A high-profile murder case involving a one-time Bible college student and prospective minister who claimed he killed his wife after taking too much cold medicine came to a close Oct. 5 with a guilty plea.
Matthew Phelps, 29, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the September 2017 death of 29-year-old Lauren Hugelmaier Phelps, his wife of less than a year.
Matthew Phelps, who once studied missions and evangelism at Kentucky Baptist Convention-affiliated Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole in a plea bargain sparing him from the death penalty.
The case made national headlines when police released a 911 audio recording of Phelps saying he thought he killed his wife but could not remember because he had taken too much cold medicine. Lab results found drugs used in over-the-counter products in his system, but experts said the levels were too low to cause hallucinations or a blackout.
An autopsy counted 123 sharp-force injuries to Lauren Phelps’ body, the majority to the head, neck and torso. Forty one were stab wounds. Wake County Assistant District Attorney Kristen Fetter said the victim had clumps of hair clutched in her hand and defensive injuries indicating “an exhausting struggle for life.”
After Phelps entered his guilty plea, friends and family members testified nearly three hours about the impact of Lauren’s murder.
“First and foremost she was a Christian,” said her mother, Laurie Hugelmaier. “She grew up in a loving church family, and it was her second home. As she grew she had a passion for kids and helping them to grow and know the Lord.”
“She spent so much of her time teaching Sunday school, volunteering in youth group, helping run VBS,” the grieving mother said. “She knew that she was a child of God. I was so grateful for the grace that God gave her. Her love for the Lord is apparent in her actions and kindness.”
Witnesses described the Hugelmaiers as a close knit family active in Hope Lutheran Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina. “I miss Lauren siting by my side at church,” said her father, Dale Hugelmaier. “It is hard for me to go to church and not see her there.”
Supporters wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with #Lauren’sLight. Some wore buttons with her photo attached to purple ribbons to signify awareness about domestic violence.
“Matt, I cannot be the instrument that God uses to show you his grace and bring you to him, but know this,” said Beth Agner, Lauren’s older sister. “Prison is a very scary place, but being separated from God is worse and his judgment is harsher than anything this court can give. I believe Jesus died for all and I believe his grace is sufficient for all. My prayer is that God’s will be done.”
Defense attorney Joe Cheshire said his client suffered from untreated depression, anxiety and low self-esteem his entire life. Born to a 17-year-old unwed mother, he was raised by “deeply conservative Christian” grandparents who were farmers and unable to give him the attention he needed.
In high school he was introduced to Goth music, Satanism and eventually kicked out when he got caught abusing cold medicine. He transferred to a Christian school, where he turned around to become one of the best students and “a wonderful preacher.”
“As crazy as this may sound, he was a real Christian,” Cheshire said.
Phelps continued to preach and do well in college and “met what he thought was the love of his life.”
“Now there is some dispute as to how that marriage broke up or why, but we do know that she went on a mission trip alone after three years of their marriage and came back and told him that she fell in love with another man on her mission trip, and shortly thereafter left Matt and married this man,” the lawyer said.
After moving to North Carolina, Cheshire said, Phelps worked at various jobs where he met people “who took him to a bad place” that caused him to squander the family’s savings into video gaming. He was obsessed with American Psycho, a 2000 movie starring Christian Bale about an investment banker with a double life as a psychopathic killer, and reportedly told others he wondered what it would feel like to kill someone.
When his double life was discovered and his second wife was about to leave him, Cheshire said, Phelps “snapped, and what happened happened.”
At the end of the hearing, Phelps apologized for what he called “a senseless, mindless act.”
“I feel like a monster, one of the wretched, a part of the darkness we don’t speak of,” he said. “That darkness consumed me until I was blind to the path I had taken and deaf to my own cries for help. That darkness caused me to do the unimaginable, to take a life that was not mine to take.”
“No length of time will ease my inner sorrow or relieve me of the memory of such a godless act as my hands — which I thought incapable of doing — have committed, and I will have to live with the rest of my life with these hands as a constant reminder,” Phelps said.
“I hope my life will be an example of the consequences of those who think that drinking, drugs and carelessness will only affect themselves and no one else,” he said. “Be not deceived. God is not mocked, for whatosoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.”