Weather Updates

Woman convicted of fatal stabbing but says she doesn’t recall crime

A jail house interview with Phyllis Carpenter  3026 S. CaliforniChicago Thursday December 27 2012.  | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

A jail house interview with Phyllis Carpenter at 3026 S. California in Chicago on Thursday, December 27, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

storyidforme: 43611884
tmspicid: 16151329
fileheaderid: 7047411
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: February 28, 2013 6:56AM

When Phyllis Hart Carpenter was 4 years old, her father’s close friend raped her on a cold, concrete pavement behind a South Side restaurant and grocery store, she would recall years later.

Blood trickling down her leg, the little girl came home clenching a shiny token her attacker gave her to silence her.

Carpenter’s mother, crying, pried open her daughter’s hand.

Carpenter was clutching a silver half dollar. Her mother and father figured her attacker had to be her father’s friend nicknamed “Rail,” a light-skinned man with bad teeth, who could be heard coming yards away from the jingle of change in his pockets.

Her father beat him mercilessly and banished him from their home.

Forty-nine years later, when Carpenter alleged she was on the verge of being raped again — this time by her next-door neighbor — she unleashed her own bloody justice.

Her neighbor, Benjamin Cole, 60, was found dead on his bed, with 59 stab wounds.

Except this time, Carpenter said in an interview from Cook County Jail, she doesn’t remember a thing.

‘I don’t feel remorse’

“They tell me I killed him, but I don’t believe that s--t,” the 59-year-old grandmother said in a recent jailhouse interview.

“I don’t feel remorse and all that. I don’t think about it. I don’t dream about it . . . It didn’t happen.”

Even Carpenter’s own attorneys concede their client committed the deed, plunging multiple knives into Cole’s 150-pound body.

But how Carpenter got into trouble warrants a more careful examination of her past, especially the trauma that caused her to act so violently, her public defenders, Julie Koehler and Sandra Parris, say.

Police and prosecutors, though, argue, what you see is what you get — a cold-blooded killer who stabbed a frail neighbor who refused her money to feed a drug habit. They argue there’s no evidence Cole tried to attack Carpenter.

On Monday, Carpenter, who has called Cook County Jail her home for more then six years, is expected to be sentenced for Cole’s murder and faces spending the rest of her life in prison.

What’s unusual about Carpenter is that unlike many criminal defendants, she had no criminal record before killing Cole in 2006.

More unusual was some jurors’ reaction when they found her guilty in November.

Some cried, wishing they would have had the option to find she acted in self-defense.

“It would have been much more appropriate,” said juror Rachel Castellanos, a 37-year-old business analyst from Buffalo Grove. “Nobody believed she went into there [Cole’s apartment] to cause harm.”

But Carpenter’s claim of amnesia robbed her of that crucial defense.

Cook County Judge Arthur Hill ruled that since Carpenter claimed not to remember what she did, she couldn’t remember why she did it.

Hill and prosecutors declined to comment on the case.

“Classic self-defense is, ‘I did it, I did it, and here is why.’ We don’t have that here,’ ” the judge said in court.

A spell coming on

Soon after she was raped as a child, Carpenter started experiencing short-term “black outs” that lingered into her adult years.

When she senses a spell coming, Carpenter, a former medical assistant, said she breaks out in a sweat, sometimes urinating on herself before she comes back to reality.

Something similar happened when her neighbor pushed Carpenter on his bed, and Carpenter found herself struggling to breathe.

Carpenter testified in her own defense at trial.

She told jurors: “I thought he was going to kill me.”

Her neighbor had been coming onto her for a while, even while her common-law husband was dying from lung cancer, she said.

“I want to taste you,” Cole taunted her in her ear, Carpenter recalled.

That’s when the memories of the attack cease, she says.

The next thing Carpenter recalls is standing in her apartment, hearing the driver from a car service she used laying on his horn.

Carpenter left for her scheduled doctor’s appointment where they treated her hands for cuts she said were from a fall.

An expert witness for Carpenter at trial said that when she killed Cole, she went into a dissociative state and jumped back to the time she was molested as child.

“She flipped to another time and place in her life that was very similar,” Dr. Henry Conroe, a psychiatrist, testified.

“[A] Light-skinned man was sexually assaulting her, she was fighting for her life, she was helpless. Just as she was helpless with Mr. Cole as she was helpless with Rail,” Conroe said.

And as her father beat Rail, Carpenter attacked her neighbor.

She took the “garbage” from Cole’s home, including an empty wallet, an empty purse and grocery bags filled with old newspapers and a half of a phone, to serve as a reminder, like the coin Rail pressed into her palm, her defense argued.

The jury acquitted Carpenter of armed robbery for stealing the items from her neighbor.

But they had trouble buying Carpenter was insane — or endured a dissociative episode, Castellanos said.

Dr. Michael Ziffra, an assistant professor in psychiatry at Northwestern University, who played no role in the case, said in an interview that rape victims do often slip into dissociative states, but when they do, they usually withdraw from others, rock back and forth and stop talking.

“It’s not impossible [that they could react violently], but not probable,” Ziffra said.

Cops and prosecutors argued that Carpenter had enough sense to know she was in trouble when saw the cops at her apartment at 6430 S. Stony Island.

She dropped a bloody napkin to the ground and glanced at the Chicago Police officers and growled, “Go f--- yourselves. I want an attorney,” a detective investigating the case said.

A confidant and good listener

Cole’s sister, Ercell Kirk, says her brother, who was also her roommate, was her “confidant” and a “good listener.”

She didn’t know much about Carpenter and Cole’s relationship but said Cole, who had suffered two strokes and had no criminal background, “never exerted himself.”

“My brother was a people person. He had a good ear,” Kirk, 70, said.

Kirk believes it was because of Cole’s generosity that Carpenter had come over at least twice before to borrow money.

Prosecutors suggest Carpenter had been addicted to her late husband’s morphine and Vicodin and may have killed Cole when he denied her cash.

Carpenter said she and Cole at the time of the murder had a cordial relationship. He hadn’t sexually harassed her recently, and they would share smokes.

The day of the murder, craving another cigarette, Carpenter said she asked Cole for one. He told her he kept his extra smokes in his room, so Carpenter said she went in while he was on the phone.

She didn’t see any cigarettes.

“The next thing I know I was flying on the bed,” Carpenter said.

Authorities see the attack playing out a different way, with Carpenter starting it, in the kitchen, where Cole’s blood was found splattered on the cabinets and floors.

Three knives from a wooden block were missing.

As Cole tried to escape, authorities said, he likely made his way to the bedroom where Carpenter finished him off before she went to his sister’s room and stole her belongings.

Carpenter tried to clean some of the blood that ended up in her apartment, police said.

Her defense argues that Carpenter had to be impaired — she left a trail of blood leading to her apartment.

And if she truly knew what she was doing, she wouldn’t have thrown the knives behind Dumpsters near Chicago Police headquarters, at 35th and Michigan.

Can’t remember or just remorseless?

Carpenter suffers from heart disease and high blood pressure, among myriad other health problems.

She says her stint in jail has been “pure f---ing hell” and material worthy of “Twilight Zone s--t.”

Carpenter loves her family but urges them to curb their jail visits.

It just depresses her more.

“I just want to be by myself and read,” she told the Sun-Times, sitting in the wheelchair she has been restricted to since breaking her foot.

Sometimes, Carpenter jokes about her failed suicide attempts and wonders if she is losing her mind.

“I would like to get a new trial but I’m scared to go through the same s--t again,” Carpenter said.

“Sometimes I just don’t know what’s real.”

“I think you’re supposed to feel something, but I don’t because in my world I didn’t do s--t,” she said.

That amnesia, some suggest, is just the remorselessness of a cold, calculating murderer.

Jurors should have no second doubts, said one detective who worked on the case. “I can imagine them looking at this old woman in a wheelchair thinking, ‘Poor lady,’ but they don’t know the real Phyllis Carpenter.

“She’s an evil monster.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.