Share this article

print logo

Lessons from Bucky Phillips’ escape as another manhunt presses on

NEW YORK – The inmate escaped, and he ran hard.

State Police troopers hunted him with all their tools and gadgets. They used roadblocks and bloodhounds, infrared and thermal-imaging cameras. They tapped his friends’ phones and searched from the skies in helicopters with floodlights, and in airboats, scanning the shoreline of the Susquehanna River in the Southern Tier region of New York State.

But the escapee was in good shape, and he knew the woods. He broke into unoccupied homes, lodges and hunting camps, and stole guns, food and, when he could, a night’s sleep or a nap and a shower.

Some nights he slept outdoors, marking trees with string to find his favorite spots. He stole some 30 cars and trucks and all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles, hopscotching from one ride to the next. Steal, dump. Steal, dump.

The woods were a sanctuary for the escapee, named Ralph Phillips but widely known as Bucky. He shot three troopers while on the run, one fatally. The manhunt intensified, but he nonetheless eluded capture for months through summer 2006.

Nine summers later, the search for two inmates who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., enters its third week.

On Friday night the New York Corrections Department placed a Clinton prison guard on leave in relation to the escape. The agency provided no further details.

Kitchen table theories as to the escapees’ whereabouts seek to offer an answer to a common question: With hundreds of officers out there looking, why haven’t they been found?

Officials have said the two convicts could very well be long gone from the area. But with no clues to go on, officers have combed the rugged terrain of far northern New York for any signs of the fugitives. An indication of how difficult this kind of manhunt can be can be found in its 2006 predecessor, examined exhaustively in a 2007 State Police internal review that was prepared with this very day in mind, to avoid repeating mistakes.

“The hindsight of today is the foresight of the future,” the review said.

There is much dissimilar in the two manhunts and among the fugitives. Phillips was a thief who easily escaped from the kitchen of an Erie County jail in April 2006. He did not become the focus of an organized manhunt until two months later, when he shot and wounded a trooper who had approached his car. Phillips was an experienced outdoorsman who knew the area well and enjoyed the support of a network of family and friends.

The Dannemora escapees, Richard W. Matt and David Sweat, convicted murderers, have no known supporters in the area, and nothing in their backgrounds suggest vast outdoors experience. But the 2006 manhunt indicates that simply running and stealing can go a long way, with the woods doing the rest of the work.

Phillips, who was 43 at the time of his escape, managed to couch-surf his way through the first weeks of his freedom, with friends, family and at least one girlfriend in the area. By the time of the first trooper’s shooting, with the manhunt beginning in earnest, a new trend had begun. People returned to hunting cabins and summer homes to find that someone had been inside.

Food was stolen. More important, so were the guns – pistols and rifles. The bed had been slept in and the showers used. Phillips relaxed in these homes, he told this reporter in a prison interview after his capture. He cooked what he found in the freezer and watched television for news of the search.

These kinds of homes are a boon to fugitives. “There are countless commodities available to them if they’re breaking into hunting camps,” said Joseph A. Gerace, sheriff of Chautauqua County, whose office assisted in the 2006 search.

There have been no confirmed sightings of the Dannemora escapees. Troopers frequently saw Phillips darting into the woods but were slow to react, at times hesitant to engage an armed fugitive without backup, the report said.

Once, early in the morning on June 27, 2006, troopers happened upon Phillips from just 10 yards away in Charlotte, a Chautauqua County town.

“Freeze!” they shouted, and he ran. But by the time more troopers and a helicopter arrived, he was gone, leaving behind a pistol, camping gear and canned goods.

Phillips’ daughter was pregnant that summer. When her due date approached, troopers set up surveillance at her hospital, in case her father appeared. Poor communication was a common complaint that summer, the review said. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies joined the search, but “coordination was lacking,” according to the report. Once, two helicopters from two different agencies came close enough to risk a collision because neither knew the other was there.

Phillips was cornered in, Akeley, Pa., near the New York State line on Sept. 8, 2006, and he surrendered. He pleaded guilty to murdering Trooper Joseph Longobardo and to two charges of attempted murder, and is serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison at the Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone.

Coincidentally, he was previously in the Clinton prison, where he was in a segregated cell. It is unlikely he ever met Matt and Sweat, but he had something in common with those men.

In 2011, corrections officers searching Phillips’ cell found a prison sweatshirt stuffed with bedding. Four years before the other two inmates pulled off their escape using the same trick, it appeared Phillips had started making his own dummy. Meanwhile, state troopers and Amherst police raided a home on the 300 block of Grover Cleveland Highway Thursday night, acting on a tip that the two escaped killers might be there.

Police came up empty. The residence is the home of a half brother of Matt, who is originally from the City of Tonawanda, The U.S Marshal’s Office has placed Matt and Sweat on its list of 15 Most Wanted fugitives.

“The Most Wanted fugitive list is reserved for the worst of the worst,” said U.S. Marshals Service Director Stacia Hylton.