His father was a full-blooded Seneca
Fugitive Tells of Life on the Run
DANNEMORA, N.Y., April 3 — Seeing him sitting in a plastic chair behind prison plexiglass, it is hard for a visitor to imagine that Ralph J. Phillips, better known as Bucky, led hundreds of state police officers on a manhunt through the towns and backwoods of western New York for the better part of five months last year.
He has pleaded guilty to shooting three state troopers, one of them fatally, while he was on the run after breaking out of jail and has received a life sentence. Before the killing, Mr. Phillips had some supporters in the state’s Southern Tier who wore T-shirts bearing his name. Now, visitors to Clinton County Correctional Facility must know his state inmate number, 06-B-3437, to see him.
In his first interview since his capture on Sept. 8, Mr. Phillips, 44, spoke in detail of his time on the run, describing a host of extraordinarily lucky and reckless maneuvers that had allowed him to remain free. While expressing sorrow for the dead trooper, he also joked and smiled while recounting moments from his days and nights in hiding.
“I enjoyed those few months more than I’ve enjoyed any other time in my life,” he said.
Once, he led two troopers on a twisted route deep into the woods and watched, smoking a cigarette atop a hill, as a helicopter came to help find them.
Several times, he said, he disguised himself as a trooper with a uniform he had obtained from an acquaintance, once even chatting with another trooper who never recognized him.
He stole cars and let himself into unlocked homes and campers. He moved around mostly at night and spent long, solitary stretches in the woods, eating rabbits and fish and sleeping on the ground. He said he assaulted a bounty hunter who kept a picture of Mr. Phillips hanging from his rearview mirror.
And he provided new insights into the reasons for his initial escape, revealing that he had been convinced — wrongly — that he faced several years in prison, rather than a few days.
The interview took four hours; prison rules forbid taping or note-taking. Mr. Phillips, his long hair pulled back and wearing a thin beard going gray, turned serious when the subject moved to his family and the shootings, and he showed flashes of anger over his treatment in the prison. He raised his rangy frame once to show the way he was holding his high-powered rifle the night he killed the trooper.
Many of the details Mr. Phillips provided could not be confirmed, as he was the only one there, and he did not name his friends or relatives who may have helped him for fear of implicating them.
The Chautauqua County district attorney, David W. Foley, who prosecuted him for killing the trooper, said yesterday that he had never heard Mr. Phillips’s story about the trooper uniform, but that his descriptions of life in the woods, stealing and hiding among friends, were corroborated by statements from witnesses, physical evidence and Mr. Phillips’s own words while on the run.
A state police spokesman said the department would not discuss or substantiate any of Mr. Phillips’s claims. However, a critique by the troopers’ union of how the manhunt was handled described situations similar to those that Mr. Phillips recounted.
The events of last year began when Mr. Phillips escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility near Buffalo on April 2, a feat that became widely known later because he was said to have used only a can opener to cut through a ceiling, and he was due to be released in just four days.
In the interview, Mr. Phillips said the first detail was not quite true. To pierce the tin ceiling of a warehouse and the layer of rubber outside, he used a screwdriver as a chisel, and the top of an industrial-size can of food. He poked a stick through the hole with a small mirror attached, to look around. He fled, he said, because he was convinced that his parole for a drug conviction was soon to be revoked for good. “If I’m going to prison anyway,” he said, “I might as well enjoy myself.”
When he learned later he might have been released soon, he was surprised, and had he believed that then, he would have stayed, he said. “I’m not stupid,” he said.
Mr. Phillips ran to a wooded area, where he spent the next several days, he said. He was cold and hungry, at times eating grubs and crayfish, and sometimes food from garbage cans. Once, he stole hamburgers off an unattended patio grill. For warmth, he slept in piles of leaves and branches, under rotting logs. He started fires by rubbing sticks together.
“I did a lot of walking,” he said. “I had blisters under my blisters.”
Finally, he made contact with friends and family in Chautauqua County, where he had grown up in the small towns and on nearby Indian reservations. His father was a full-blooded Seneca, he said.
The manhunt did not begin in earnest until after Mr. Phillips shot and wounded Trooper Sean M. Brown during a June 10 traffic stop outside Elmira. Mr. Phillips has pleaded guilty to that shooting, but declined to discuss it in the interview, saying that he will appeal the conviction. Troopers from all over New York converged on Chautauqua County, led by Maj. Michael T. Manning, the commander of Troop A in western New York, who was known for speaking bluntly about the suspect.
A Cult Figure, for a Time
Mr. Phillips said he was cooking someone’s deer sausage in a vacant camper he had broken into when he first saw Major Manning on television and took offense at his remarks. (It was unclear from a review of Major Manning’s statements at several news conferences exactly what he might have said that so angered the fugitive.)
From then on, Mr. Phillips said, he set out to humiliate the major. “What people didn’t understand: it was all about embarrassing one man,” he said.
He described his “cat and mouse” tactics: he would purposely allow himself to be seen, and then flee as far as Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia in cars he picked up on the reservations. “Rez cars,” he called them. When he was in the Chautauqua area, he monitored trooper activity with a police scanner. He bought cellphones and threw them away after using them once.
He remembers seeing strangers walking on a road with shirts that bore the name “Bucky.” He learned that there were signs and shirts reading “Run, Bucky, Run” and “Where’s Bucky?” and that he had become something of a cult figure.
A restaurant called Grandma’s Kitchen started serving the Bucky Burger.
“Ridiculous,” Mr. Phillips said this week. He never ate one, he added, because there was “too much heat” in the area at that time, but he was in the restaurant at least once, reading a newspaper, when troopers came in for lunch. Others in the diner who knew him held their tongues, he said.
Once, when he was coming out of the woods, he blindly happened upon two troopers. “I came out and bam! they were there,” he said. “It was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”
He fled back into the trees and led the pair deep into the woods, pausing and pretending to be winded to let them keep up before abandoning them. The Police Benevolent Association would later recount the incident in a letter written about the manhunt: “Two troopers became lost in the woods and a state helicopter had to be used to find them.”
Mr. Phillips said he learned of a bounty hunter named Michael who had boasted that he would kill the fugitive and “drag” him out of the woods. Mr. Phillips donned his state trooper uniform and confronted the man in his car, punching him in the face. A picture of him hung from the mirror. “I said, ‘I’m Buck Phillips,’ ” he said, warning him to stay out of the woods.
Mr. Foley said Mr. Phillips has told this account to investigators, but that the bounty hunter never came forward.
Mr. Phillips said his most outlandish exploit — his lengthy conversation with a trooper, while wearing a uniform — occurred in Fredonia. He said he approached the trooper and asked, “You seen anything?” and “So, what’s the story with this character?” and they chatted for an hour.
Mr. Foley said he knows of no trooper describing such a conversation. Daniel De Federicis, the president of the troopers’ union, said he did not believe the account, since Mr. Phillips was unshaven and had longer hair than a trooper’s when he was caught. Mr. Phillips’s former defense lawyer, Richard Rich Jr., said he never heard the stories about the uniform.
A ‘Reflex’ Killing
In early August, the police said a cap and an arm patch from the State Department of Correctional Services were found in a car that Mr. Phillips had stolen.
On Aug. 31, Mr. Phillips shot two troopers, Joseph A. Longobardo and Donald Baker Jr., in the brush where they were posted to watch the home of his former companion in Stockton. Trooper Longobardo died three days later. Mr. Phillips pleaded guilty but later moved unsuccessfully to withdraw the pleas. He has filed motions that he plans to appeal.
In the interview on Tuesday, Mr. Phillips repeated what he told the police after his arrest, that he believed the two men were bounty hunters — they wore camouflage uniforms — and that they fired on him first. He defended his actions that night, but said he felt sorry for the loss of the trooper’s life. “Someone didn’t have to die,” he said. “It didn’t have to go there.”
Mr. Phillips said that when he came upon the troopers, he saw them at the same time that they saw him. He said he pointed his rifle at them from his hip and began to approach, planning to make them strip, tie them up with duct tape and call the authorities, to embarrass them. But the men opened fire, he said.
“It was a simple reflex,” he said. “I shot back.” He said he kept firing until the men stopped shooting, and he ran. It was not until the next day that a friend told him they were troopers, and he said the news shook him.
The police said that Mr. Phillips approached from the side, and that Trooper Longobardo saw him and told his partner to get down. Trooper Baker then heard a shot and felt a bullet pierce the front of his bulletproof vest and enter his abdomen, suggesting Mr. Phillips fired first. The round went all the way through him and exited his back, and that is why the police first thought he had been shot from behind, Mr. Foley said. That belief lingers: in court, a wounded trooper’s father called Mr. Phillips a “back-shooting dog.”
Judging by the rifle’s shell casings, Mr. Phillips fired 11 shots, about half of them while running away, Mr. Foley said. He struck Trooper Longobardo in the leg, his bullet lodging there. The wound was ultimately fatal. Trooper Longobardo fired nine times. Trooper Baker never fired. Mr. Foley said Mr. Phillips’s premeditation is clear in a letter he wrote before the shooting that said he needed better weapons because, “Can’t be havin these folks walkin away after I put it to ’em.”
In the interview, Mr. Phillips described numerous smaller dramas.
He said he stayed with friends at a dilapidated apartment above an old garage south of Cassadaga. He ran out of cigarettes and drove his motorcycle to a store, where a little boy spotted him, squeezed his father’s hand and said, ‘ Daddy, that’s the man from TV!’ ” Mr. Phillips said.
A police car followed him back to the house, where Mr. Phillips ran upstairs and asked his friend to trade clothes with him and greet the officer. The friend refused, and Mr. Phillips ran out the back door. This incident was also a source of criticism by the police union.
The day Mr. Phillips was caught, he had crossed a river in Pennsylvania, near the state line, and changed into dry pants, and was walking down a driveway when he happened upon a trooper.
Mr. Phillips ran and was climbing a bank on the opposite side of the creek when the officer began firing, and one round struck the dirt between his outstretched fingers, he said. He escaped and spent the day running hard through the woods, hiding from troopers, dogs and the airplanes.
Mr. Phillips’s plan was to wait for nightfall, then creep away.
“Then I got a call on my cellphone,” he said. It was his daughter, and while he would not say what she told him, it convinced him to surrender. He rose from the brush with his hands in the air, and troopers placed him in a police car for the drive to Buffalo.
Cheers for the Police
The roads were lined with people cheering the troopers. Some hurled jeers at Mr. Phillips.
“Some people have no life,” he said. “They want to say they were a part of some big thing.”
Last month, Major Manning retired from the state police. The police union had sharply criticized his leadership during the manhunt and cited reports of his “ranting and raving, bullying and intimidating.”
At his home in western New York Thursday, Mr. Manning shrugged off Mr. Phillips’s statements. “I’m not going to get into a debate with Ralph Phillips. How do you get into a debate with a career criminal who is the murderer of a police officer?” he said. “I was proud of my career and all the success we had. My retirement had nothing to do with the Phillips detail.”
As for Mr. Phillips, he spends 23 hours a day in a cell and one hour in a cage for exercise. When the shouts of other inmates on the solitary confinement wing become too loud, he packs wet hunks of toilet paper into his ears. An officer watches him at all times.
He said he will not try to escape, and, thinking of his court appeal, said, “I won’t have to.”
David Staba contributed reporting.