Slaying drives mother's anti-gun crusade NRA literature for Va. boy arrives 2 days after his death

July 20, 1993|By Frank Langfitt

SANDSTON, VA. -- Two years ago, the National Rifle Association sent a mailing to Scott Phillips in a small town in rural Virginia, urging him to fight a proposed waiting period for handgun sales.

Scott never got to read the material. He had died two years earlier at age 17 after an Eagle Scout shot him in the back with an assault rifle.

But the NRA mailing did have an impact. It so angered Scott's mother, Byrl Phillips-Taylor, that she has fought to restrict handgun sales and ban assault weapons ever since. "Hell flew in me," said Mrs. Phillips-Taylor, recalling the day she received the literature.

As youth homicide has spread beyond the cities, it has left a trail of survivors like Mrs. Phillips-Taylor in small towns and suburbs. The death of her only son has consumed her unlike anything else in her 50 years. She has coped by trying to prevent it from happening to someone else.

She has spoken frequently before the Virginia General Assembly, helping to pass stricter handgun legislation last spring. In March, she went before Congress.

"There is a misconception by the general population that murder happens to others," she said. "The truth is that murder has no barriers. It can happen to your child just as easily as it happened to mine."

Scott was a handsome, popular swimmer at Highland Springs High School in rural Virginia and on his way to college in the fall.

His classmate, Matthew Miller, was another story. A youth with few friends, Matthew's life revolved around the ROTC, guns and the Boy Scouts, where he had reached the rank of Eagle Scout.

During their senior year, Scott and other students teased Matthew about his soldier image. Some ran their hands over his military haircut, imitating the sound of an electric razor.

After graduation, the boys unknowingly took jobs with the same roofer. They seemed to be getting along better, until the day they decided to go target shooting in the Chickahominy Swamp.

This is what happened, according to court records:

Scott and Matthew left work early because of the heat. They took an AK-47 rifle one of Matthew's friends had bought legally at a local gun shop and headed into the swamp.

Scott began by firing three rounds at a dead tree. Then he handed the rifle to Matthew.

jTC Matthew, a trained marksman, still resented Scott and worried about being upstaged. While Scott's back was turned, he shot him five times in a flash of anger.

Matthew pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His attorney cited child abuse and poverty as contributing to the crime.

Matthew's parents split up when he was four. At least one of his mother's boyfriends physically abused him. He and his mother were poor and moved often to avoid paying rent.

Mrs. Phillips-Taylor had a simpler explanation:

"The kid was obsessed with the military and 'Rambo,' " she said. "I really believe he just wanted to see what it felt like to kill."

The jury convicted Matthew of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

After Scott's death, his mother went into a tailspin and had to borrow money from relatives to keep her real estate and construction companies open. Today, she will talk to anyone, anywhere about her son, gun control and victims' rights. Her family, however, thinks she is obsessed and wishes she would move on with her life.

Besides making her an activist, Scott's murder has changed Byrl Phillips-Taylor in at least one other way.

"I'm not happy," she said.

Ever?

"Not really," she answered quietly and began to cry.

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