RALEIGH — Four days after calling a 911 dispatcher and saying he had taken too much cold medicine and awakened to find his wife dead, Matthew James Phelps made his first appearance in court Tuesday afternoon on charges of first-degree murder.
Phelps, a 29-year-old Bible college graduate and newlywed, has been in the Wake County jail since being charged Friday morning with fatally stabbing his wife. He called 911 and said he had just awakened from a dream to find Lauren Ashley-Nicole Hugelmaier Phelps, who he had been married to less than a year, bloody and stabbed. A knife was in the bedroom, Phelps told the dispatcher.
Before Phelps made his court appearance Tuesday, Wake County District Court Judge Keith Gregory anticipated the possibility of outbursts in the third-floor courtroom. He told spectators that if they felt they could not control their emotions to please step outside.
Outfitted in orange and white-striped jail garb, Phelps entered the courtroom, which was filled to near-capacity, with his head down. He listened quietly while Gregory told him he could face the death penalty or spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted of first-degree murder.
Phelps, a slight man, appeared dazed by the enormity of what was going on. His head remained bowed during the proceedings. Afterward, a sheriff’s bailiff gingerly led the handcuffed man out of the courtroom.
Raleigh lawyers Joseph Blunt Cheshire V and Elliot Sol Abrams will represent Phelps.
After the hearing, Cheshire said that even though the trial is in its early stages, the effects of the cold medicine — Coricidin Cough & Cold — that Phelps had taken before bed is “certainly an interesting subject of inquiry.
“He’s been through a helluva trauma,” Cheshire said. “He’s still recovering.”
Cheshire repeated that when asked by a reporter whether Phelps had any remorse for his wife’s death. “He’s going through a terrible trauma.”
Lauren Phelps’ family and friends were among the observers gathered in the courtroom for the brief hearing.
Cheshire said he was retained by Phelps’ family, who did not attend their son’s first court appearance.
“They’re a long way away,” he said about the accused man’s parents. “They are trying to do everything they can for their son and grandson.”
It was just after 1 a.m. Friday when Phelps called 911 and told the dispatcher that he had a dream, turned on the bedroom lights and found his wife dead on the floor, according to a copy of the 911 recording made public Friday by the Raleigh Police Department.
“There’s blood all over me, and there’s a bloody knife on the bed. I think I did it,” Phelps told the dispatcher.
“I took more medicine that I should have. I took Coricidin Cough and Cold because I know it can make you feel good and sometimes I can’t sleep at night.”
Phelps later told the dispatcher that the blood he had on him was dried.
“Oh my God,” Phelps said. “Oh God. She didn’t deserve this. Why?”
Less than 10 hours before her death, a bespectacled Lauren Phelps had posted a video on her Facebook page where she was smiling and touting a product she was selling for Scentsy, the candle company.
Matthew Phelps worked at Dunlap Lawn Service and graduated from Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in 2011 in Pineville, Ky., where he studied mission and evangelism, according to his Facebook page.
Phelps did not have a criminal record, state records show.
Cheshire said he intends to spend a lot of time with Phelps, who he described as a young man who has so far lived a very full life.
He called Lauren Phelps’ death and her husband’s arrest “a very tragic situation,” and he asked that the public withhold judgment about the case until more is known.
“There’s a whole lot more to this story that will be told in the future,” he said.
He added that he and his co-counsel are just at the beginning of understanding what happened.
Part of the challenge, he said, “is solving all the mysteries that surround this case.
“We’re asking everyone to be patient so we can all get to the bottom of this,” he said.