Ralph "Bucky" Phillips has threatened to withdraw his guilty pleas in the shootings of three state troopers because he believes he will be prevented from having contact visits with family members when he is in prison.
In recent days, Phillips has sent letters to State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. and Chautauqua County District Attorney David W. Foley, expressing his intentions to withdraw his guilty pleas.
According to a friend who has spoken to Phillips, the admitted cop killer feels he was misled into thinking that if he pleaded guilty he would be allowed to have contact visits with his loved ones in prison.
The latest surprising turn in the Phillips case was confirmed on Friday by law enforcement officials and by Wendy Gambles of Amherst, a friend and supporter of Phillips.
Phillips' chances of withdrawing his guilty pleas are small, according to court officials. Any such withdrawal would have to be approved by a judge.
"Generally, a plea deal is vacated because a defendant has misunderstood what crime he pleaded to, or how much prison time he's going to get," said John J. DeFranks, Erie County's first deputy district attorney. "In 33 years as a prosecutor, I've never seen any case where a person was allowed to withdraw a guilty plea based on his expected treatment in prison."
Foley added, "As a prosecutor, I have no control over how the state Corrections Department is going to treat any prisoner. It's not an issue we ever deal with in negotiating a plea."
Phillips, 44, is being held in the Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, awaiting sentencing later this month for murdering one state trooper and attempting to kill two others. Last week, he took plea deals in connection with all three shootings.
According to Gambles, an official from the state Corrections Department recently called the Mayville jail, asking a jail official for the identity of Phillips' attorney.
"In the conversation, the [state] official said they are building a special cell for him, and that he would be locked up in it 23 hours a day and shackled when outside the cell. He would have no contact visits ever with his family," Gambles said.
Phillips was upset when he heard this, Gambles said, and Phillips now believes he was misled into taking a series of plea deals that are expected to put him in state prison for life.
"Imagine you say 'I'll give you the rest of my life' and then they trick you," said Gambles, who recently discussed the situation with Phillips.
Gambles said Phillips told her that authorities agreed to place him in a prison near his family in Chautauqua County so that they could have convenient contact visitation with him.
A spokeswoman for the state Corrections Department declined to discuss any arrangements that are being made for handling Phillips once he is in their custody. He will be sentenced by Kloch on Dec. 19.
Foley declined to confirm or deny that Phillips sent him a letter threatening to withdraw his pleas. "At this point, I've received no official request from his attorney," Foley said.
Phillips' court-appointed attorney, Richard W. Rich Jr. of Elmira, did not return calls seeking his comment.
In addition to the murder and attempted murder charges, Phillips pleaded guilty last week to a prison escape charge in Erie County.
Law enforcement officials view Phillips as an extremely high security risk. He went on a crime spree after escaping last April from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
The escape triggered the biggest police manhunt in state history. The search lasted five months, during which State Trooper Joseph A. Longobardo was shot to death and his partner, Trooper Donald H. Baker Jr. was wounded by Phillips. A third trooper, Sean Brown, also was shot by Phillips in Chemung County.
"Just because you think he might escape, you can't . . . arbitrarily restrict him," said Gambles, a paralegal. "What would be the point of pleading guilty if he could never see his family again?"
Gambles said it is her understanding the cell is being built at a maximum security prison.
"If they're building a special cell for him in a maximum security prison, what does that say about maximum security?" she said.
State officials have not yet revealed in what prison Phillips will serve his time.
Chemung County District Attorney John R. Trice has said he believes Phillips will try to escape again one day.
But Gambles argued that Phillips has told her he realizes " 'a man's life has been taken' and he's going to pay with the rest of his own life. He is bearing the weight that Trooper Longobardo's son will never know his father."
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