Saturday, July 15, 2006

Chautauqua County - NY Times - Bucky Phillips

Published in the New York Times, Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dragnet Yields Whimsy and Dread Upstate


CASSADAGA, N.Y. July 13 — Ralph Phillips was a 43-year-old car thief and a burglar with a record as long as his dark ponytail — and, it turned out, a little pluck, too, which everyone missed until the day he ended up in a jailhouse kitchen with a can opener and no one looking.

He was serving 90 days for a parole violation. After he escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility near Buffalo, prying a hole in the ceiling with that opener, people in Chautauqua County, in the southwest corner of the state, just shrugged. Until it was disclosed that Bucky, as he is known around here where he grew up, had only had four days left until his release, and then they laughed.

But something else unexpected has happened: No one can find Bucky Phillips.

He escaped more than 100 days ago, on April 2. On June 10, a state trooper was injured, shot by a round that the police say Mr. Phillips fired. The manhunt has intensified, with roadblocks and traffic stops becoming a way of life in the rural counties of western New York and the Southern Tier. On June 25, during such a traffic stop in Sheridan, a police officer shot and killed a 25-year-old man during a scuffle over the man’s all-terrain vehicle. And this week the state police doubled the reward for information leading to Mr. Phillips’s arrest, to $50,000.

All this time, the authorities and locals believe, Mr. Phillips has been hiding out in the woods. He turned 44 out there, somewhere, last month. With every passing day, and every new roadblock and automobile search, and with mounting anger in this community after the fatal shooting, his image among some has shifted from anonymous vagabond and goofy escapee to something of a minor folk hero.

As his legend has grown over hamburger lunches at Grandma’s Family Kitchen and squawking police scanners in people’s living rooms, T-shirts ask the question that no one in charge seems able to answer: “Where’s Bucky?”

Other T-shirts, sold online and in Indian reservation tobacco shops, take a stand that might seem remarkable in such a law-and-order community, where many do not bother locking their doors: “Run, Bucky, Run.”

“He’s in for the long haul,” said Doug Canfield, 72, a retired factory worker in Sinclairville. “If I picked him up on the road, I’d give him a free meal and clean clothes and tell him to get the hell out of here.”

The county is home to hunting camps, vineyards and the Chautauqua Institution, where President Bill Clinton prepared for his 1996 debate with Bob Dole. The village of Cassadaga does not have a police department, or even a police officer, and people routinely leave their keys in their trucks. Now, every few hundred yards, state troopers sit parked on dirt roads like families on a picnic. There are more squad cars than homes on some stretches.

“I just think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Mr. Canfield, who says he does not believe that Mr. Phillips is capable of having shot the trooper.

Mr. Phillips has even inspired a dish, the Bucky Burger, at Grandma’s, a popular diner here. The sandwich’s name is an acronym, standing for Burger Under Cheese with Ketchup and Yellow mustard. It is served only “to go.”

“It’s not that we support the guy,” said Lori Zandrowicz, the diner’s 44-year-old owner. “It’s just that there was so much tension around here, we wanted to do something to lighten the air.”

Others, especially the state troopers, are very serious about what is becoming an increasingly long and uncomfortable manhunt, with uniformed officers standing in the heat and humidity for hours at a time. On Wednesday, Sean M. Brown, the trooper hurt in the shooting, which happened during a traffic stop in Chemung County, nearly 200 miles east of Chautauqua, visited his colleagues to boost their morale.

“If he’s willing to shoot a state trooper, I’m convinced he’s willing to shoot anyone,” said Rebecca Gibbons, a state trooper, at a daily briefing on Thursday. She refused to say how many troopers were assigned to the manhunt or where the last sighting, on Wednesday, took place, out of concern that Mr. Phillips has access to news reports. “We would like this to end peacefully,” she added. “We’d like if he turned himself in peacefully and these people can all get back to their normal lives.”

A hairdresser here, Vickie Mangine, 55, said that while most of her customers complain about the police presence, they still want Mr. Phillips caught. “I don’t think he’s a hero,” Ms. Mangine said. “I think he’s a nasty guy.”

Friends and relatives have suggested in interviews with local news outlets that he escaped so as not to miss the birth of a grandchild, and that he did not know, or did not believe, that his release date was coming so soon.

The first sighting came several days after he escaped. A cabin owner told the police that he discovered Mr. Phillips on his property, and that they talked for an hour before Mr. Phillips asked for directions to Pennsylvania, left two pistols behind as payment for a motorcycle and sped away, the police have said.

Since then, Mr. Phillips has committed several burglaries, the troopers said, stealing guns and cars whose thefts he obscures by switching license plates. He once promised to “splatter pig meat all over Chautauqua County,” the authorities said, and some “Wanted” posters, which have sprung up for miles around, say he has threatened to commit “suicide by cop.”

The troopers, who say they have been close to catching him on several occasions, believe he travels at night.

Mr. Phillips is a Seneca Indian, and a dash of Native American mysticism has inspired some supporters.

“They say that some shamans can actually change shape,” said Joanne Wiles, 48, a former postal worker now on disability. “As crazy as it sounds, to me it’s the only reason he could keep getting out. He changes shapes. I don’t know how. He could become a bird, or a squirrel.”

Ms. Wiles and her husband track the manhunt on their home scanner. “If they catch him, he’ll be dead,” she said. “They’ll never bring him back alive.”

The local Roman Catholic parish priest, the Rev. Patrick Elis, has publicly pleaded with Mr. Phillips to turn himself in at the church so that no one will get hurt. “The poor guy,” Father Elis said on Thursday in his office. “If he’s out there, he’s tired, he’s hungry, he’s frightened. People have to start somewhere to prevent bloodshed and violence.”

Most of the troopers are not from the area, a fact that has not endeared them to some locals. They are booked at hotels in the area, walking their dogs around the parking lots after dark. Michele Jones, 46, who owns the Gobbler’s Knob diner in Sheridan, chuckled as she described troopers visiting her home and encountering her pet goose, which has a habit of pecking at cars as they come up the driveway. She said one trooper appeared alarmed and asked her, “Does it bite?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“They’re afraid of a goose, and they’re going to catch Bucky?” Ms. Jones said. “I didn’t mind they were here until there was one trooper I passed five times one day, and she stopped me every time, and she still didn’t recognize me,” she said. “If they want us to help them, they need to let us know more specifics about what’s going on, so we feel like part of it.”

Both the priest and some troopers have criticized the Bucky Burgers, criticism that the diner owner rejects.

“Now we’re these evil Bucky supporters,” Mrs. Zandrowicz said. “Get a life. The crime is serious. The burger isn’t.”

The workers at Grandma’s have discussed setting the record straight by creating a special called the Trooper Burger, but coming up with the ingredients is tricky.

“Onion,” Mrs. Zandrowicz said, for the first letter O. “But then what?”

David Staba contributed reporting for this article.

Link to this story.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Plainfield Today, Plainfield Stuff and Clippings have no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of these articles nor are Plainfield Today, Plainfield Stuff or Clippings endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

Blog Archive

About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.