Fathoming the N.Y. fugitive

What keeps Ralph Phillips on the run and returning again and again to Chautauqua County?
By Gene Warner
Buffalo News (New York)
Copyright 2006 The Buffalo News
All Rights Reserved

More than 25 years ago, as a teenager cutting his teeth on what would be a lifetime of crime, Ralph "Bucky" Phillips was taken to a correctional facility in upstate New York.

Young Phillips immediately escaped, and somehow managed to return to his hometown in Chautauqua County.

Phillips apparently found his lifetime niche at an early age. And while relatives say he is not boastful, they also add that he got a thrill out of beating the officers back to Chautauqua County.

"He's always found a natural high in outsmarting the police," said Shawn Horton of Fredonia, who has become a spokeswoman for Phillips' family. "Just because he's not as educated as they are, he's not ignorant."

Almost five months after Phillips escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility, questions still swirl around his continuing to elude the large State Police presence.

What makes Bucky run? And what keeps bringing him back to Chautauqua County?

There's little doubt that Phillips, sheltered and bankrolled by people he knows from his Chautauqua County roots, has the skills to be far away by now.

He could be living in a cabin in the wilds of Idaho or Montana.

But Phillips, like a human boomerang, keeps returning to Chautauqua County.

Since fleeing from the county jail in Alden in April, he has returned to Chautauqua County at least three times, from areas that include the eastern Southern Tier, Niagara County and Kentucky.

Clearly, he has a support team scattered around Chautauqua County, and he has a home-field advantage; he knows his home turf, the backwoods of the northern part of the county.

"Like [former fugitive] Eric Rudolph, this is his comfort zone," said Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist and University at Buffalo law professor. "He knows this area, the woods and the layout of the land, probably better than anyone. That wouldn't be so easy in Ohio, Kentucky or Tennessee. It's not as easy to do this when you don't have a network of people to help you."

But Phillips also remains in an area inundated with state troopers, who want to arrest the man accused of shooting and wounding Trooper Sean Brown in June. There's also a $50,000 reward on his head.

So why stick around?

"I think it's a power trip for him," said Donna Levin, a psychology professor at Hilbert College. "It's his 15 minutes of fame. He has a whole history of pathetic decision-making and consequences. Now he is newsworthy; he's on television. This is the one time in his life when words like 'outsmarting somebody' might be used.

"He could go live in the woods somewhere else, but that wouldn't feed his ego," Levin added. "This is very powerful."

Robert Delprino, a Buffalo State College psychology professor, had another explanation. "You would think people would run far away and establish a new identity," he said. "But people tend to cling to things they're familiar with, especially when they're in stressful situations."

Phillips' actions a week ago provide some clues about his methods and his mental state, experts say.

A state trooper spotted a man driving an uninspected motorcycle on Route 60 in the Town of Charlotte. So the trooper followed the man back to a nearby Route 60 house and remained outside, trying to confirm the identity of the man who had just parked the motorcycle.

The motorcycle operator, according to police, walked nonchalantly up the outdoor stairway into the upstairs flat.

As the trooper learned it was Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, he radioed for backup help. Phillips, believed armed with a 9 mm handgun, jumped out a window and back into the backwoods of northern Chautauqua County.

That night, Phillips had the perfect ingredients for a shootout with police, if "suicide by cop" was his goal. Instead, he fled.

Ewing, the UB professor, was struck by reports that Phillips walked so calmly up those stairs. "It's probably pretty telling about his mental state, about his smarts," Ewing said. "He's in his comfort zone. He knows that he's probably got a better chance escaping than if he goes on a wild chase on his motorcycle. It sounds like it was coldly calculated."

One of the most hotly debated questions about Phillips concerns how violent he is.

State Police have said repeatedly they are 100 percent sure he shot and wounded Brown in Chemung County on June 10.

Yet many northern Chautauqua County residents, even those who support the police and want Phillips caught, don't believe he represents a physical danger to civilians.

Those who know him insist he's basically not a violent man. Several relatives and friends have questioned the State Police's certainty about Phillips having shot the trooper.

"He has always been a passive person, unless he is feeling extremely [physically] threatened," Horton said. "He does not fight back. That is not his nature. If that's what happened, he must have felt physically threatened."

No violence occurred last week, while a lone state trooper waited for help outside the house. That's a far cry from what apparently happened near Elmira 2 1/2 months ago.

"He probably felt he was cornered there," Ewing said. "But in the most recent incident, he had a plan for how he was going to get out of there. He's also smart and cunning enough not to use [violence] when he doesn't have to."

Phillips has his own M.O. He steals all kinds of vehicles and breaks into unoccupied hunting camps. He steals food and drink, clothes and weapons, but only what he needs. Friends say he has his code of ethics, that he wouldn't hurt innocent people.

State Police cringe at such claims, asking how the shooting of a trooper can fit into anyone's code of ethics. "If people don't think he's dangerous, they're kidding themselves," State Police Major Michael T. Manning said.

No one knows how this will end. The snow will be flying in a few months. How does Phillips expect to survive in the woods then?

"If he's just living day by day, maybe he's not thinking about a year or six months from now," Delprino said. "It's a different mind-set."

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