Mother recalls last day Baby Kate was seen; talks about alleged confession letter from father

April 3, 2014
Ariel Courtland looks at the clothes Baby Kate was wearing the day she disappeared.

Ariel Courtland looks at the clothes Baby Kate was wearing the day she disappeared.

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Ariel Courtland, the mother of Katherine Phillips was the prosecution’s first witness this morning in the 79th District Court preliminary examination of murder suspect Sean Michael Phillips.

Sean Phillips

Sean Phillips

In October 2013, Sean Phillips, 24, was charged with June 2011 murder of his 4-month-old daughter also known as Baby Kate. Phillips is currently serving the second year of his 10 to 15 year prison sentence for unlawful imprisonment of the baby who was last seen on June 29, 2011.

The preliminary examination is a hearing to determine if the prosecution has enough proof to send the case to circuit court.

Courtland, 21, described the events that led up to June 29, 2011. She said that she and Sean were not really boyfriend-girlfriend but were in an exclusive relationship. When she was 15 she had given birth to their first child, Haley.

She said that after she found out she was pregnant with Katherine, in May 2010, Sean had encouraged her to get an abortion. He even gave her $60 to go out and have the procedure done. Instead she used the money to buy a Pack-N-Play for the soon-to-be-born baby girl. Later, Sean tried to talk Ariel into adopting out the baby.

Before Katherine was born, Sean, Ariel and Haley went to a Michigan Department of Human Services office in Grand Rapids to get information about adoption. Ariel filled out paperwork but threw it away when they left, she told the court.

After Katherine was born, Sean continued to encourage adoption, Ariel said. He also denied he was the father, to the point that the Mason County Prosecutor’s Office ordered him to take a paternity test.

Pete Judge Wadel

Pete Judge Wadel

On June 29, 2011, Ariel and Sean went to DHS office Ludington to get information on adoption. The couple argued that day. Eventually they ended back up at Ariel’s apartment on Tinkham Avenue, Sean lived with his parents in Victory Township.

They continued to argue but at one point, with the baby in her carseat, but not strapped in, Ariel went to get a stroller from the apartment building’s storage unit. When she returned, Sean and Baby Kate were gone.

Ariel testified that she and a friend of hers drove around to find Sean. They also called the police.

They drove to the DHS building to find him. He wasn’t there. They drove to the beach. He wasn’t there. Ariel tried calling Sean but he did not answer his phone. She called Sean’s mother. She told her to stop calling.

Ariel’s friend then dropped her off at the apartment. Ariel then got her bicycle and rode over to her mother’s house, a few blocks away on North Staffon Street. There, Ariel tried calling Sean a few more times and called 911 to tell them where she was.

The next time Ariel saw Sean was a few days later when he was in jail.

“I still loved him and was trying to figure out what was going on,” Ariel testified. “We were just trying to figure out answers of what was going on.”

Ariel said she has continued to correspond with Sean while he has been in prison. They talk on the phone once or twice a week. He typically calls to talk to Haley, Ariel said. “He calls to talk to her about school and what’s going on with her.”

Early in the prison sentence, Ariel wrote several letters to Sean. In one letter she tried to prompt him to confess to the murder of Katherine.

“I have to know what happened,” she wrote in a letter. “You had her last and I know that you killed her. The evidence does not support that you gave her to anyone. I know that it was an accident. I know you aren’t a cold blooded killer. You just did something stupid.”

Ariel then said that by him confessing it would not stop her from marrying him. “I love you,” she wrote.

Sean sent her a letter back. While the letter was not signed, Ariel identified the letter as being written by Sean based on the handwriting. The prosecutor did not ask Ariel to read the letter. She said she had planned on having it submitted later in the hearing and read by Mason County Sheriff Det. Sgt. Tom Posma. However, Judge Peter Wadel said that he believes the letter would speak for itself and did not have to be read in court.

One of the prosecution’s key pieces of evidence is an alleged confession letter from Sean. The letter was apparently written in response to the letter Ariel wrote.

Prosecutor Pendergast asked Ariel if, to this day, Sean has ever told her where Katherine is. Ariel responded, “No.”

More to come.

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