“She’s curious enough to open it and it’s a pair of legs,” said Sara Hansen, a former reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. “The body parts were stacked on the side of the road. And it was an odd way to hide the body because it was a fairly well-traveled road.”
More bags are discovered along this well-traveled Greene County road. One bag contained a torso that was cut in half. The rest of the bags contained other body parts and a set of garden shears and bloody towels. The arms of the woman have never been found.
To figure out who the woman was, police made a sketch of the woman and sent the sketch to local media hoping someone would recognize her.
“They had, of course, the head, so police created this sketch of what they thought the woman looked like,” said Hansen. “They pegged her as being younger than what she was. They originally thought it was a woman in her 50s.”
The discovery of a dismembered woman sent shockwaves through the community.
The dismembered body would be taken to Cox South for the coroner to perform an autopsy.
The family of Wilma Plaster hears the news of a body being found and a dark thought sticks in the back of their minds– Is this Wilma?
Tragically, the dental records would confirm the family’s worst fear— that the victim was Wilma Plaster. The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head by a .38 caliber bullet, according to court documents.
Wilma Plaster was born in Ozark County, Missouri in 1923. She met her future husband, Layton, at church when she was 15. He later became a pastor, and church and family were at the center of Plaster’s life.
“She lived in Hollister, Missouri, and was fairly well-liked,” said Hansen.
In 1984 Layton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Layton succumbed to the disease quickly, only living five months and 15 days after diagnosis. Wilma was now alone.
She was able to get through the grieving process with the help of Janice Cook, a fellow widow and friend from church. Plaster and Cook soon started going to lounges.
“She became a member of a fan club for the Cody Brothers, they were a pair of brother singers who had a show in Branson,” said Hansen. “After she joined this fan club she became friends with a woman named Shirley Jo Phillips.”
Soon the pair of ladies were going to events and going out for drinks with Phillips. According to reports, the pair were always seen together and became fast friends.
However, on October 3, 1989, Plaster’s family started to worry when they were unable to contact her. This concerned her children because she always would let them know where she was going and would always call back if she missed their call.
The medical examiner concluded that the condition of Plaster’s body was consistent with the murder having occurred on Tuesday, October 3, 1989. Witnesses also said Plaster was seen with Phillips at a local bar.
Now that investigators know who the victim is, the hunt for the killer begins.
Early in the case, a criminal profiler came to help police decipher who the killer could be. Killing someone takes extreme effort both mentally and physically, but to also dismember a person is not only shocking but is a long and exhausting process.
This is why Hansen said she’s shocked to hear the profiler say the killer is a woman.
“He said ‘I’m going to blow your mind,” said Hansen. “A woman committed this crime. Because of the way she cut up the body.
First of all, a woman is more likely to cut up a body because they wouldn’t be strong enough like a man to carry it. And if a man was going to dismember a body, he would use an ax or a saw, where in this case she used garden shears and a knife. And she cut into the joints the way you would cut up a chicken. A man would not do it that way.”
Hansen said murders are always shocking, but when it’s a woman who commits such a gruesome crime it’s even more shocking.
“When someone does something terrible to a body afterward, I think that really is more shocking to people,” said Hansen. “It was just a weird case, especially how the body was found and that we found the legs, torso and head, but we never found the arms.”
Hansen said you wouldn’t expect a woman to commit this type of crime and you wouldn’t expect someone as sweet as Plaster to be the victim of such a crime. Since the crime was so gruesome the community started having their own theories about what happened. Some believed it was the work of a satanic cult.
“In all honesty, she probably just dumped the arms somewhere else and they were never found, which indicates she could have done more to hide the body,” said Hansen.
Police searched Plaster’s home and determined the knife and garden shears found with her body parts came from her home. Her car was missing and her garage appeared to have been recently cleaned. Crime scene investigators sprayed the area with luminol.
“It showed that there was blood residue in the garage,” said Hansen.
Springfield Police soon located Plaster’s car in the parking of a hotel named Ramada Inn. According to police, a clerk came into work and saw the license plate. The clerk knew police were searching for a missing car and decided to call authorities. They soon confirm that it was indeed Plaster’s vehicle.
Detectives speak with Plaster’s family and friends and asked if Plaster had any close friends she thought they should talk to. That’s when they learned of Shirley Jo Phillips.
Evidence tying Shirley Jo Phillps to Plaster’s Murder
On October 10, Phillips’ friend Nora Martin contacted the police. She said Phillips visited her the day before. Upon her arrival, Phillips insisted they take their cars to get washed and diligently vacuumed and washed her car several times.
After Phillips left, Martin found several bags hidden under her porch. They contained cleaning materials, bank documents, checks belonging to Plaster and a .38 caliber revolver. The gun belonged to Phillips’ son, Buddy Minster. Detectives questioned him but found he had an alibi.
After checking Plaster’s mail, the police discovered a bank statement that contained a canceled check in the amount of $4,050 that was made to Phillips. Phillips denied having anything to do with Plaster’s murder and claimed the money was to pay for furniture. She said she had last seen Plaster leaving the hotel bar at Ramada Inn in Springfield where Plaster’s car was later found.
Another piece of evidence was the handwriting samples. From the handwriting samples, a calligrapher determined that the check for $4,050 was not signed by Wilma Plaster. However, the handwriting did match Phillips’.
“She made it very easy for investigators,” said Hansen. “She left all this evidence all together. It wasn’t like she left the gun one place and the checks were left at another place.”
Phillips was detained on suspicion of check forgery. When investigators searched her car, they found traces of blood in the trunk. On October 12, 1989, Shirley Jo Phillips was arrested and charged with murder in the first degree. Police now have enough evidence to piece together what they think happened the night of October 3, 1989.
October 3, 1989
According to police, it is believed Plaster found out about Phillips forging her checks. Plaster decided to confront Phillips.
Detectives said it is believed Phillips convinced Plaster to get into her silver car and drove back to Plaster’s house.
Neighbors told police they heard a loud noise, possibly a gunshot, at around 10:30 p.m. They also told police they saw a silver car drive into the garage. According to court documents, because of the amount of blood in the garage, detectives believe this is where Phillips dismembered Plaster with the garden shears and knife Phillips found inside the house.
After dismembering her friend’s body, she walked into the house and took a shower.
“She probably thought she was going to get away with it because she cleaned the garage, she took a shower, and then left,” said Hansen. “She cleaned the house well enough that to the naked eye you didn’t see signs of blood.”
Phillips then put the body parts into black bags and disposed of the body. Hansen said Phillips did this just to hide the theft of $4,050.
Shirley Jo Phillips’ mother
The story doesn’t end there. Three weeks after Phillps was arrested, the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation contacted detectives in Springfield about the disappearance of Phillips’ mother, Lela Kyle. She had gone missing the previous Spring.
Police in Oklahoma discovered nine pounds of human flesh at a roadside park on Mother’s Day in 1989. After hearing of Phillips’ arrest, her sister reported their mother missing. Authorities would later identify the body parts as belonging to Kyle.
Phillips was never charged for her mother’s murder, but she was found guilty of the murder of Plaster. Phillips was found guilty of first-degree murder in February 1992. That April she was sentenced to death, but in 1998, Phillips’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.