Matthew Phelps pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Friday, admitting in court that he fatally stabbed his wife more than 100 times in their bedroom and told Raleigh police he had taken too much cold medicine.
Phelps, a 29-year-old Bible college graduate, called 911 in September 2017 and told dispatchers he woke from a dream to find himself covered in blood near his dead wife and a bloody knife in their bed. An autopsy later showed Lauren Ashley-Nicole Phelps had 123 wounds.
He explained on the 911 call that he had taken a heavy dose of Coricidin Cough & Cold because “it can make you feel good and sometimes I can’t sleep at night.”
While the cough syrup defense gained national attention, it held little water by Friday in court. Prosecutors said a blood test showed the presence of cough medicine chemicals in Matthew Phelps’ body, but not a toxic amount that would cause dizziness or hallucinations.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Phelps stood and faced his dead wife’s family, apologizing for a senseless act he thought himself incapable of committing.
“I feel like a monster,” he said. “One of the wretched. Part of the darkness we don’t speak of.”
More than 50 people, most from Hope Lutheran Church in Wake Forest, packed the court Friday morning to support Lauren Phelps. They wore buttons featuring her and T-shirts reading #LaurensLight. Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said he had never seen so many supporters.
For more than three hours, they stood and tearfully described how she was drawn to underdogs, especially children, teaching Sunday school and volunteering with church youth. Her nieces and nephews called her “Aunt Mimi,” and as family members recalled her kindness, they shuddered and dropped their heads into their hands.
“The thoughts of all her little body endured at Matthew’s hands are what my nightmares are made of,” her mother, Laurie Hugelmaier, said in court. “Heaven doesn’t have phones, computers or social media. Lauren will live on in my memory.”
Many friends and relatives guessed in court that Matthew Phelps attracted his wife’s attention by pretending to be vulnerable, triggering her Good Samaritan impulse. The family welcomed him at first, they said, but many noticed a darkness fall over his character and they encouraged him to seek therapy.
Phelps has suffered from severe depression and anxiety since childhood, said his attorney Joseph Cheshire V, who added that he shares this condition.
“I fight it every day,” Cheshire said. “It’s a demon that comes into your body.”
Phelps grew up without a father, and his mother, 17 when he was born, gave him to his grandparents to be raised, Cheshire said. The father of a girl Phelps wanted to date called him “illegitimate” and forbade it. In high school, Cheshire said, Phelps began abusing cold medicine and got kicked out.
Matthew and Lauren Phelps met in middle school in Kentucky, and he sent her an Instagram message after many years without seeing each other. She did not recognize him at first, but they began dating and married in November 2016.
“Lauren and the defendant had a tumultuous relationship,” Assistant District Attorney Kristen Fetter said.
Prosecutors said Lauren Phelps was thrifty and hoped to start a Hallmark store, an outgrowth of her work selling Scentsy candles and fragrances. Matthew Phelps, they said, did not work or contribute to household finances, spending thousands of dollars on iTunes cards and Xbox subscriptions, forcing his wife to work more than one job.
In April, court documents described marital problems between Phelps and his wife, who had been married less than a year. Friends told investigators the couple often argued, and a detective wrote that Lauren Phelps had taken “drastic steps” to curtail her husband’s spending and planned to end the marriage.
Also in April, search warrants said Phelps was obsessed with the movie “American Psycho,” which depicts the life of a serial killer. A detective wrote that he posted Instagram pictures of himself dressed as the main character and told a friend he wondered what it would be like to kill somebody.
He kept a separate, secret Instagram account under the name “Marty Radical,” and he told a neighbor that he often thought of taking the gun she wore with a concealed carry permit and shooting himself and others with it.
Phelps’ fascination with video games grew out of a need for acceptance, Cheshire said. “In that place,” he said, “people wanted him on their team.”
He grew his hair and beard long to look older in prison, Cheshire said.
‘He snapped that day’
Prosecutors said Phelps had been married previously and behaved violently toward his first wife, dragging her down a hallway by her hair — an act that led to their divorce.
Cheshire said accounts differ about the end of that marriage, and that Phelps’ first wife left him for another man she met on a mission trip. The idea of his second wife leaving him shook Phelps, who did not want to endure another failure.
“He snapped that day and what happened, happened,” Cheshire said.
As part of the plea, Matthew Phelps will serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
“He’s pleading to spend life in prison to avoid the possibility of death,” one of his attorneys, Elliot Abrams, told The News & Observer.
Cheshire praised the family for allowing the plea and life sentence, adding that he hopes his client will find redemption behind bars.
As he spoke, Phelps said he regretted taking Lauren from her family, friends and himself — “the least of these.”
“I will have to live the rest of my life with these hands as a constant reminder,” he said.
Family members said they struggled to overcome their hatred and live as Lauren would want. They appeared most anguished as they described the crime’s effect on their young children, one of whom said, “I will see Mimi again in heaven when the bad guy comes to kill me, right?”
Beth Agner, Lauren Phelps’ sister and that child’s mother, spoke directly to Phelps as he sat in his brown jail jumpsuit.
“Matt, prison a scary place,” Agner said. “But being separated from God is worse, and his judgment is harsher than anything this court can give.”