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Upstate N.Y. hunters warned to avoid woods where fugitive may be hiding

Associated Press Writer

FREDONIA, N.Y.- A state police official said Monday that "the noose is tightening" in the manhunt for an escaped inmate accused of a deadly police ambush, and warned hunters to stay out of the woods where the fugitive may be hiding.

Hunters in rural and wooded Chautauqua County are "interfering" with the search and face danger from Ralph "Bucky" Phillips and authorities pursuing him, State Police Maj. Michael Manning said.

"They can certainly be mistaken for the wrong individual," Manning said.

Many officers are scouring the western New York woods for Phillips, the prime suspect in Thursday's ambush of troopers Donald Baker Jr., 38, and Joseph Longobardo, 32, who died Sunday. Baker remained in serious condition at a hospital Monday, police said.

Phillips, 44, wounded another trooper near Elmira in June and has eluded police since his April 2 escape from an Erie County jail.

SWAT teams from Buffalo, Rochester and Jamestown joined troopers in the search Monday, Manning said. Other reinforcements have come from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, nearby Erie County and police agencies in neighboring Pennsylvania.

Manning would not say how many law enforcement officers are involved in the manhunt, but said the search and recent arrests of Phillips' supporters have put pressure on the suspect.

"I think he's in hiding. I don't think he has any place to go now," Manning said. "The noose is tightening."

Manning added that there is "no reason to believe he has left the area."

Baker and Longobardo were in woods behind the isolated hilltop home of Phillips' former girlfriend when a gunman caught them by surprise and fired 11 high-powered rifle rounds, police said. Longobardo died three days after being hit by a bullet that severed a major artery in his leg. Baker was wounded by a bullet that pierced his bullet-resistant vest.

There is a $225,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Phillips, who has threatened "suicide by cop" and once promised to "to splatter pig meat all over Chautauqua County."

He has left a trail of burglaries and car thefts across central and western New York and neighboring Pennsylvania. He is suspected of stealing 41 weapons from a gun shop in late August, including rifles of the type that could have been used in Thursday's ambush.

Phillips' former girlfriend, their daughter and the daughter's boyfriend have been charged with helping him elude authorities.

The pastor of a Roman Catholic church near Phillips' hometown on Monday renewed his offer to help the fugitive surrender, but Manning said Phillips and his family and friends do not need an intermediary.

"All they have to do is call and say Ralph Phillips wants to turn himself in, he's at this present location." Manning said. "We will be happy to meet him and guarantee his safety."

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