She died Sept. Her murder remains unsolved. Those who have investigated it have centered their inquiries on the Madison County drug trade and on the men who loved her. Phillips' sexual activity has helped confuse the three-year effort, says Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones of Fayetteville, who has been in charge of the official investigation. You have somebody that's got a lot of potential enemies. And then you get a family that's peripherally involved in drugs, which opens up hundreds of more possibilities.
Those who were close to her say her sexual encounters began in her mid-teens and included boys even younger than she. At 15, she took her first lover, a state trooper. Her father caught them getting out of a patrol car and punched him. But the sporadic affair continued until Billie Jean was Her later lovers included both the local prosecuting attorney, Howard "Rusty" Cain Jr. She flaunted her other romances to whichever man she was with at the time, say friends and family. That drove at least two of them to violence. The first was Randall Wayne Sharp, who took his vows with year-old Billie Jean McKnight on the diving board of a family friend's swimming pool.
The relationship was "tempestuous," one family member said. Sharp tied her up and locked her in a closet for hours while he gambled with his friends. Roger Dale Harp, her second husband, concedes holding a gun to Billie Jean's head after a fight in which, typically, she questioned his manhood and bragged of outside relations.
She could cut you so low it would take a stepladder to climb onto a match box. Harp suspects that her long-term affair with Rusty Cain developed after the death of Randy Sharp and continued throughout Harp's two-year marriage to her. Billie Jean's family also dates the relationship to Sharp's death.
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Through his lawyer, Cain has repeatedly declined to be interviewed. A story told by more than one person has Billie Jean receiving a telephone call while engaged in sex sometime after her marriage to Harp ended in She answered the phone, carried on a conversation, and never missed a beat. The story is true, said one law enforcement officer who knows the man she was with. The phone call, he said, was from future third husband Jim "Chic" Phillips, who wanted to come over.
Billie Jean told him it was too late. Former Huntsville Police Chief Elmer Cook, who died earlier this year, told investigators looking into the murder that Billie Jean planned to sleep with every police officer in Madison County. The chief quoted her as bragging that she had a briefcase with embarrassing information about prominent Huntsville residents. She also liked power. Cain, as deputy prosecuting attorney for the 4th Judicial District and Huntsville's city attorney, was a visible symbol of power. Their affair was common knowledge around Huntsville. Billie Jean's family says that Cain's clothes, including suits, shirts and pants, occupied the left side of Billie Jean's walk-in closet.
His mustache trimmer had a permanent place in her bathroom. The son of former aides to Gov. During the months before her death, Billie Jean had begun to push openly for the prosecutor to divorce his wife and marry her. The strain had begun to show. In the months before she died, Billie Jean provoked a confrontation with Sharon Cain during a visit to the Cains' home. Billie Jean was drunk, an investigator said. Two weeks before the murder, the investigator said, Sharon Cain caught her husband and Billie Jean together in his car.
Sharon Cain walked up to the window and punched her husband in the nose.
Madison County Sheriff Ralph Baker, who says he counted Billie Jean a close friend but was not one of her conquests, knew she could provoke confrontations, especially with her lovers. Sharp's family still believes Sharp may have been murdered. Either way, the case remains one of Huntsville's great mysteries. Sharp threw the door open and seemed annoyed, McKnight said. Sharp was a big man, and "he filled that old doorway up. At some point, Cornett went outside. Billie Jean was alone with Sharp when, police say, he shot himself in the right temple with a Colt.
Billie Jean was on her knees, cradling his head and screaming, "I love you. A loaded Colt AR 15 rifle stood next to the refrigerator. A shoulder holster with a Browning 9 mm automatic pistol was tucked into a dresser drawer. Sharp was a gun fancier. Fogley found strong traces of metal on Sharp's right palm and medium-strength traces on his left.
He also found traces of metal on Sharp's right index finger and deduced that Sharp had shot himself with both hands, with the butt of the pistol gripped in his right hand. Billie Jean tested negative. Cornett, who told police he had taken the gun from Sharp's hand and laid it on the bed, wasn't tested. Then Baker and Cain told Cook to leave the case alone, according to one of the statements Cook made to investigators. Melba Sharp, Randy Sharp's mother, contends that her son was left-handed and couldn't have shot himself with his right hand.
And she talked of the gold coin and chain she had given him. She had added a safety clasp a few weeks before his death. But when a funeral director returned it to her, the chain was stretched and the clasp had broken away. She became a suspect in Billie Jean's slaying because she told at least one friend that she wanted Billie Jean dead. Baker said he's convinced Sharp's death was a feigned suicide that accidentally succeeded.
Billie Jean spent a year at her parents' home, sometimes sleeping with them to ward off the nightmares. Harp, a truck driver for Tyson Foods, said his bride was attracted by signs of money. He had a good job and a new truck.
The couple settled into Billie Jean's yellow frame house, on a hillside off a dirt road near the community of Alabam, in the valley just northeast of Forum. Robert McKnight was a frequent guest. He would remove the screen and crawl through the window to a back bedroom that he used so often the couple came to call it "Robert's room. We really didn't step on each other's toes any more than we had to," Harp said. Then, he said, they fought -- about money, about Sharp's death, about Billie Jean's hints of other men.
He said she would just push you into it. But he never quit caring, even after they divorced in September Billie Jean didn't leave anything undone. I know she left a sign, if anyone could figure out what it is. Billie Jean got her only child, MacKenzie, from her third marriage -- to Chic Phillips, a federal poultry plant inspector who says he loved her deeply and accepted her eccentricities.
Phillips said he learned just to walk away when Billie Jean made him angry. Usually, he took to his four-wheeler. It was just better to go on.
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But he said she never taunted him with other men and, when he asked, denied seeing anyone else. He now thinks he was naive to believe her. The marriage lasted more than eight years, until July 1, But they had separated in November , nearly two years before she was killed. Billie Jean's family and ex-husbands say her affair with Rusty Cain probably overlapped her marriage to Phillips.
Robert McKnight helped arrange rendezvous with the prosecutor, who would park up the two-rut trail above Billie Jean's house and walk down. Billie Jean didn't have to be at the store she ran, the Ozark Shoppe, until the night shift began at 6. Cain was loyal -- to the point of mixing his responsibilities as prosecutor, private attorney and friend when tragedy next struck. Kristi Box, the daughter of Huntsville's most prominent doctor, died July 11, , in a one-car accident.
Box, her boyfriend Thomas L. Garrett and Billie Jean had just left a party at Box's house. Garrett and Billie Jean were seriously injured, but Billie Jean was gone before sheriff's deputies and state police arrived at the scene.
Family members said a teen-age friend took Billie Jean back to Box's house, where she called Cain. Another friend from the party, Robbie Houston, then drove Billie Jean back to her home. Cain picked her up there and drove her to Washington Regional in Fayetteville. Garrett pleaded guilty. Garrett, who has never been questioned by authorities in connection with the murder, declined to be interviewed.
He would neither confirm nor deny rumors that Billie Jean -- and not he -- was driving that night. He would only say that convincing state troopers that he was driving was "a hard sell. Billie Jean's mother, Edna McKnight, said the company paid off about two weeks before her daughter's death. People around town knew Billie Jean had just gotten a lot of money.
Edna McKnight wonders now if the windfall might have triggered her daughter's killing. Earl "Junior" McKnight Jr. Matthew Ridgeway's mess sergeant in Korea, but he spent enough time in the front lines to be wounded twice. The McKnights opened a small grocery store and sold the greens and strawberries they grew on their land. They had four daughters in rapid succession -- Debra, Diane, Euna and Billie Jean -- and then, four years later, a son, Robert.
They worked hard, and the children pitched in. Selling that for a healthy profit, they built the Huntsville Mini-Mall, then bought the Ozark Shoppe to surprise Billie Jean and Chic, who were off vacationing. Their land holdings grew steadily, to acres. The McKnights are now comfortably retired in a house that overlooks a panorama of intersecting hillsides that appear to march in lock step toward the promise of larger mountains to the east.
The family has always been close. Billie Jean and Robert, the McKnights concede, always needed more support than their other children. By age 16, Billie Jean would regularly slip away from the house at night. Euna would often have to go find her, but didn't learn until later what her younger sister was up to. And I didn't know it. Despite her passions, Billie Jean was the favorite. Robert, whose passion was for drugs, was the baby.
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His heavy use of methamphetamine -- and his constant pursuit of cash to buy it -- landed him in at least two of the county's intertwining drug circles. Harp and Robert shared a love for meth and for digging arrowheads from the rich black mud around Billie Jean's home.
Steve Hathorn acknowledged being arrested on meth charges in Oklahoma and Louisiana, but denied he has ever been involved in dealing. He was placed on two years probation for possession of cocaine in Alexandria, La. He has never been charged in Madison County. His contacts included Joe Benton Head of Springdale, who was convicted of drug and weapons charges in Head, in turn, was connected to the best-known drug dealer in Northwest Arkansas.
Head was an associate and former high school friend of Dennis Cordes, who built a methamphetamine lab in a trailer park on the Illinois River and advised his girlfriend Connie L. Lewis in the construction of the largest methcathinone lab in U. Cordes made headlines across the Ozarks when Lewis removed the screws from a Plexiglas window in a visiting room of the Washington County jail and freed the year-old career drug dealer. Cordes was recaptured seven days later as he slept in the back of a truck in an Oklahoma park.
Robert McKnight said he was only vaguely aware of the movements of drug dealers like Cordes. Robert wasn't a high roller. He seldom worked. He often borrowed money from Billie Jean to pay his drug debts. When that failed, he stole.
Family members say that, in recent months, he has used his mother's key to the Ozark Shoppe to take cigarettes and gas. A shotgun stolen from his father helped finance one drug transaction. When Robert's methamphetamine use got out of hand, Euna and Billie Jean stepped in. Billie Jean paid his drug debts but argued with him over missing cash and cigarettes at the Ozark Shoppe. When Robert asked for money, Euna said, "she'd give it to him. She'd tell him no, and then she'd give it to him in an hour. For Billie Jean, Euna said, "there was no better love than her brother.
Her main goal in life was to get Robert straight. Those activities put him, along with Cain, on Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones' short list of suspects. Suspicions were heightened, investigators say, by Billie Jean's decision to move a house key reserved for Robert a few days before her death. It had normally been kept in an electrical box near the back door, family members said.
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Investigators found it that afternoon below the back door landing. Robert said his sister never told him about moving the key. But Euna worries that Billie Jean died because she was paying a debt for her brother -- "or that she didn't pay one. A week before the murder, Diane said, Billie Jean warned her that something was going to happen: "She said there was going to be a bust, and a lot of big people were going to go down. Euna echoed Diane: "Billie told me at least three times that big people were going to go down.
Billie Jean spent the last day of her life with her mother. They talked of death and of a safety deposit box Billie Jean had rented the day before at Madison Bank and Trust. Cain had been named to the board of directors there, replacing Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, then under investigation in the Whitewater affair.
Billie Jean also told her that she and Cain had some jointly held stock. The McKnights say police later told them there were no stocks or notes in the safety deposit box. Again speaking through Lisle, Cain said the money belonged to his son Trey, who was in the midst of a divorce. Lisle said Cain saw Billie Jean for the last time at 5 p. He told her he wasn't going to be able to be with her that night, because he had family coming to town. Edna McKnight last saw her daughter about 10 p. Out on Arkansas 23, Huntsville's main Friday night drag, post-football game traffic from the Huntsville-Ozark game was picking up.
Billie Jean and her mother discussed preparations for Diane McCloud's upcoming birthday. Billie Jean looked pensively out the front window and watched a white Corvette drive by. Rusty Cain and Chic Phillips took polygraph tests within two or three days of the murder. Both failed on some responses. It would have been nearly impossible, said one investigator, for men who had loved Billie Jean to have denied they ever entertained thoughts of killing her.
A week later, Cain crossed the imaginary line his boss had drawn for him. He called the state Crime Laboratory for information on the case. His role as a Madison County prosecutor ended at 5 p.
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Cain hired Lisle, a former state senator, when Jones summoned Sharon Cain to his Fayetteville office, led her into a room full of investigators, and threatened to charge her with perjury on the basis of statements from an earlier conversation. Lisle abruptly ended a subsequent interview and said Sharon Cain was claiming spousal privilege and her Constitutional protection against self-incrimination. The four men began an investigation that lasted nearly two years and involved interviews of more than witnesses.
His investigators and agents began a series of meetings in October Jones' official investigation, meanwhile, had run into numerous delays at the Arkansas and FBI crime laboratories. And Fogley, the state police investigator who was working with Baker, was repeatedly pulled off the case to follow the trail of Morgan Nick, the 6-year-old girl abducted from an Alma ball field in June Perplexed by damage to the crime scene and by a plethora of suspects, Jones told reporters the case might never be solved. On March 29, , saying he wanted to avoid any appearance that he might have a conflict of interest, Jones named Fayetteville attorney John Everett special prosecutor and Jack D.
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Knox, a retired FBI agent of 29 years, as special investigator. Neither received a fee. They offered to work for expenses only, and they never sought reimbursement for those. They resigned Aug. Court records and interviews with investigators and with people they have questioned and tested show the number of suspects has steadily grown. Tests to match DNA with skin found under Phillips' fingernails have done little to narrow the list. Cain and his son, Trey, both have passed DNA tests and talked with investigators. McKnight family members say either one might have been angered when Billie Jean pushed Cain to get a divorce during the summer of Neither Sharon Cain nor Cain's other son, Blakney, has been tested.
The two were taken to Washington Regional after state crime analysts reported that skin under Billie Jean's fingernails probably came from a family member. Family members say Billie Phillips liked to scratch her son's back. Jones and Baker have refused to comment on the outcome of the boy's test. Billy J. Holt, a year-old tractor mechanic and convicted methamphetamine dealer from Huntsville, has passed a DNA test.get link
Who killed Billie Jean?
He and a group of Huntsville people who shared drugs and sex remain a target of investigators. Witnesses reported they saw bloody clothes in Holt's house in Huntsville the day after the murder, and one of Holt's close associates said she saw a bloody club in the cab of Holt's pickup. Holt adamantly denies existence of the clothes and has said the club was used to kill road-crossing possums. Tonya Sharp, the daughter of Randy Sharp, is being sought for questioning. Investigators have also questioned Michelle Suddith, whose husband, Keith Suddith, was dating Tonya Sharp at the time of the murder.
Warren Coger, who owned a Huntsville car wash, clashed with Billie Jean months before her death. She claimed his equipment had scratched her truck. Coger's father, Larry, a former Huntsville pharmacist, was convicted in of killing an exotic dancer in Fayetteville and trying to burn her body in a Madison County creek bed. Warren Coger testified at the trial that the two men discussed how to dispose of the dancer's body. One investigator compares the case to the movie "Clue," a farcical mystery with multiple endings. In the end, all of the suspects played a part in the crime.
But there is no humor in the reality for Earl McKnight. Neither his reward offer nor his own investigator, former state police officer Quimby Johnson, has produced any valuable leads. McKnight is now battling a heart problem and makes regular trips to the veterans hospital in Fayetteville. They spent their days and nights on a steady high fueled by crank. They sold drugs to each other to finance their habits. When they ran out of money, they stole household goods from each other and, finally, from outsiders. When their belongings were gone and they were scared to steal any more around Huntsville, they moved to Washington County.
During their sleepless binges, the group would sometimes seek refuge in the caves in the Wildlife Management Area next to Billie Jean's house. They complained that helicopters and airplanes dogged them, then worried when the drugs wore off that they were suffering from delusions. When things got too intense, Pitts cast spells on her enemies. Pitts lived at Ridgecrest Apartments. Holt and Brand lived just across a creek from her, in a small house in the woods.
Holt, who used vitamins to cut the drugs he sold, had earned the street name "Billy B In fact, he and Brand worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in That soured when Holt, equipped with a body microphone, announced to a target that he was "wearing a wire. It was not until two months after the murder that Holt was arrested and charged with two counts of delivering methamphetamine. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.
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