Sanders is charged with two first-degree murders

By Gary Henry
Posted 5/4/21

A 26-year-old woman made the first of what will be many appearances Tuesday, May 4, in a process that could eventually lead to a murder trial.

Stefanie L. Sanders, 26, Tuscola, was in custody of …

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Sanders is charged with two first-degree murders


A 26-year-old woman made the first of what will be many appearances Tuesday, May 4, in a process that could eventually lead to a murder trial.

Stefanie L. Sanders, 26, Tuscola, was in custody of the Edgar County Sheriff’s Department Tuesday afternoon for her first appearance before Judge Steven L. Garst in Edgar County Circuit Court. Garst read and explained the multiple charges filed against her in relation to a fatal housefire March 1 that resulted in the death of her then boyfriend Michael J. Phipps and their two-month-old daughter Nettie L. Phipps.

Sanders and two other children escaped the fire. They were living in Phipps’ home at 102 Water Street, Vermilion, and the fire destroyed the home in addition to taking the lives.

Garst presented Sanders with the charging documents listing six counts of alleged criminal activities.

She is charged with two Class X felonies of first-degree murder in that while committing a forcible felony of arson she caused the deaths of Phipps and the baby.

“Conviction of first-degree murder does not allow for probation,” Garst warned the defendant. “It has a mandatory sentence of between 20 and 60 years in the penitentiary.”

As Garst read the statements alleging her actions caused the deaths, Sanders sat sobbing at the defense table.

Counts 3 and 4 are Class 3 felonies of involuntary manslaughter stating that in starting the fire, Sanders unintentionally caused the deaths of Michael and Nettie Phipps.

Count 5 is a Class X felony of aggravated arson alleging that while starting the fire Sanders was aware another child was present in the home and at risk from her action.

“This charge, if convicted, does not allow probation,” said Garst. “It carries a mandatory sentence of between 6 and 30 years.”

Count 6 is a Class 1 felony residential arson alleging that while committing arson, Sanders damaged the residence of Michael Phipps.

The purpose of the hearing was to place the official charges in Sanders’ hands, explain the meaning and possible penalties and determine if she will hire private counsel or needs the services of a public defender.

Edgar County State’s Attorney Mark Isaf stipulated Sanders qualifies for a public defender, and Garst assigned William McGrath to the case. Sanders accepted the appointment while telling the court she still wants to pursue hiring an attorney.

The matter was continued to May 17 for a preliminary hearing, and Sanders was remanded to custody pending posting of the $250,000 bond set in the arrest warrant.

She was taken into custody Monday, May 3, in Charleston by agents from the Illinois State Police Division of Criminal Investigation Zone 5.

The ISP was called into the investigation shortly after the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Office started an investigation of the March 1 fatal fire.

In addition to the state police and fire marshal’s office, the Edgar County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Edgar County Coroner’s Office contributed to the investigation.

Following Sandesrs arrest Monday, county coroner Scott Barrett issued a final report indicating the manner of death for both Phipps and his young daughter was homicide. Barrett’s initial report a day after the fatal fire found the cause of death for was thermal exposure, carbon monoxide inhalation and smoke inhalation. The child’s cause of death was thermal exposure and carbon monoxide inhalation. It did not included the manner of death at that time

The causes of death were determined by autopsies.