Baby Kate’s mom takes stand in murder case

LUDINGTON, Mich. (WOOD) — The testimony of two mothers was the highlight in the case put on against the man accused of killing Baby Kate: The mother of the missing baby and the mother of the alleged killer.

Sean Phillips is facing a murder charge in the case of his missing daughter, Katherine Phillips, who disappeared three years ago after he drove off with her following an argument with the 5-month-old’s mother.

Baby Kate and Sean Phillips.
(Baby Kate and Sean Phillips.)

Despite numerous searches and national publicity, Kate has never been found.

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case with the assistance of the Mason County Prosecutor’s Office.

A preliminary exam slated to last two days began Thursday. At its end, a district court judge will determine whether or not there is enough evidence to send Phillips to trial for murder.

The first witness on the stand was Ariel Courtland, Kate’s mom and Phillips’ longtime on-and-off girlfriend.

At times, Courtland was visibly emotional and crying while talking about the disappearance of her daughter.

“[The officer] said that she was gone,” Courtland said as tears streamed down her face. “I felt like I had to be sick and I pushed by [the officer] and threw up in the bushes.”

But at other times during her hours of testimony, Courtland raised doubt that Phillips would commit murder.

“They showed me the evidence that they have and I’ve always told them that Sean’s not a violent person,” Courtland said.

(Ariel Courtland testifies. April 3, 2014)
(Ariel Courtland testifies. April 3, 2014)

She said that “in my heart” that she couldn’t believe that Phillips would intentionally hurt his own daughter.

“What about in your head?” asked attorney Donna Pendergast, a prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Office.

“I can’t answer that,” Courtland responded.

Courtland testified about a letter presumably written by Phillips that she received after his conviction on the unlawful imprisonment charge connected to baby Kate’s disappearance in 2012.

The letter contains apparent admissions from Phillips that he killed the baby accidentally while pulling her car seat from his car.

24 Hour News 8 obtained the letter last year.

Inside Read the letter

In the letter, the writer says he didn’t realize Kate was in the car seat when he pulled it out, prompting the infant to fall out.

He then says he took the infant to a “peaceful place” and left her there. Investigators found the clothes she was reportedly wearing in Phillips’ pocket shortly after her disappearance.

“Did you ever expect that the defendant would leave your daughter somewhere peaceful, naked,” Pendergast said.

“That calls for speculation. … I don’t think that you know that [she was left somewhere naked] without seeing her body,” Courtland responded.

Courtland testified that she wrote a letter in response seeking more information about what happened to Kate.

“…Has he told you where Kate is?” Pendergast enquired.

“No,” Courtland said.

Sean’s mother Kim Phillips was also called to the stand to testify. She said she struggled to recall her testimony in previous hearings, prompting tense exchanges at times between her and Pendergast.

Kim Phillips testified that Sean denied being Kate’s father and said she’d believed him.

“She was claiming one thing and he claimed another,” she said, admitting that she never pressed Phillips about whether or not he’d had sex with Courtland and could possibly be Kate’s father. “I don’t recall asking him about his sexual history.”

In another awkward exchange between Pendergast and Kim Phillips, the attorney pressed her on whether or not Sean had told her about what happened to his daughter:

Pendergast: “Did you ask him where baby Katherine is?”
Kim: “Of course I have.”
Pendergast: “Has he ever told you?”
Kim: “No.”
Pendergast: “How many times have you asked him?”
Kim: “Once.”
Pendergast: “One time in three years you’ve asked him where baby Katherine is located?”
Kim: “He told me he would not go into all that because he does not want to put us at that, where you’re able to ask me and I have to say.”

Investigators and others who had contact with Sean Phillips and Courtland the day Kate disappeared also testified about the details of the day. Much of the testimony was similar to what was said during the unlawful imprisonment trial.

Court was scheduled to resume Friday morning at 9 a.m.

In order for the case to go to trial, prosecutors must prove to the judge that Sean Phillips probably killed Baby Kate. If that happens, they will likely then have to prove to a jury that he did it beyond a reasonable doubt.

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