Home ┬╗ Brutal Cases ┬╗ Maddie Clifton, the girl inside the waterbed

Maddie Clifton, the girl inside the waterbed

Maddie Clifton disappeared while playing in the backyard. After seven days, her body was found inside her neighbor's waterbed.

Maddie Clifton was born on June 17, 1990, and lived with her family in Jacksonville, Florida. At the time of the case, she was eight years old, attended piano and ballet classes, and loved playing with other neighborhood children.

On November 3, 1998, the US elections were taking place. Maddie and her older sister, Jessica, stayed at home waiting for their parents. As they arrived around 4:00 PM, they allowed the girl to play with other children until dinner time.

Maddie and her friends were playing with golf balls until they realized there were no more balls available. The girl mentioned that she had some stored in her room and could fetch them.

She walked about 20 meters down the street towards her house. When Maddie entered, Jessica was having piano lessons and asked her sister to return to the street so as not to disturb her studies. This was the last time Maddie was seen alive.

Maddie doesn’t show up for dinner

Around 5:00 PM, Maddie’s mother asks Jessica to call the girl for dinner. Jessica rides her bike on the street where they lived and when she encounters Maddie’s friends, they inform her that Maddie had returned home quite some time ago.

Jessica decides to take a few more rounds around the block, calls Maddie’s name, and passes by the houses of other children who could possibly be playing with her sister. Once Jessica gets home, she informs her parents that she couldn’t find Maddie, and they called the police.

Searches in the region

The first seven days of searching for Maddie Clifton were intense. The community got involved, and the police had the assistance of sniffer dogs and neighbors who acted as patrol members, covering nearby areas. Statements were taken from all the residents of the area, and none pointed in any direction.

Steve and Sheila Clifton desperate during the search for Maddie. / Photo: Reproduction.

The FBI got involved in the search, and some suspects were ruled out, such as a sexual predator living in the region and also a middle-aged man who used to watch children play. Both had solid alibis.

Discovery of the body

Across the street from Maddie’s house lived the Phillips family. Steve and Melissa Phillips had three children, but only one of them still lived with the couple. Joshua Phillips was fourteen years old and had a strict upbringing at home.

On November 10, 1998, a week after Maddie’s disappearance, Melissa Phillips was home alone. Steve was at work, and Joshua was at school. She then decided to clean Joshua’s room due to the strong smell coming from the bird cages he kept.

Melissa does a thorough cleaning, changes the lining of the bird cages, but still continues to smell a strange odor. Joshua slept on a waterbed, and his mother noticed there was a leak.

Joshua Phillips. / Photo: Reproduction.

Promptly, Melissa went in search of the mold she believed to be on the waterbed, which would explain the odor she was smelling. As she removed the sheets, the mother noticed that Joshua had already tried to stop the leak using duct tape, specifically silver tape.

However, a sock was stuck in the midst of the tape. Melissa tried to pull it and felt resistance, so she decided to remove the bundle of tape and discovered the body of Maddie Clifton.

Melissa Phillips was in shock for a few minutes. Shortly after recovering, she called her husband, but her calls went to voicemail. She decided she couldn’t wait for the family to return and went to the Clifton’s house to tell the police everything.

The authorities requested reinforcements and immediately went to Joshua Phillips’ room.

Without any remorse

Maddie’s body was found partially dressed, wearing only a t-shirt and socks. Signs of violence indicated that she had been brutally beaten with a baseball bat and then stabbed.

A search of the room revealed a blood-stained shoe stored in the closet, as well as blood spatters on the ceiling. The knife used in the crime was behind Joshua’s television, and right in front of his bed was a poster with Maddie’s picture, the same one used in the search efforts.

Cleaning products, air fresheners, and incense were found in the room. Joshua had likely noticed the bad smell and was attempting to hide it from his parents.

After a quick search of the house, the police headed to Joshua’s school and arrested the boy. Fellow students and teachers were surprised, as Joshua didn’t appear to be violent and had good relationships within the community.

Joshua Phillips’ Version

Joshua Phillips was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1984. His father, Steve Phillips, worked in computing, was an alcoholic, and engaged in domestic violence against his wife and son.

In addition, Steve had strict rules. He could easily become enraged if Joshua brought any child to play at their home, especially girls. Melissa could never explain the reason for her husband’s aversion to young girls.

Joshua had no prior arrests or history of violence before the murder. His teacher said he was a popular student with average performance, describing him as fun and silly.

According to Joshua, on November 3, 1998, he was home alone when Maddie Clifton, who lived across the street, came to his house inviting him to play baseball in the backyard.

Maddie Clifton. / Photo: Reproduction.

Phillips agreed, even though he wasn’t allowed to have friends over while his parents were not home. While they were playing baseball, Phillips accidentally hit the ball into Maddie’s eye, causing her to bleed, cry, and scream.

The boy panicked, knowing that his father would be home soon and fearing his reaction. Joshua Phillips dragged Maddie into his house, and it was at this moment that her clothes came off.

He struck her with the baseball bat and strangled her to prevent her from screaming before placing her inside the bed for the first time. When Steve returned home, Joshua interacted with him for a period of time and then went back to his room.

Before nightfall, Joshua took Maddie out of the waterbed again, slit her throat, and returned the body to the same spot, using silver tape to cover the hole.


The prosecutors contested some parts of Phillips’ story. The state prosecutor suggested that the murder might have been sexually motivated, but the autopsy revealed no evidence of sexual violence on the body.

Nevertheless, Joshua’s computer history indicated that he had watched violent pornography before killing Maddie and returned to watch more after placing her body inside the waterbed.

Joshua Phillips was tried as an adult. The defense attorney maintained the version that Maddie Clifton’s death was “an act that began as an accident and deteriorated into panicked madness.”

Joshua Phillips during trial. / Photo: Reproduction.

The jurors took just over two hours to convict Joshua Phillips of first-degree murder. Later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He was not eligible for the death penalty due to being under 16 years old.

Joshua Phillips completed his education in prison, although he was initially told he was too young to do so, and later took correspondence college courses.

Phillips works as a legal assistant in prison, helping other inmates with their appeals, and also serves as a tutor for prisoners. He also plays the guitar in a band and participates in Christian religious services.

Inconsistencies in the Case

Joshua stated in his testimony that Maddie’s clothes fell off her body as he dragged her through the yard, but there were no signs of grass, soil, or any organic material on the victim’s body.

One of the theories about the case is based on the fact that Joshua was watching violent pornography and felt stimulated when he saw Maddie walking on the sidewalk. He then lured her to his house.

Joshua’s browsing history proved that he routinely watched child pornography.

During the police search of Joshua’s room, officers found a photo of Jessica Clifton, Maddie’s sister. A few years earlier, Maddie’s residence had been burglarized, and the family realized that a picture of Jessica had gone missing. This seemed strange to them, as it wasn’t a valuable item.

Jessica Clifton today, Maddie’s older sister. / Photo: Reproduction.

Joshua admitted to being responsible for the break-in. Jessica believes that he had been observing them and nurturing some form of obsession for a long time, choosing to harm Maddie, who being younger could become an easier target.

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