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Sean Kirst: Tragedy takes its toll on close-knit Town of Salamanca

Twelve strides.

Andy Phillips stood in his driveway Monday and looked toward the spot where his parents made that short walk across a two-lane road hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Michael Phillips, 73, Andy’s father, was a retired teacher who served as supervisor of the Town of Salamanca. His wife, Donna, 70, who worked for years in the office at Prospect Elementary School, was elected town clerk a year ago this November. Beneath the green hills lining Route 353, they were a longtime part of the community fabric.

The couple lived across the road from the little brick Town Hall, which often was open for business in the evening. Andy's parents had been in their house at least 25 years. Twelve cautious strides were enough for them to cover the distance from their side of the road to the safety of the Town Hall parking lot. Their friends remember how they always crossed side by side, keeping an eye on one another.

Last December, according to investigators, the afternoon decision of a young man from New Albion to have too many drinks – and then to go looking for an air pump, because the tires on his pickup truck needed to be inflated – ended two lives and permanently altered many more, including his own.

Kevin Donaldson, 28, was sentenced to state prison Monday for his role in the deaths of Donna and Michael Phillips, who died while crossing Route 353 at about 5:30 p.m. nine months ago, on a Friday.

Andy Phillips, 38, their only child, now lives in their old house with his wife, Barb, and their four children. Andy said his parents were on their way to sign town payroll checks, a typical part of their routines.

Donaldson admitted in court that he accidentally slammed into them with his pickup truck. He pulled over after the collision, investigators said. Lori Pettit Rieman, Cattaraugus County district attorney, said Donaldson told investigators he was headed toward Salamanca to use a pump to inflate the tires on his truck, because the one he would traditionally use, at a service station closer to his home, was broken.

According to court documents from Cattaraugus County, his blood alcohol content afterward was 0.08, which means he was just past the threshold for being legally intoxicated.

Monday, Donaldson pleaded guilty in County Court in Little Valley to two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter, before Judge Ronald Ploetz. It was a part of a deal offered by Rieman, who was willing to drop a first-degree manslaughter count and the misdemeanor DWI charge in return for the two felony second-degree manslaughter counts.

News of that plea bargain infuriated Tim Jackson, a retired state trooper and a former Salamanca police officer, who replaced Phillips as town supervisor. Jackson, fearing Donaldson would walk away with no prison time or with a brief sentence, led a community letter-writing campaign to ask the judge to impose the maximum penalty.

“When I heard about it, I went off the deep end,” Jackson said of any possibility that Donaldson might be sentenced to seven months in the county jail, or even to supervised probation. “For Christ’s sake, he killed Michael and Donna Phillips.”

Michael and Donna Phillips were killed in December trying to cross Route 353 to Salamanca Town Hall. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

That effort may have had an impact. A county probation department report recommended a year in county jail for Donaldson. From the bench, Ploetz said he read many letters that called for leniency, as well as many seeking the maximum sentence that Rieman requested. One of those notes came from Diana Brodie-Anderson, a town councilwoman, who said she made this point to Ploetz:

“The fact is,” she said of Donaldson, “he knowingly got behind the wheel after he had been drinking, and then he killed two people.”

Ploetz listened Monday as Ben Smith, the assistant public defender, said that Donaldson deeply regretted what happened. He said his client – who was surrounded by family as he entered the court – fully understands the sorrow caused by his mistake.

Smith asked for five years of supervised probation. While Ploetz acknowledged that Donaldson has shown remorse, he handed down an “indeterminate sentence” of 20 months to five years, which means Donaldson will have a chance for parole at 20 months.

It also guarantees he will do that time in a state prison.

Those are the consequences of a terrible decision, Ploetz said.

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“I let everyone down,” Donaldson said, when given the chance to address the court. “The sad fact,” he said, is that he knew the Phillips family. After the sentencing, Andy and Barb Phillips said Donaldson would sometimes come to their house years ago, as a child, to play with their sons.

Andy chose not to speak in court. He is not one to call attention to himself, and everyone involved with the case knows how he feels, he said. He said he poured all his hurt into a letter to the judge, and he does not believe the sentencing reflects the full meaning of both his parents being killed.

There were two counts of manslaughter. Andy wishes Donaldson could have served consecutive sentences, for a total of at least 40 months, rather than a concurrent sentence that may be only 20 months. Rieman said that was not possible under the law, in this situation.

“My father was the most cautious person in the world,” said Andy, who contends his parents never had a chance. He learned of what happened when a friend saw the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles, then pulled over and banged on the door of the Phillips home.

When no one answered, he called Andy.

Monday, Andy spoke of his parents’ “big hearts,” and how their work at Town Hall was their passion. Barb Phillips recalled how Donna used to drive a friend to cancer treatments once a week, and how she and her husband "would do anything for anybody,” as one of Andy’s sons put it.

Jackson, the acting supervisor of Salamanca, was a neighbor of the Phillipses, and he said he knew the couple for years. He went to the board and asked to be appointed as supervisor after Michael's death, he said, because he was so impressed at the tireless ethic they both brought to their jobs.

Like Andy, he had hoped Monday’s sentence would be twice as harsh, based on the messages in the letters he helped to generate.

Rieman said she fully appreciates the magnitude of the loss. She accepted a plea, she said, because she thought it seemed fair – and because she said a trial can be much harder on a family.

While it was impossible to prove the speed of the vehicle based on forensic evidence at the scene, Rieman said there was an account from a witness that Donaldson was driving too fast that night, before the crash, in a risky situation.

“It’s horrible what happened, and these were wonderful people,” Rieman said of Michael and Donna Phillips.

Jackson said people around Salamanca were accustomed to seeing Michael and Donna Phillips walking their dog, Dixie, a rescue animal from the same litter as A.J., Andy and Barb’s dog. Andy's family is now caring for Dixie, and he said the presence of the dog is a reminder, every day, of what happened on Route 353.

“I lost both my parents,” Andy said.

For his family, that is a lifetime sentence, without parole.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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