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Judge tells Phillips he's 'irrelevant' Ex-fugitive who shot three state troopers is sentenced to life without parole

Ralph "Bucky" Phillips ran into a hard-nosed judge Tuesday who told him the world will quickly forget him as he spends the rest of his life in prison, but will long remember the state trooper he killed.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. scoffed at Phillips' claim that he never meant to seriously harm Troopers Joseph A. Longobardo or Donald H. Baker Jr. when he shot them. Longobardo died, and Baker was critically wounded in the Aug. 31 attack.

"The truth is, Trooper Longobardo is loved," Kloch told Phillips. "Maybe someday there will be a law named after him that provides for the death penalty for people who kill police officers.

"But you'll be forgotten in a few weeks. You're about to become irrelevant."

Phillips, 44, was sentenced in a tense courtroom packed with family members of the victims and dozens of gray-uniformed troopers.

Longobardo's widow, Teri, and Baker's wife, Tracy, sat in the second row but did not address the court.

It was the first of three sentencings for Phillips, who told the judge he was sorry for the shootings.

Later, though, Phillips upset many court spectators when he remarked, "I'll be back" as he left the courtroom.

State Police Superintendent Wayne E. Bennett said he was certain the remark was intended to taunt him and two State Police majors who sat beside him.

"I heard it, and the wives [of Longobardo and Baker] heard it," Bennett said. "They were shocked."

A career criminal with a lifetime of arrests, Phillips became one of the most hunted fugitives in America after he escaped from Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden last April 2. He was captured near Russell, Pa., on Sept. 8.

While he was on the run, Phillips stole cars, stole dozens of firearms from a gun shop and shot three troopers -- Longobardo, Baker and Sean Brown, who was wounded on June 10, when he stopped Phillips in a stolen car near Elmira.

Last month, Phillips pleaded guilty to the three shootings after Chautauqua County District Attorney David W. Foley agreed to drop charges against two women -- including Phillips' daughter, Patrina Wright -- who were accused of helping Phillips avoid capture.

On Tuesday, Phillips tried to withdraw his guilty pleas to the shootings of Longobardo and Baker. The troopers were shot while conducting a stakeout near the Town of Pomfret home of Phillips' close friend, Kasey Crowe.

Phillips attempted to convince Kloch that he thought the troopers were bounty hunters, not police. He told the judge that, when he spotted them in the woods, his original plan was to "humiliate" them by forcing them at gunpoint to take off their clothes and duct-tape them to a tree.

Kloch gave no credence to that account, and he refused to allow Phillips to withdraw his guilty pleas. The judge said it was clear that Phillips fully understood what he was admitting to when he pleaded guilty last month.

"Did you think of their families?" Kloch asked, referring to the troopers.

"Yes, I did," Phillips answered.

"Well, you didn't act that way," Kloch said.

Phillips' apology for the shootings was dismissed by Bennett as "garbage" and "baloney."

According to Bennett and Foley, a letter that Phillips wrote -- but never mailed -- in late June indicated that he fully intended to shoot and kill troopers. Foley read part of the letter in court, saying it was recovered from a backpack that Phillips left behind while he was fleeing police.

"Right now, I'm searchin for better weapons," Phillips wrote. "The ones I have are fine, but I want a 308 with a scope and maybe a 45 pistol. Can't be havin these folks walkin away after I put it to em."

According to Foley, Phillips also wrote: "Damn it to hell, I will not give up" and "I am an army of one."

Foley noted that the letter -- addressed to a Phillips associate who was being held in a correctional facility -- was dated 17 days after Phillips had shot and wounded Sean Brown.

Phillips has claimed that troopers fired at him first in Pomfret, but Foley said he believes Phillips shot first.

"Don Baker was standing next to a tree, with binoculars, and from all the evidence we have, the first shot hit him in the back," Foley said. "Almost immediately, Joe Longobardo yelled 'Get down' to Baker."

After that, a gunfight ensued between Longobardo and Phillips, and Longobardo was fatally wounded, the district attorney said.

"Don Baker has a very good recall of what happened," Foley said.

Although they did not speak at the sentencing, the wives of Baker and Longobardo later took time to hug the many troopers who showed up at the court proceedings. The women also attended a news conference and gave a brief interview to The Buffalo News. They commended Kloch for his tough handling of Phillips in court.

"I like a judge like that," Tracy Baker said. "No, change that. I love a judge like that."

But several supporters of Phillips, who wore white "I Love Bucky" buttons to the Mayville courthouse, saw it differently. Phillips' sister, Mitty Cornelius, and his close friend, Wendy Gambles, said the judge treated Phillips unfairly by refusing to allow him to withdraw his guilty pleas.

"This isn't over," Cornelius said. "There will be an appeal."

Daniel M. DeFedericis, president of the State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, said the Phillips case illustrates the need for a state death penalty for killers of police officers.

In a later court appearance in Erie County, Kloch refused to let Phillips withdraw his guilty plea to an escape charge from the Alden jail.

In addition to the life sentence without parole, Kloch issued a consecutive maximum sentence of 25 years to life on the escape conviction.

When Phillips asked the judge if he could hug his family members, the judge denied the request, saying he was in the custody of the state Department of Corrections.

Phillips said, "I appreciate that."

The judge responded, "You're going to have a lifetime to enjoy it."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com

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