— A Raleigh man pleaded guilty Friday to stabbing his wife to death a year ago in a case that gained notoriety for the “cough medicine defense” he initially used to explain the crime.
Matthew James Phelps, 29, was sentenced to life in prison without parole following his plea to first-degree murder in the Sept. 1, 2017, death of Lauren Hugelmaier Phelps, 29, in their Patuxent Drive home.
Lauren Phelps‘ family, friends and church members packed the courtroom, many wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with #Lauren‘sLight and purple ribbons representing domestic violence attached to buttons with her photo. About a dozen people spoke during the four-hour sentencing hearing, describing her as loving and independent.
“Lauren was beautiful inside and out,” said her mother, Laurie Hugelmaier. “The actions of Matthew James Phelps have forever changed me.”
“He was playing a game, a very deadly game. He was luring us in, taking advantage of our kindness and generosity,” said her sister, Beth Agner.
“How could he do this to us when we treated him like a son?” said her father, Dale Hugelmaier.
When Phelps had asked Dale Hugelmaier if he could marry his daughter, the father recalled Friday, he made Phelps promise he would protect her.
“It does give me satisfaction knowing that your life is going to be hard, every day a living hell,” Dale Hugelmaier told Phelps during the hearing.
In his 911 call to report the stabbing, Matthew Phelps told the dispatcher that he had taken a large dose of Coricidin cough medicine the previous night to help him sleep, but he awoke to find his wife dead.
“I had a dream, and then I turn on the lights, and she‘s dead on the floor,” he told the 911 dispatcher. “I have blood all over me, and there‘s a bloody knife on the bed, and I think I did it.”
An autopsy determined she had been stabbed or cut with a kitchen knife 123 times.
Wake County Assistant District Attorney Kristen Fetter suggested that money was at the root of the couple‘s problems, saying Matthew Phelps was unable to control his spending. The couple‘s checking account was drained, Fetter said, and investigators said they found $1,200 worth of iTunes and XBox subscriptions – money used to fund Phelps‘ video game play.
Lauren Phelps‘ family and friends wept as details of the crime were laid out in court, including prosecutors displaying the bloody knife and describing how she was repeatedly stabbed in her head, neck and torso during a protracted struggle for life. More tears followed during the series of victim statements read to Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway.
“I feel like a monster,” Matthew Phelps said in a brief statement to his in-laws, in which he apologized for killing Lauren Phelps. “This was a senseless, mindless act, and I regret every step that led me in that direction.”
Wearing a tan jumpsuit, he now sports long, stringy hair and a shaggy beard, a far cry from his clean-cut appearance when he was first arrested.
The guilty plea was part of a deal in which prosecutors promised not to seek the death penalty.
Defense attorney Joe Cheshire said Matthew Phelps has suffered from depression for years, growing up in a household where he was shown slasher movies at age 4 later taught by high school friends how to abuse drugs, including drinking cold medicine. But Cheshire said that history doesn‘t excuse his actions.
The Phelpses had been married for less than a year when she was killed. She was an auditor at Quintiles, which runs drug trials for pharmaceutical companies, and he worked for Dunlap Lawn Service.