As always, some pictures can be seen at a larger size by clicking on them

 

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Thomas Everett Phillips was born in Yadkin County in 1899 and began working as a car inspector for the Norfolk & Western Railway in Winston-Salem around 1920.  For 28 years he worked the 11 AM to 8 PM shift and never missed a minute on the job. In 1923, he met and married Margaret Green, from Avery County, NC. They were devout Christians who lived on Gilmer Avenue and attended North Winston Baptist Church. In 1931, after eight years of marriage, they were blessed with the birth of a son, Thomas Lee Phillips, not a junior, who would always be known as Tommy Lee. As often happens under such circumstances, Tom and Margaret spoiled their son rotten, but he responded by becoming a straight A student in school and began developing musical talents on the piano and trumpet. He was a handsome lad, but tiny, standing just over five feet tall…the pride and joy of his parents.

Around 1945, as Tommy Lee was entering his teens, Tom and Margaret bought about 18 acres of land on “Robinhood Road extension”, some five miles from downtown Winston-Salem, where they hoped to establish a retirement farm, with gardens, goats and chickens. In 1946, they built a small stone-faced house on the property and moved to the country. They were outside the city limits at the time, but wanted nothing but the best for Tommy Lee, so began paying tuition so that he could attend the R.J. Reynolds High School in the city.

That seemed to be a good idea, as Tommy Lee flourished at the school and met a bright, attractive girl named Bessie Ruth Jenkins. Bessie sang in her church choir and also participated in the musical and dramatic groups at RJRHS. She was good bit taller than Tommy Lee, but they soon became constant companions, a relationship that both sets of parents approved of.

Early on New Year’s Eve 1947, Tom and Tommy Lee went into the woods for a bit of shooting, which they both enjoyed. But something was weighing on Tom’s mind. When they returned to the house, Tom confronted his son. His wallet, which contained about ninety dollars in cash and a check for $121.95, had gone missing. He was pretty sure that Tommy Lee had taken it, and that the reason was that Tommy Lee and Bessie Ruth were about to elope. Tom made it clear that the wallet was to be returned and that there would be no elopement, then went to the bathroom to prepare for his usual 11 AM – 8 PM work shift.

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The Phillips house was on Robinhood Road Extension, just beyond Muddy Creek.

Tommy Lee went to his room. His father was right. A few days before Christmas, Bessie Ruth had announced that she was pregnant and that her mother insisted that Tommy Lee marry her. Tommy Lee said that that was not a problem. He would do the right thing and marry her. Bessie Ruth’s mother had not yet said anything to anyone else. But Tommy Lee could not bring himself to inform his parents. He later said that such a revelation would have killed them. At that very moment, his bag was packed, his father’s car keys were in his pocket, and Bessie Ruth was preparing at her own home for a trip to York, the famous South Carolina “gretna green”.

After about ten minutes, Tommy Lee picked up his .22 caliber rifle and walked to the bathroom where his father was shaving. He fired one shot, which penetrated his father’s right eye, bored through his brain, exited the back of his skull and embedded itself in the bathroom wall. Tom Phillips staggered from the bathroom toward his bedroom, leaving a trail of blood. Margaret had just had surgery at a local hospital and had been in and out of bed for the last couple of weeks. As Tom Phillips opened the bedroom door, Margaret was just rising from her bed. Tommy Lee shot her in the shoulder. He then noted that his father was in agony, so reversed the rifle and hit his father over the head with the gun butt, fracturing his skull. His father went down on his knees, but was still struggling to get into the bedroom, so Tommy Lee shot him again. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his mother reaching for the telephone, so he shot her again, this time in the mouth. He then laid the .22 down next to her now unconscious body. He later said that he did that in hope that the sheriff would think that his parents had shot each other.

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Tommy Lee took the cash and the check and the already packed suitcase, got into his father’s black, two door 1940 Chevrolet, and drove to 137 Rosedale Circle, where he picked up his girlfriend, Bessie Ruth Jenkins. They drove south on Stratford Road and west on US 158, past Clemmons, across the Yadkin River to Mocksville. There they turned west on US 64. When they reached Statesville, Tommy Lee parked the car outside the R & S Barber Shop, operated by Henry Robinson and John Sharpe at 107 1/2 East Seventh Street, and went inside. While Bessie Ruth waited, Tommy Lee got a haircut, a shave, took a shower and put on a brown tweed double breasted suit, a brand new pair of cleated sole shoes and a wine colored tie. They drove to the Lazenby Jewelry Store, at 113 East Broad Street, where they bought a forty dollar wedding band.

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York, SC

They then drove south on US 21, through Mooresville and Davidson and Charlotte to Rock Hill, South Carolina. From there they took South Carolina Highway 5 to York, about six miles southeast of Kings Mountain State Park. In York, they sought out a justice of the peace, which they could not find. They did talk to an assistant to a local probate judge and asked for a marriage license. Bessie looked like a college girl, but Tommy Lee appeared to be about twelve years old, so the assistant told them that a marriage license could not be issued without permission of their parents. Both were actually just sixteen years old. Bessie Ruth was a junior and Tommy Lee a sophomore at R.J. Reynolds High School.

That might have been the end of it, because, obviously, Tommy Lee’s parents would never be issuing any sort of permission again. But Tommy Lee was determined. He told Bessie Ruth to call her mother and ask her to send a telegram to the judge assuring him that both sets of parents had given their permission. Bessie Ruth’s mother agreed to do so.

Tommy Lee and Bessie Ruth waited until late in the night, but the telegram did not arrive. So they went to their car and slept there, assuming that the telegram would arrive in the morning. They awoke on New Year’s Day very hungry, so went to a local cafe for breakfast, unaware of what had been happening back in Winston-Salem.

The first thing that had happened was that when Bessie Ruth’s mother got off the phone, she told her husband, who knew nothing about his daughter’s pregnancy, about Bessie Ruth’s request. He told her not to send any telegram, got into his car and headed for York. He would not see his daughter until the next day, back in the Twin City.

The other thing that had happened was that Margaret’s brother-in-law had discovered the bodies of Tom and Margaret Phillips and Forsyth County Sheriff Ernie Shore had arrived on the scene. Ernie noted that other than the two dead bodies, the house was immaculate, with a Christmas wreath on the door and a couple of holiday poinsettias in the bedroom. In the kitchen he found a pan of half-cooked French fried potatoes. On the piano, a music book was opened to “The Happy Farmer Returns From Work”.

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Ernie quickly ascertained that Tommy Lee was missing and discovered the link to Bessie Ruth, also missing. Bessie Ruth’s mother told him about the phone call. So he had sounded a two state alarm for the missing pair and had already dispatched two of his deputies to York.

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Forsyth County deputies Walter Spease (left) and George Fontaine unloading the Phillips car in York. Tommy Lee’s size is apparent compared to the two normal height deputies.

So when Tommy Lee and Bessie Ruth parked at the cafe that morning on New Year’s Day, they were arrested by York police officers. Tommy Lee admitted that he had shot his parents, but the officers avoided any more discussion. This was not their case. They soon turned Tommy Lee and Bessie Ruth over to Ernie’s deputies, who drove them back to the Twin City, where Ernie was waiting. After a bit of questioning, which determined that Bessie Ruth knew nothing about what had happened at the Phillips house, Ernie ordered that she be released in the custody of her parents.

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Bessie Ruth (right) and her mother leave the Forsyth County jail on January 1, 1948. A huge winter storm had blanketed the eastern US and the Twin City was getting its share of snow.

Since Tommy Lee had not ever gotten to breakfast that morning, deputies offered him food several times during the day, which he refused. But in mid afternoon, he accepted a candy bar and a soft drink. And he bought and smoked a couple of cigarettes. Everyone noticed how calm and unemotional he had been all day. At one point he quietly read that day’s Journal article about his parents’ death. But after finishing the snack and cigarettes, he gave Sheriff Shore a full confession, including most of the details of what had happened at the home on Robinhood Road. He immediately was charged with two counts of first degree murder. At 5:11 PM on New Year’s Day, Tommy Lee was locked in a cell at the Forsyth County Jail.

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Tommy Lee Phillips reads the story about the death of his parents in the office of the Forsyth County Jail, January 1, 1948.

The next day, Bessie Ruth, elegantly dressed and in high heels, appeared at the jail with a lawyer, Hoyle Ripple, who had been hired by her parents to defend Tommy Lee. She asked to be allowed to visit Tommy Lee, but was told that his cell had no visiting privileges. So while the lawyer went in to see Tommy Lee, she cooled her heels in the jail lobby. A local reporter began asking her questions, and she agreed to answer them. Her first order of business was to correct some mistakes that had appeared in news stories. The car involved was a 1940, not 1941, Chevrolet. And Tommy Lee’s tie was not red, it was wine.

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Bessie Ruth Jenkins holds court for reporters at the Forsyth County jail.

She said that she had been “going with” Tommy Lee for about eight months, and had been planning to marry him for “some time”. Toying with a tiny stick pin and jangling a little silver bracelet, she went on to say that Tommy Lee was an average piano player, but outstanding on the trumpet. He liked to play “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke”, but she preferred to hear him play “Stardust” and “Sugar Blues.”

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She then told the reporter that no matter what the court decided, she fully intended to marry Tommy Lee, and as soon as possible.

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Bessie Ruth Jenkins

Since the double funeral of Tom and Margaret Phillips was about to happen, attorney Ripple informed the press that Tommy Lee had expressed a desire to attend, and that he hoped that Sheriff Shore would allow that. Ernie’s immediate response was that that was possible, but upon farther reflection, realizing that thousands would turn out hoping for a glimpse of Tommy Lee, thus turning the funeral into a circus, he said no. As it turned out, Tommy Lee had told Ernie that he did not want to attend the funeral because he did not want “all those people” staring at him.

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Over 1,000 people attended the funeral of Tom and Margaret Phillips at North Winston Baptist Church. Vogler’s set up a public address system so that those on the outside could hear the hour long service.

Bessie Ruth announced that she would be Tommy Lee’s representative at the funeral. The turnout at North Winston Baptist was indeed huge, standing room only inside, while many who were turned away lingered on the sidewalks for some time and neighbors watched from their porches. Voglers set up a public address system so that those outside could hear the service. One police officer estimated that over 500 cars were parked on the streets nearby.

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Parents were worried that local teenagers were making a hero out of Tommy Lee. A mob of “bobby-soxer” girls had shown up at the church. Others went to the jail, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tommy Lee. Several shoe stores reported that there had been a run by teenage boys on shoes with big rubber cleats like the ones that Tommy Lee had been wearing.

The trial began nine weeks later, during the first week of March, in a packed Forsyth County Courthouse. During its three day run, Bessie Ruth sat in the front row, right behind Tommy Lee. Since Tommy Lee had made two voluntary confessions, solicitor  Walter Johnston had little work to do. He put on witnesses who testified as to the finding of the bodies, the detective work required to find the young couple, their return to Winston-Salem, and, of course, Tommy Lee’s two confessions. In those, Tommy Lee stated that he shot his father the first time because he could not bear the thought of being denied a life with his sweetheart. He said that he shot him the second time because he was suffering. He never mentioned the blow on the head. He said that when his mother emerged from the bedroom, he shot her because he realized that she would report him to the police for shooting his father. Her second shot was administered for the same reason as for his father…a humanitarian act. A couple of neighbors also testified that Tommy Lee was a spoiled and immature child. The prosecution then rested, demanding that the jury find Tommy Lee guilty of two counts of first degree murder and that the judge impose the death penalty.

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Forsyth County courthouse as seen from Third Street…designed by Northup & O’Brien, architects, 1926.

The defense attorneys, Roy Deal and Fred Hutchens, who had been hired by the Phillips relatives to replace Hoyle Ripple, did not contest the facts as presented by the prosecution. They spent their time instead arguing that Tommy Lee’s actions sprang from stress induced by the prospect of being denied the right to marry his sweetheart. By then they had dropped the temporary insanity plea originally entered at the arraignment. And they put on character witnesses. Bessie Ruth’s mother testified that her daughter was a good Christian girl who sang in both her church and school choirs at R. J. Reynolds High School. She said that Bessie Ruth had told her at Christmas that she was pregnant and that Tommy Lee had agreed to do “the right thing” and marry her. She had no objection, because Tommy Lee was a fine boy and, besides, that was what people did at the time.

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The courtroom was standing room only for three days. Jury box at far right. Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection.

Others testified that Tommy Lee, the tiny boy, was also a good boy, a top student at Reynolds High, who used his musical skills on the piano and trumpet in the school’s various ensembles. When the defense rested, late in the day, the judge explained the options to the jury, from not guilty to guilty of first degree or second degree murder. He stopped there. Some of the jurors later told reporters what went on in the jury room. Tommy Lee was so small and appealing. It was hard to believe that he could have done what he was accused of doing. Some of them prayed. Others wept. But in the end, they could not avoid their duty.

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When they returned with their verdict, the previously crowded courtroom was almost empty. The assumption had been that there would be no verdict until the next day. Everyone noticed the absence of Bessie Ruth. But the judge was in no mood for delay. So the foreman read the verdict and the jury was duly polled. On the first count, guilty of murder in the second degree. On the second count, guilty of murder in the second degree. Tommy Lee visibly slumped in his chair. The judge was clearly not happy with the verdict. He had apparently wanted a first degree conviction, based upon the ten minute or so waiting time between the argument and the killings. He wasted little time in pronouncing the sentence. On the first count, 25-30 years in the state penitentiary. On the second count, 25-30 years in the state penitentiary. The two sentences to run consecutively, so a total of 50-60 years in the state penitentiary. Tommy Lee was sent to Central Prison in Raleigh to begin serving his sentence.

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Central Prison in Raleigh, 1940s. By then, due to lack of maintenance, pieces of the building were falling off almost daily. The Victorian spires and turrets were removed in the 1950s.

Under North Carolina law, a person convicted of a crime was not allowed to benefit in any way from that crime, so Tommy Lee could not inherit his parents’ estate. But a few weeks after the trial, Tom and Margaret’s brothers and sisters announced that most of them would contribute their shares of the estate to a trust fund in Tommy Lee’s name. While he was in prison, he would be allowed to spend the income from the trust. Once released, the full amount would be his to do with as he pleased.

The verdict and sentence were appealed, to no avail. Over the next few years, a steady parade of Phillips relatives, close kin of Tom and Margaret Phillips, and friends made the trek to Raleigh to argue, beg, plead for Tommy Lee. On January 8, 1953, Governor W. Kerr Scott commuted the overall sentence to 40-50 years. So in the spring of 1958, Tommy Lee became eligible for parole. The chairman of the state Board of Paroles stated that Tommy Lee had been a model, honor grade prisoner; that he had used his talent as a piano and trumpet player to become the director of the prison band, and had worked for several years in the prison print shop. He added that if parole were granted, Tommy Lee had a job waiting at the Mitchell Printing Company in Raleigh. Usually, when the chairman of the Board of Paroles speaks so well of a candidate, it bodes well for that person, but this time, parole was denied. But over the next few months, something happened.

On August 21, 1959, Tommy Lee married Raleigh resident Wanda Lee Tate, 27, the daughter of Ray and Anna Minor of Centralia, Illinois. The service was performed by the Reverend R. C. Lanier at North Street Baptist Church in Raleigh. Listed witnesses: Derle Haywood and his wife, Mabel, and Bonnie Kingsley, all of Raleigh.

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Wanda was a divorcee, and worked as a secretary in the office of the local YMCA. She lived at 515 Washington St. Bonnie Kingsley was a nurse at Rex Hospital and also lived at 515 Washington St. D. Eral Haywood was a janitor for the Hood System Industrial Bank. His wife Mabel taught at the Garner Elementary School. But the most interesting entry in the 1959 city directory is –  Phillips, Tommy  prntr  State  1202 Fillmore.

In 1960, Tommy Lee is not listed, but Mrs. Wanda L. Phillips is, at 1416 Wake Forest Road, same job. By 1962, Tommy and Wanda are both listed at the Wake Forest Road address. Tommy is working as a linotype operator at NC State College…Wanda is a secretary at Southeast Sight & Sound. By the next year, Wanda had moved to Long Engineering, a high tech sound production company which had facilities in Raleigh and Winston-Salem.

Tommy and Wanda were divorced on May 10, 1971 in Raleigh. Tommy Lee died in July, 1976 at age 45.

But the real mystery in this case is Bessie Ruth Jenkins, because at the moment that the jury in Tommy Lee’s case was sent out, she vanished from the face of the earth. She was a junior at Reynolds High School, but did not return and graduate. Of course, she was pregnant, which in those days was considered a family disgrace. Often, such young women were sent away, probably out of state, to a facility that existed to whitewash the shame. There were two usual outcomes.

One was that the new baby would suddenly appear in the home of an aunt or some other relative, unmentioned in hope that such a child might go unnoticed.  And if noticed, the relative could claim that they had adopted the child. The other was that the baby had been offered for adoption before birth, so already had a new name before it appeared. Either way, our hope of identifying such a baby is roughly zero.

But in this case, we refound Bessie Ruth. She was a determined young woman. Having done whatever she did about Tommy Lee’s baby, she returned to school to get her diploma. Not at Reynolds, but at Old Town School. By then, she had apparently given up on marrying Tommy Lee. But somehow she met another young man. She might have encountered him at the jail or during all the court proceedings, because he was also a troubled soul, having been through a number of juvenile criminal moments that included auto theft and forgery of checks, both of which became federal crimes. Sometime in early 1949, he got her pregnant. In March, 1949, they got married. The child, a daughter, was born in October. We do not know whether Bessie Ruth ever graduated

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Bessie Ruth’s junior picture, Old Town School, 1949

Going back to March 10, 1948, the implication in the news stories was that Tommy Lee was taken straight to Central Prison after sentencing. But that was not the case. He spent one more night in the Forsyth County jail, so ace reporter Roy Thompson got one more crack at him. And what a crack it was.

Roy and Tommy Lee sat down outside Tommy Lee’s cell. Tommy Lee, whose stoicism up to that point had frightened even veteran detectives, said:

“I’d give my life, 500 times, if it would bring them (his parents) back. The sad part is that by my serving my sentence, it won’t bring Mother and Dad back. I admit I did a terrible thing. I don’t know how I could ever have done such a thing. I’ve laid awake nights wondering how and why I could ever do such a thing as that. I just want one more chance. And if I don’t get it, I want to be gassed.”

Parents all over the Twin City had been worried about the response of many local teenagers to the Phillips murders, who seemed to be idolizing Tommy Lee. Some had suggested that perhaps there needed to be some sort of citywide curfew for teens. Roy asked Tommy Lee about that, and Tommy Lee said that he thought that that was a good idea. He mentioned that he himself had never had a curfew set by his parents, that he had been allowed to stay out to one, two, even three AM. Then he started talking about cars, and how dangerous it was for boys and girls to be out in cars together, that that had been his own downfall.

“I started dating about a year ago,” he said. “For a long time I was satisfied to be with the crowds. Then I started to date alone. Got out to myself, and kept going. You see a boy and a girl out late in an automobile, you know what they’re out for.”

He talked a little about the trial and his confessions. This was long before Miranda. He had no idea that he was entitled to a lawyer. One deputy had told him that it would “be easier on him” if he confessed. And he talked about how many of the words and details in his confessions had been suggested by willing deputies. Then he dropped the bomb.

It was about Bessie Ruth, the girl who had made a big public production about how she would marry him no matter what the courts decided. He said that she had also made a big production about announcing her pregnancy to him, and to her mother. And she and her mother had made a big production about his obligation to marry her, turning the screws very tightly indeed.

“Bessie Ruth?” he said. “I don’t want any part of her, the Jenkins family, or anything to do with them. I don’t see how I could have been such a damn fool.” Then he mentioned a second chance again, cast his eyes down, and walked back into his cell.

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Is this the sweet little church choir girl, or the Lilith who led Tommy Lee down the primrose path?

 

So maybe we should back up a bit and take a second look at Bessie Ruth. There were rumors even then, perhaps started, or at least nurtured, by Tommy Lee’s aunts and uncles, that Bessie Ruth had faked a pregnancy to get Tommy Lee to marry her. Those rumors are still floating around here and there. And it is true that we cannot find a child connected to her in 1948.

But if she had conceived in early November, the child would have been born toward the end of July. She had dropped out of Reynolds High after the arrest, so no one will ever know if she was pregnant or not. She then enrolled at Old Town School for her senior year. One would think that she had learned her lesson well. But somehow she met another guy, and the whole drama started over.

He was not just any guy. For one, he was twenty years old, not sixteen. For another, he had a serious criminal past. Sometime in September, 1945, an unnamed juvenile, a 21 year old ex-Marine named Cecil Blackmon, and Ernest McKinney Wagner, age 17, stole a car in Winston-Salem. They drove it to Greensboro and abandoned it, then stole another car and drove it to High Point, where they abandoned that car, passed a bad check and stole another car. Over the next three weeks they stole other cars in Thomasville, Salisbury, Charlotte, and Lynchburg and Danville, Virginia. They pilfered another 30 or so cars and passed more bad checks. In Charlotte, the ex-Marine got arrested and thrown in jail, but the two younger boys continued. Several of the cars were driven back and forth across state lines, so they were wanted on Federal warrants.

On October 11, W.L. Turner of Reidsville was walking down the street near the courthouse when he saw two boys trolling parked cars. When they got into a convertible, he rushed over and asked them where they were going. “What’s it to ya?” they replied and drove away. Since he was right in front of the police station, he reported the incident. Minutes later, Reidsville police officers found the pair hitchhiking on US 29, about five blocks away. One of them had a blackjack in his pocket. They were taken to Guilford County, arraigned and released on bond.

Four weeks later, Ernest McKinley Wagner and the same juvenile, now named as David E. Daniels, cashed two forged checks in Winston-Salem, one at the Montgomery Ward store, the other at Frank A. Stith’s men’s clothing store. They were arrested and held in the city jail for trial the next day, then remanded to Superior Court. How they managed to avoid serious jail sentences is unknown. But in 1946, Ernest McKinley Wagner tried to register for the draft. A few days later, someone stamped in red ink on his registration card “Cancelled”, with a code indicating that as a convicted criminal he was not eligible for the draft. At the time, Wagner was living with his mother in Waughtown and unemployed. We can find no trace of him for the next two years, but we know that he somehow hooked up with Bessie Ruth Jenkins in the latter part of 1948, while she was a 17 year old student at Old Town School. She got pregnant sometime around Christmas. They got married in March. She graduated under her married name in June. A daughter was born in October.

At that point, Bessie Ruth and Ernest were living with his mother at 2265 Brindle Street in Waughtown and he was working as an asbestos applicator for the Dean Construction Company. A second daughter was born a little later. According to a publication from the Pilot Mountain Baptist Association, Bessie Ruth, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem,  died in 1961 at age 30. Ernest died in 1968, aged 40. His death certificate says that he was a widower and died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver. At the time, he and the older daughter were still living with his mother, while the younger daughter was living at 137 Rosedale Circle, an address that may sound familiar.

So neither Bessie Ruth not her parents learned anything from the trials and tribulations of Tommy Lee Phillips. And we really have to ask just what was going on and how culpable Bessie Ruth was in the deaths of Tom and Margaret Phillips. I’m sure that Ernie Shore had some second and third thoughts as he watched the Bessie Ruth drama unfold, but there was not much he could have done about it. It was certainly too late for Tommy Lee. Hollywood endings are clear cut and dramatic. This one is just muddled and very, very sad.

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