Village Life

Cordell guilty in Harris death

Just before his jury trial began on Monday, July 13, former Yellow Springs resident Phillip Cordell pled guilty to the 2004 murder of local resident Timothy Harris. Cordell, 48, was sentenced to a mandatory five years in prison, with no chance for judicial release, which is the maximum sentence for his plea, according to Greene County Prosecutor Suzanne Schmidt on Tuesday.

Cordell was convicted of involuntary manslaughter resulting from an assault that police believe occurred on Dec. 14, 2004, at Harris’ home on Stafford Street. According to Yellow Springs Police Sergeant Tom Jones, who led the local investigation, based on evidence and information gathered from over 25 villagers and other witnesses over the past five years, police were able to piece together a close chronology of the events that led to Harris’ death.

Police believe that Cordell stole and sold Harris’ red Toyota Corolla that was found after his death at Xenia Iron and Metal, Jones said on Tuesday. The signature on a receipt from the scrap metal business dated Dec. 10, 2004, was analyzed by a handwriting expert and found to be forged. Also, according to relatives, on Dec. 10 Cordell showed up with a six-pack of beer at the home of a friend who lived half a mile from the scrap metal business and stayed for several days before walking back to town. Several witnesses in Yellow Springs confirmed that Cordell was back in town on Dec. 13 making “strange comments” about Harris, but refusing to go to his house to talk to him, Jones said.

On Dec. 14, police again believe that, having nowhere else to turn, Cordell finally showed up at Harris’ home and told him that he had sold Harris’ vehicle. Cordell had committed the very same crime with another of Harris’ vehicles in January of that year. Police believe that when Harris heard the news, he became upset and an altercation ensued, which ended with Cordell striking Harris in the head with a large ashtray in the house. Harris was found dead in his home two days later, on Dec. 16, 2004.

Police picked Cordell up on Dec. 18 on unrelated charges of a burglary that occurred at his uncle’s house in Yellow Springs, while Cordell was on probation for criminal trespassing in Clark County. Cordell was sentenced to four years in prison for the burglary and trespassing charges, but while he was the main suspect in the Harris murder, police and the prosecutor agreed to use the time to build a case against Cordell that would most likely lead to a conviction, Jones and Schmidt said.

While Cordell was serving time at Lebanon Correctional Institution, police spoke to witnesses about Cordell, including an inmate from Grafton Correctional Institution near Cleveland who said he heard Cordell confess to murdering Harris. Police sent to the crime lab items such as a coat that had Harris’ blood on it, which witnesses had seen Cordell wear.

Based on evidence and testimony, police believe that Cordell was involved in the use of crack cocaine and was stealing and selling property for money to buy drugs, Jones said.

Police also received a large amount of help from Brenda Love, who had lived with Cordell in Yellow Springs until 2000 and knew and liked the Harris family. Cordell contacted Love as a friend from prison in 2005, and she then contacted police and agreed to begin visiting him in prison and recording their conversations. It was a hard role to play, pretending to be a friend to Cordell while believing he had killed someone she liked and deeply respected, she said in an interview on Tuesday.

But twice a month, for three years, she visited Cordell, who finally in 2007 made what Jones described as an incriminating comment. According to Love, Cordell said to her, “If I had done that to Timmy, it would have been an accident.” Then Cordell told her that he was “glad he got that out,” Love recalled.

While the statement wasn’t definitive, it came close to Cordell’s release date, and prosecutors made the decision to file the charges based on the evidence they had been able to gather up to that point, Jones said.

A Greene County grand jury indicted Cordell in November 2008, and the prosecution went for a trial by jury aiming to convict him of either murder (which carries a sentence of 15 years to life), involuntary manslaughter as a result of felonious assault (which gets three to 10 years), or involuntary manslaughter as a result of assault, Schmidt said. All involved felt those were the charges most appropriate for the circumstances, Jones said. Prosecutors accepted Cordell’s plea partly because a jury trial could have resulted in reduced charges or a chance for him to be released in three years, and because, Schmidt said, they got Cordell to admit his guilt.

“We’re satisfied that Cordell admitted to the crime, and he even apologized to the Harris family,” she said this week.

“We’re glad we got the conviction. I know it’s been painful for villagers,” Jones said. “And no time would have been enough for the family — this was a very difficult case.”

Love is disappointed that Cordell was not given a longer prison sentence, she said this week. But she is glad that she was able to do something to help bring closure to the Harris family, to the village of Yellow Springs, and to herself as well, she said. She went to school with Harris’ siblings and took care of their aunt when she worked at Friends Care Community. And she remembers Harris as an extremely kind person who was loved by everyone who knew him. Harris was actually trying to help Cordell at the time of the murder, she said.

“If anyone gets mad that I did this, I don’t care — I did it for Timmy’s family,” Love said. “He loved his family and his daughters, and it hurts.”

Love’s participation was important, and according to Schmidt, the lab work analysis in addition to the sustained commitment from the Yellow Springs Police Department were critical pieces that resulted in Cordell’s conviction. Sergeant Jones, Detective Rich Miller, and officers Matt Hoying (no longer with the department), Pat Roegner, Shannon Huntsman, Naomi Penrod and Andrew Gault all played a role in bringing the case to a close.

“A great deal of credit goes to the YSPD, especially Sergeant Jones, for following all the leads and making sure we had the most amount of evidence possible,” Schmidt said. “Yellow Springs was working this case consistently — they didn’t give up.”

Cordell will go on to Orient’s Correctional Reception Center to be assigned to a prison that will likely be in southern Ohio, according to Schmidt.

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