Share this article

print logo


Robert F. Phillips will not miss the beeper.

Not one bit.

When his beeper sounded in the middle of the night, it often meant that explosives -- or possible explosives -- had been found somewhere in Western New York. And it meant that Phillips, usually accompanied by his partner, Martin Wolinski, had to put their lives on the line to defuse a dangerous situation.

Sometimes, it meant they would arrive at their destination to find that somebody already had been killed or horribly maimed by a bomb.

For Phillips, Friday was the last day of a rewarding but tension-filled 33-year career with the Sheriff's Department. For the last 20 years, he headed the department's Weapons and Ordnance Unit, the state's only fully equipped police bomb squad west of Rochester. He also commanded the Sheriff's strategic weapons and tactics team for many years.

About 120 times each year, members of the ordnance squad are sent out to different locations in Western New York to retrieve and dismantle explosive devices. Some are as simple as an M-80 firecracker, others as terrifying and complicated as a series of letter bombs that killed five people in 1993.

"I've really enjoyed the job, but I'm glad to be saying goodbye to that beeper," said Phillips, who retired as a technical sergeant. "I'm not going to miss those calls in the middle of the night."

A tall, rangy man with a commanding presence, Phillips is one retiree who -- quite literally -- is glad to be finishing his career in one piece.

"When I graduated from ordnance disposal school (in 1979), it was on a Friday, April 13, and I was student number 13," Phillips said. "Thirteen has turned out to be a lucky number. I still have all my fingers, toes and limbs.

"I don't think it's actually the right word to say I'm scared of explosives, but I respect them. I respect the damage they can do to people, because in this job, I've seen it. The day you stop respecting the power of explosives is
the day when they might get you."

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking night of his career came on Dec. 28, 1993, when a small-time con artist named Michael Stevens sent mail bombs to six locations in Cheektowaga, West Valley, Eden, Rochester, the St. Regis Indian Reservation and New Albion.

Four of the bombs exploded, killing five people. Phillips and Wolinski had to retrieve and dismantle two others.

Phillips never will forget working with Wolinski on one of those bombs in a frozen field in weather so cold they could not use their X-ray equipment or wear their bulletproof Kevlar "bomb suits."

"I tell you, that experience gave me a dry mouth," Phillips said. "It was 28 degrees below zero, and we were taking apart these devices, knowing they had already killed five people. And then, as it turned out, all this happened because of a family grievance. Stevens didn't like the way he was treated at a Thanksgiving dinner."

Stevens now is serving seven life terms in federal prison, and his accomplice, Earl Figley, is serving 20 years. Phillips and his unit played a major role in the investigation.

In another case, a bank robber left a bomb with 16 sticks of dynamite just outside a Clarence bank in June 1986. It was the first time Phillips and Wolinski used their $65,000 bomb robot -- nicknamed "Jaws" by the late Undersheriff William Payne -- to take away a bomb. The robot carried the device, which was in a briefcase, from the bank. Phillips and Wolinski then took it away in their armored bomb truck and dismantled it.

"The robber had been shot by an FBI agent, just as he was reaching into his pocket to press a garage door opener that would have blown up the bomb," Phillips said.

In February 1988, Phillips' squad helped investigate the explosion of a bomb in a locker at Iroquois High School. A linebacker on the school football team was injured by the device, built by another student upset about being bothered by "bullies" at the school.

More recently, on June 12, Phillips helped Hamburg Town Police investigate a series of explosions and fires that killed two people in a Southwestern Boulevard garage where fireworks were being stored. "When I was a kid, I loved watching the fireworks go up like everyone else," Phillips said. "But people have to realize, a lot of these fireworks are essentially small sticks of dynamite."

A Marilla native, Phillips joined the Sheriff's Department in 1966. He worked road patrol until 1970, when he was assigned to undercover work with the Narcotics Squad. He described his assignment as something out of the old "Mod Squad" television show.

"There I was, this guy from the country, and they had me dressed up like a hippy, in flair pants, with a beard and boots. I was assigned to infiltrate the rallies that students were having at UB," Phillips said. "It didn't work out too well."

Phillips became an explosives and weapons specialist in 1979. Now that he is retiring, no one will miss him more than Wolinski, his partner, who is taking command of the unit.

"Bob has a tremendous wealth of knowledge, but he also has this presence about him," Wolinski said. "I've seen him walk into the middle of a bar fight, or walk up to a scene where a bomb has gone off and all kinds of police and firefighters are working, and just take immediate control of the situation. If I was picking an actor to play him in a movie, I'd pick Clint Eastwood."

Phillips, 55, plans to work full time running a tree farm he owns in East Otto with his wife, Jane, to whom he has been married for 33 years.

Mrs. Phillips makes no secret of the pleasure she takes in from her husband's retirement. She has spent many uncomfortable days and sleepless nights while he was out on bomb calls.

"Absolutely, I'm glad he's retiring," she said. "I give him credit for all the knowledge he has about explosives, and I have great confidence. But still, when he goes out, you worry."

How did she get through the past two decades as the wife of the region's leading bomb expert?

"A lot of praying," she said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment