injuries, caused by a blunt object. Both wrists had been cut. Further investigation of the scene found that Sheahan’s body had been moved after death, and a kitchen window that led to a fire escape was open. 

A police investigation of the crime quickly led to Phillips, who his Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof says was a good friend of Sheahan’s. 

“Michael was one of the only people that James trusted with is ATM card,” Maloof said. “James shared some of his personal and deepest secrets that he shared with no one else.”

Friends or not, Assistant District Attorney O’Bryan Kenney says that Phillips preyed on Sheahan when he was at his most vulnerable. “Everything will point to the fact that he committed a crime and did everything to cover it up,” Kenney told jurors.

Surveillance footage collected from the apartment complex shows Phillips entering the building several times on both Aug. 12 and Aug. 13. Although he was buzzed in on the first visit, he used a key for subsequent trips, and was spotted carrying out a box, a painting, and paper towels on one trip. Bank records and videos show Phillips twice attempting to withdraw money from Sheahan’s account at an ATM, unsuccessfully. But he did manage to cash three checks; one on Aug. 14 for $7,500, and two more after Sheahan’s death on Aug. 30 for $3,500, and Sept. 15 for $2,000. 

A motive also quickly became clear. Phillips had a lover in the Philippines, who he desperately wanted to bring to the U.S. He succeeded in October of last year, and immediately married him. But as soon as Sheahan was arrested his husband left the country, after telling authorities that Phillips had given him around $20,000 for student loans and travel expenses. 

The case seems fairly cut and dry, but Maloof has some good evidence for his case — or rather, a lack thereof. No DNA evidence found at the scene or on Sheahan links Phillips to the crime. He has reports that someone heard a loud scream early on the morning of Aug. 14, and surveillance footage shows a cigarette butt being tossed out a window near Sheahan’s apartment, implying that someone killed him after Phillips had been to his apartment. Maloof even has a story for the bag of Sheahan’s bloody belongings found in Phillips’ car: Sheahan often coughed up blood, so the evidence doesn’t completely implicate him. And a stain on Phillip’s pants, spotted in the apartment’s surveillance footage, was cranberry juice, which evidence shows had been recently spilled on Sheahan’s floor. 

“The scientific evidence is not going to lie to you… Somebody else was there,” Maloof said. The trial is set to continue on Monday.

Daniel Montes of Bay City News contributed reporting to this story. 

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