Ocean Springs man pleads guilty to shooting Florida woman

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Philip York

Jackson County Sheriff’s Office

An Ocean Springs man admitted to killing a Florida woman found buried in the backyard of his home.

Phillip Allen York pleaded guilty on Monday to first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon.

Judge Robert Krebs later sentenced York to life in prison for the murder of Sarah Jane Willard and 10 years for the weapons charge.

“This was a heinous crime motivated by the defendant’s selfish sexual desires,” Jackson County District Attorney Angel Myers McIlrath said. “The defendant thought that no one would come for the victim. He was wrong.”

“Sarah’s life mattered and today we got justice for her and her family.”

Willard, 29, of Coral Springs, Florida, was found buried behind York’s home about two years ago.

Authorities previously said York and Willard met online and apparently got together at some point after they began communicating. Willard was last seen in South Florida in October 2019.

Her body was found buried in the backyard of York’s home on Sweetbriar Street in the community of St. Martin in February 2020.

An investigation has been launched in Mississippi after deputies received a call earlier that month from the FBI’s Street Safety Task Force regarding the Florida woman. Evidence led investigators to York’s home, where Willard’s body was discovered.

Autopsy results show Willard died of a single gunshot wound to the head, according to the state medical examiner.

York is a convicted felon, having previously been convicted of malicious wounding, a charge similar to aggravated assault in Mississippi. In this case, York badly severed a woman’s hand during a bar fight, according to a press release.

Assistant District Attorney Justin Lovorn said Monday, “I want to commend the hard work of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI in their collaborative investigation and pursuit of justice for Sarah.”

Editor Margaret Baker contributed to this report.