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  • Writer's pictureKathryn McMaster

Kids who Kill: Joshua Phillips

Updated: Sep 10, 2018

It is every parent’s nightmare when a child goes missing. The rise of panic, the anguish as you wait for news, never knowing for certain if your child is alive or dead. That dreadful moment visited the Clifton family of Fleetwood Road, Lakewood, Jacksonville, on the evening of November 3, 1998.

Eight-year-old tomboy, Madelyn ‘Maddie’ Rae Clifton, born June 17, 1990, comes home from school at about 4:30 p.m. to take down Halloween decorations. She moves outside the yard of her parent’s modest home, built in the 1950s, like the rest of the surrounding houses, dismantling the lights and removing the pumpkins.

Once finished, she sits down to play the piano, something she loves doing. Scales are followed by tunes that drift out of the open window into the leafy street and carried along the wind until the strains of the music dissipate into the fresh autumn air.

Approximately twenty minutes later, she leaves the house to chip some golf balls with Larry Grisham who lives at the end of their street. However, it is not long before she returns home to look for more golf balls.

By 6:20 p.m. Maddie’s mother, Sheila Clifton, knowing her children are still outside playing in the quiet cul-de-sac, hollers for them to come in for dinner. Jessica, her elder daughter appears almost immediately, Maddie does not. Jessica tells her mother she has not seen Maddie for a while, nor does not know where she is.

Maddie Rae Clifton taken shortly before her death.

Mrs. Clifton initially thinks she must be at a neighbor’s house, and knocking on their door asks if Maddie is there. She is not. She goes from house to house, initially knocking on houses with children, looking for Maddie. With mounting panic, she asks her neighbors to help look for her. Despite the frantic search by all involved, they cannot find Maddie anywhere. Sheila is so distressed she hardly notices, as she stands in her front yard screaming Maddie’s name repeatedly, that she has urinated in the shorts she put on earlier for her walk.

"It was like she shut the door and just, poof, vanished off the face of the earth," says her father Steve, a supervisor at a local metal shop.

By 6:33 p.m., now seriously concerned, Sheila Clifton contacts 911. Maddie is gone. Has she been kidnapped, and if so, by whom?

That evening, adults and children alike help look for the missing child. Jessica rides her bike through the neighborhood calling her sister’s name. People bring out their flashlights as night takes over day. No one is giving up hope of finding Maddie alive, and soon.

Among those looking, is their neighbor’s son living kitty-corner to the Cliftons, on Fleetwood Road. He is a fourteen-year-old playmate of Maddie’s, Joshua Phillips. Maddie Clifton is very fond of Josh, in fact she considers him one of her best friends. Despite hours of searching going into the small hours of the following morning, Maddie is not found.

The following day, a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective goes door-to-door, talking to neighbors about Maddie and asking if they have seen her. No one offers up any useful information that will conclude this search.

There is one person who becomes a focus of interest however; Larry Grisham, in whose company Maddie was last seen chipping golf balls on the Tuesday evening of her disappearance.

Around 5:15 p.m. Grisham and Maddie are using a strip of land between his home and a neighbor’s, about five doors down from her own. He says Maddie went home to fetch some more golf balls. When she did not return he was not concerned, for he assumed her parents kept her home due to the lateness of the hour.

Grisham is not only one of the last people to see Maddie alive, but he is also a forty-five-year-old man who likes to play with children, has a criminal history, and fails a follow-up police polygraph.

Grisham is no stranger to the police force with 29 arrests to his name. The charges vary; auto-theft, driving under the influence, and two counts of sexual battery five years apart, both charges subsequently dropped.

Police search Larry Grisham’s house nine times. They question him twenty times, so convinced he has something to do with Maddie Clifton’s disappearance. Despite failing the polygraph, he is able to provide a strong alibi. In order to prove his innocence, Grisham readily gives police DNA samples.

For nearly a week, Steve and Sheila Clifton work tirelessly with authorities to find their daughter. Countless volunteers scour neighborhood streets, nearby woodlands, and swamps looking for the smallest of clues to explain her vanishing. A house-to-house search takes place complete with cadaver dogs. They comb through garages, sheds, and empty buildings. Still there is no sign of the missing child.

On the Friday of that week, authorities call in the U.S. Army Reserve to examine culverts and open manholes.

Missing person posters are printed and pasted on poles, nailed on trees, and taped on shop fronts. People wear yellow ribbons and hang them in trees, all in the hope of finding little Maddie Clifton alive.

On the Sunday of the same week, family members and volunteers hand out more fliers and yellow ribbons this time to 70,000 fans at the Jacksonville Jaguars-Cincinnati Bengals football game hoping someone there may have seen her. Even the Jaguars’ coaches wear the ribbons in support of her safe return.

Despite everyone’s best efforts Maddie Clifton has vanished without a trace. The community feels uneasy as the days go by. Hope ebbs.

Finally, in sheer desperation, with no leads to their daughter’s disappearance, the Cliftons approach the press. They beg her captors for some news on her whereabouts and plead for her to come home. They even offer a $50,000 reward for news on her whereabouts with the possibility of doubling it.

They address their daughter directly, “Maddie, if you are out there and you can hear us, we are ready for you to come back home … Please come home!” sobs her mother.

In the meantime, the search intensifies. Maddie’s face appears on T-shirts, on more than ten billboards throughout Jacksonville, and her face is broadcast on television. For a full week, a city watches, waiting for news of one of their own, hoping against fear and skepticism, as the days increase, that she is still alive.

For the whole week, fearful their other daughter Jessica could become a target by the unknown kidnapper, a police officer takes up residence in the Clifton home. He camps in their house, watching, observing, protecting. Jessica idles away the time playing Monopoly with the officer and trying hard to stay positive and strong for her parents who are falling apart.

Seven days after their daughter’s disappearance, the Cliftons are just wrapping up doing a segment for Good Morning America talking about their daughter, making an impassioned plea for any news on her disappearance. During the program Sheila reads from a book given to them by a complete stranger entitled, I Promise I’ll Find You. As they speak about their strong Christian faith from which they are drawing comfort, she reads a verse from the book:

If I had no other way, I’d walk, I’d crawl, I’d run.

And search to the very ends of the earth for you, my precious one…

In an ironic twist of fate, at the same time the television crew is packing up their equipment in the Clifton house, an immediate neighbor makes a grisly discovery in her home that will abruptly end the search for Madelyn Clifton.

Her name is Melissa 'Missy' Phillips, and she has just found Maddie, stuffed under the waterbed, in the room of her fourteen-year-old son, Joshua Phillips.

Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips

If you would like to read the full story of this grisly crime committed by Joshua Phillips, the author has written a book covering the case, and you can find it on from October 12, 2018.

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