Manhunt widens in search for suspect in trooper shootings; journeys fascinated community

Saturday, September 2nd 2006, 1:12 pm
By: News On 6

CASSADAGA, N.Y. (AP) _ For months, authorities in western New York scoured hunting campsites, stopped traffic and questioned acquaintances in a search for an escaped inmate with the skills of a seasoned outdoorsman.

The manhunt intensified Friday after authorities said two participating troopers were ambushed by a sniper hiding in the woods. Seventy-five additional troopers were called up to help as the pair lingered in critical condition.

Police believe the gunman was Ralph ``Bucky'' Phillips, who escaped from jail in April and may be traveling between Pennsylvania and western New York, said State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett. Since his escape, Phillips has been suspected in the wounding of another state trooper, numerous burglaries and the theft of a gun shop.

``State police want nothing more than to bring Ralph Phillips into custody safely, and today,'' state police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons said Saturday.

``There's people out there who know where he is,'' Gibbons said. ``He's a desperate man, he knows he's wanted and his choices are running out. If someone in the community comes between him and his freedom, it is our feeling that he will become desperate and possibly hurt them.''

Police are not looking for a shootout, Bennett said.

``That's not the way we want this to end,'' he said. But he also warned Phillips that ``We have long memories. We don't forget. We are patient. ... Don't stop to look over your shoulder because we'll be there.''

The five-month manhunt has turned Phillips into somewhat of a local amusement here, sometimes frustrating police. A restaurant offered a ``Bucky Burger'' and some bars in the area sold T-shirts with sayings such as ``Got Bucky?''

Phillips, 44, broke out of the Erie County jail on April 2 by using a can opener to pry open a 2-by-2-foot opening in the kitchen ceiling and escaping through the roof, police have said. He was serving 90 days for a parole violation.

Since then, he has helped himself to food, clothes and guns from unattended homes and hunting cabins in western New York, and is believed to have stolen about 15 cars, police said.

He is also wanted in the June 10 shooting of Trooper Sean Brown, who survived after being shot in the abdomen as he approached a stolen car near Elmira.

But after the latest shootings, some Chautauqua County resident were growing less amused.

``In the beginning, it was 'Ha, ha.' Now it's scary, and I just wish it was over,'' said waitress Dawn McCarthy.

Troopers Joseph Longobardo, 32, and Donald Baker Jr., 38, were shot Thursday while staking out the isolated hilltop home of Phillips' former girlfriend, Kasey Crowe, who is among those accused of aiding the fugitive. So far, six people have been arrested on charges they helped give Phillips cover.

One trooper was hit in the back with a bullet that penetrated his bullet-resistant vest, Bennett said. The other was shot in the thigh and suffered massive blood loss from a severed artery.

The troopers never saw it coming, Bennett said, and did not return fire.

At a bail hearing for Crowe on Friday, a state police investigator testified that a search of her house after the shootings turned up night-vision binoculars and a two-way radio, along with pizza crusts and beer cans that will be tested for Phillips' DNA.

Investigator Gary Colon also testified that a 10-year-old boy said he saw Phillips at Crowe's home on Aug. 20. Phillips shot a deer with a handgun through a window, then went out and skinned it, according to the child.

Crowe was charged last week with hindering prosecution for allegedly helping Phillips, and prosecutors said she has continued to help him. A Chautauqua County judge jailed her Friday afternoon and increased her bail to $100,000 from $10,000.

Family and friends said Phillips, while a career thief who had spent nearly half his life in jail, had never before been violent and would not shoot a trooper. A reward for help leading to his arrest and conviction _ increased to $225,000 from $50,000 on Friday _ has gone uncollected.

Authorities say his disdain for police was well known. Sheriff's officials said he left a note for officials when he was released or transferred from the Chautauqua County jail several years ago, threatening ``to splatter pig meat all over Chautauqua County.''

The April jailbreak also wasn't Phillips' first, and friends said he was determined not to go back. A ``Wanted'' poster warned that Phillips had threatened ``suicide by cop.''