New York state trooper dies after being shot in leg during search for escaped convict

Monday, September 4th 2006, 6:05 am
By: News On 6

FREDONIA, N.Y. (AP) _ Troopers stood in salute as flags were lowered to half-staff. Hours earlier, one of their own had died, and state police said a fugitive hiding in western New York was to blame.

About 100 troopers bowed their heads in silence Sunday before one sang a slow, a cappella ``Amazing Grace.''

Then some went back to work, chasing Ralph ``Bucky'' Phillips in what has become a massive, five-month manhunt.

State police say Phillips is the prime suspect in the sniper-style shootings of two troopers during a stakeout Thursday night in Chautauqua County. Joseph Longobardo, who was shot in the leg, died Sunday. His colleague, Donald Baker Jr.'s condition was upgraded from critical to serious after a third surgery, state police said.

Before the evening ceremony, State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett sent Phillips a threatening message: ``You can run but you can't hide. Sooner or later, I don't care how good you are, we will find you.''

Longobardo, 32, and Baker, 38, were ambushed in the woods outside the home of Phillips' former girlfriend. Baker was shot in the back.

One trooper managed to return fire, but state police did not say whether the sniper, who fired from less than 100 yards away, was hit.

Longobardo's leg had been amputated, and he never regained consciousness after being shot. He died at a Buffalo hospital with his wife and parents at his side.

``He was your advocate. He was our trooper. Don't ever forget it, please,'' Bennett said.

Earlier in the day, troopers held a candlelight vigil for Longobardo and Baker and vowed to track down Phillips.

``We are not going to put up with it,'' police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons said. ``He's angered a family, and we're going to be out here until he is in custody.''

Hundreds of troopers _ 140 per shift _ were searching for Phillips.

State police were hoping a new $225,000 reward for help in his capture would inspire residents to come forward. Six local people have been arrested in recent days and charged with harboring Phillips, including his daughter and former girlfriend.

Phillips, 44, has been on the run since April, when he used a can opener to cut an opening in the kitchen ceiling of an Erie County jail and escaped through the roof.

Since then, he has been suspected in the June shooting of Trooper Sean Brown near Elmira in southern New York, and police said he has survived on the run by stealing about 15 vehicles and breaking into hunting camps and a gun shop.

Some in rural western New York had viewed the manhunt with amusement, but that changed after Thursday's shootings.

``There has been a marked difference in the cooperation that we are receiving,'' Bennett said.

Authorities say Phillips' disdain for police was well known. He once allegedly left officials a note threatening ``to splatter pig meat all over Chautauqua County.''

But state police said the threat now extended to the public.

``Clearly now, there can be no discussion about the fact that he is a dangerous person,'' Bennett said, ``and he's a risk to everybody, law enforcement and non-law enforcement alike.''

At the state police barracks in Fredonia, Trooper Mark O'Donnell said Longobardo's death did not change the way they viewed their mission to catch Phillips.

``You can't be more determined,'' O'Donnell said. ``We were determined from the day he shot Sean Brown.''