She’d pull four plates, four forks and four knives from the cupboard and then it would hit her: There were only three in the family now.
Jessie Clifton was 11 when 20 years ago Saturday her 8-year-old sister, Maddie, whom she considered to be her very best friend, seemingly vanished from the suburban Jacksonville neighborhood they grew up in. From that moment on, no one’s life in the Clifton family would be the same.
Three years later when Jessie was 14, she finally mastered pulling plates and silverware in groups of three. But then her mother, Sheila Clifton, haunted by the home across the street, moved out. Then it was just the two of them: Steve Clifton and his daughter Jessie.
The years that immediately followed 1998 are largely gone from Jessie Clifton’s memory. Not gone are the chilling details — faces, expressions, sounds, actions, feelings of what was unfolding within the family, within the Lakewood neighborhood starting on that Nov. 3 evening when Maddie didn’t join the family at the dinner table.
“It almost starts to feel like a really bad dream until I go home and the little things remind me,” Jessie Clifton said last week. “It’s like you start to forget what your life was like because it was so long ago.”
Maddie’s story, the story of a missing girl, brought Jacksonville to its knees.
It was Election Day and Sheila Clifton came home from voting when her youngest daughter vaulted from the house promising to be home in time for supper. Maddie was seen hitting golf balls down the street then she headed home to round up some more balls.
That was the last time she was seen.
Hundreds of volunteers rooted through Jacksonville, passing out thousands of flyers with the hopes of finding a girl named Maddie Clifton.
Maddie resonated with people. She could have been anyone’s child. A little girl with a freckle-dotted face. A little girl who played piano and pick-up basketball like nobody’s business. She had a zest for life and a heart for the underdog.
When watching a TV show, she’d root for scary people or scary things because she didn’t like the idea of people or things feeling lonely or being isolated, her sister said.
Maybe that’s why Maddie went across the street where an awkward and somewhat isolated boy lived.
The first seven days of Maddie’s disappearance was like a three-ring circus. The activity in the community was nonstop: Cops, reporters and hundreds of people descended on the lives of the Cliftons, all in the name of finding Maddie. Even National Guard troops were called to walk through the sewer system looking for signs of the missing girl.
On Nov. 10, Maddie’s parents had just finished taping an interview with a national news morning program when neighbor Missy Phillips ran across the street to find a police officer. Phillips found Maddie’s body entombed inside the frame of her 14-year-old son’s waterbed. Maddie’s body was partially clothed; she had been beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed multiple times.
As police went to a middle school and arrested Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips that day, parents at Maddie’s San Jose Catholic School raced there to take their children home early. Children were seen sobbing as they clung to their parents and headed for home.
Josh told police Maddie came over to play baseball and that he accidentally hit her in the head with a ball. He said when she wouldn’t stop crying, he dragged her in the house. He said he was afraid of what his father, an alcoholic with a violent temper, would do if he found out he had been playing with someone, something he said he wasn’t allowed to do when his parents weren’t home.
Josh slept on that waterbed for the next seven nights as Maddie’s body began to waste away. He later told the Times-Union that he told himself nothing happened to her so much that he began to believe it. So he joined hundreds of others and searched for Maddie during those seven days two decades ago.
Churches across Jacksonville opened their doors for a community — who largely never met Maddie — to come together and grieve in 1998. At one service, Jessie Clifton addressed the congregation and asked God to forgive her for pleading with him to bring her sister back.
The following day, some 1,400 people poured into the same Catholic church on San Jose Boulevard where Maddie made her First Communion, but this time it was for the little girl’s funeral. Maddie’s small casket was placed at the center of the altar, covered in a cream-colored cloth. Nearby was a photo of the little girl with the Kool-Aid smile. A heart-shaped flower arrangement from Maddie’s third-grade class also stood nearby. Outside, thousands lined the streets.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
On Nov. 19, 1998, a grand jury returned a first-degree murder charge against Josh Phillips.
“The citizens of Jacksonville should be assured every appropriate resource in my office will be devoted to making sure Maddie Clifton’s murderer is brought to justice,” State Attorney Harry Shorstein said at a news conference. “The murder of this little girl has shaken me just as it has the rest of our community.”
Josh was going to be tried as an adult and the Maddie Clifton story again became national news.
A conviction of first-degree murder at the time was an automatic life sentence for a boy, too young to be executed by the state.
A tall, curly-haired boy entered the courtroom the following year. Prior to the murder charge, he had never been in trouble. He was a boy who liked computers and his dog, a beagle.
“This was a devastating murder that will forever be in the memories of anyone in Jacksonville at the time,” said retired veteran prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda. “Historically it was one of the most horrific murders, there is no doubt about that. ... Everyone was talking about it. When you’ve got a missing girl, and this missing girl turns out to be dead, I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t know about this or who wasn’t praying for her or attempting to find her.”
Because of all that and all the pre-trial publicity, the trial was moved out of Jacksonville.
During the trial, the boy’s attorney called no witnesses. Josh was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sent away to spend the rest of his life behind bars. He would later get the same punishment at a new sentencing last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to automatically sentence youthful offenders to life.
Maddie’s story didn’t end in 1999 when Josh was shipped off to prison. The lives of those associated with him and with Maddie continued to veer off course.
A SHARED BOND
The day Maddie was found under Josh’s waterbed was the day Jessie Clifton began to lose her identity. She was a nerdy kid growing up and didn’t hang around with the popular kids.
“I was never the cool kid in school and was made fun of,” she said. “I was the geek.”
But suddenly with the death of her sister, everyone, it seemed wanted to know her. It bothered her, she said, because in her mind, these school kids never cared for her before.
Something else weighed on her too. She felt as if she was not Jessie Clifton, rather she was now Maddie Clifton’s sister. “That’s who I became. I wasn’t Jessie,” she said.
A similar thing happened to Missy Phillips, Josh’s mother. Phillips said she tried to withdraw from society as best she could. She split her time between Jacksonville and North Central Florida hoping maybe she could reinvent herself.
For some reason, she thought if she rode her bicycle places, people wouldn’t put the face with the bike rider and therefore she’d go unnoticed.
Eventually, she did get noticed. In a church where she’d hoped to seek solace.
“Are you Josh’s mother?” asked a stranger who approached her.
Phillips said she thought about lying but then remembered she was in a church.
“Yes,” she told the woman. Bracing for the worse, the unexpected happened when the woman reached out and embraced Phillips.
Things like that, Phillips said last month, happened more than once. That makes her feel better.
Also making her feel better is Jessie Clifton’s warmth back then and more recently.
On Wednesday, Jessie Clifton recalled how Phillips stayed inside after her son was arrested. “She hated to come outside,” she said.
So Jessie Clifton helped out. She’d walk the dog and when she’d see Phillips pull in the driveway from the grocery store, she said she’d race out to help her carry the grocery sacks inside.
Phillips sent the family a Christmas card each year.
“She was such a sweet and kind person, she didn’t deserve what happened,” Jessie Clifton said. ”... I feel like she feels everyone was against her. She found Maddie and I cannot even imagine that and then to realize what her son had done. That is a lot for one person to handle.”
The two of them shared a bond that day in November 1998 when Clifton lost her sister and Phillips lost a son: “A loss is a loss,” Jessie Clifton said.
Lives continued to unravel.
Missy Phillips’ husband, Steve Phillips, died in a car crash.
Steve and Sheila Clifton divorced after 25 years of marriage. The couple had known each other in high school and had been together for 30 years.
But Maddie’s death put an end to the normalcy that the family enjoyed — a solid family that enjoyed one another, enjoyed fishing trips and vacations.
“Everything stopped when my parents divorced,” Jessie Clifton said.
They handled the grief differently, with Steve Clifton largely shutting down and Sheila Clifton wanting to talk about it, Jessie Clifton said. But she didn’t think it was a good time to talk with her mother for this story.
Sheila Clifton moved into her mother’s house in the same neighborhood allowing her to still be close to her daughter, but away from the Phillips’ home where Maddie died. She then moved to Macclenny where she is today.
Steve Clifton moved out of the house this summer. Jessie still lives there and is in the process of buying it from him.
To her, it’s a home where many fantastic memories were made before 1998.
“It’s always been my home,” the 31-year-old said.
Eileen Kelley: (904) 359-4104