Vast Manhunt May Get Help Of N.Y.’s Finest
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The New York City Police Department is in talks with the State Police about sending a team of elite Emergency Service Unit officers to help with the search for the fugitive who is thought to have shot three state troopers, one of them fatally, since escaping from an upstate jail in April, officials said yesterday.
The fugitive, described as a 6-foot, 240-pound member of the Seneca tribe of American Indians, is believed to have stolen an arsenal of guns and as many as 15 cars since escaping from Erie County Jail by using a can opener painstakingly to cut a 2-foot hole in the roof of the kitchen.
“We stand ready to help,” a deputy commissioner and chief spokesman for the New York City police, Paul Browne, said.
The manhunt for Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, 44, was stepped up to include more police from neighboring cities and state agencies after a state trooper, Joseph Longobardo, 32, died Sunday from a gunshot wound to his leg that he sustained last Thursday while looking for the fugitive. Doctors had to amputate his leg because the bullet severed a major artery, but he went into cardiac arrest and was unable to be revived. A wife and a 13-month-old son survive him.
Another trooper who was shot in the side, Donald Baker Jr., 38, was upgraded from critical to serious condition during the weekend. On June 10, another trooper, Sean Brown, was shot in the stomach as he approached a suspicious car. Officials said they suspect Phillips was the shooter.
Mr. Baker and Longobardo were wearing bulletproof vests, but the shooter managed to strike them where they were unprotected. State police haven’t confirmed that Phillips was the shooter, but the theft of 41 guns, including high-powered rifles, from a nearby store has also been linked to him.
Throughout the five-month manhunt, one of the largest in New York’s history, the small-time car thief and burglar has managed to elude police at every turn. A network of friends, former jailmates, and family members in the backcountry of Chautauqua County has let him stay in their homes and given him supplies. Many of them now face charges for aiding and abetting a criminal.
With the death of Longobardo this weekend, what began as an almost comical story of a woodsy fugitive outsmarting the police has taken on a tone of desperation and reclusive violence. The authorities have increased the number of law enforcement officers searching for Phillips to more than 300, including canine units, helicopters, and SWAT teams, a state trooper and spokesman for the police, Mark O’Donnell, said. State forest rangers have been called in to create a grid map of the region so they can systematically root him out of the woods.
Phillips is described as having black hair and brown eyes. Although he had a beard and ponytail when he escaped, police believe he has since shaved his head and face.
The question that is has been on nearly everyone’s mind in the hamlets and towns nestled in the southern tier, residents said, is “why did Bucky do it?” He had only 10 days left of a 90-day jail sentence he was serving for violating his parole when he broke out and hid in the forest. One theory, put forward by friends of Phillips, is that he wanted to make it to the birthday of a granddaughter he had never met.
As the number of guns in the area increases and tension thickens, the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Cassadaga, N.Y., Patrick Elis, is trying another tactic to disarm the situation: He has opened his church 24 hours a day in the hopes that either Phillips will surrender there or that the fugitive’s friends and family can be convinced to help get him to surrender somewhere else.
“I’m concerned about the police and I’m concerned about the community,” Rev. Elis said. “The guy has to have some offer of hope in the middle of this, otherwise he is going to sit out there with his guns. The police are going to be sitting ducks. He has the advantage.”
Rev. Elis said his town of 750 people was on edge. Police have set up roadblocks at every intersection. And Bucky sightings are rampant. On Sunday a Wal-Mart in nearby Fredonia was evacuated after someone reported a person resembling Phillips was in the store, he said. Troopers surrounded another man walking down the road after a driver phoned in a tip that he might be the fugitive.
“There is a sense of fear; the anxiety level is rising,” Rev. Elis said. “Men with shotguns are looking in everyone’s trunk. This is something completely out of character for this little town… People are afraid that professional bounty hunters will now invade Cassadaga County.”
The bounty for Phillips was increased from $50,000 to $225,000 after Longobardo died.
Jamie Feather, 21, an editor at SUNY Fredonia’s student newspaper, The Leader, said that some students were spending more time indoors because of the manhunt.
“They are not really going out at night as much as they would normally,” she said.
A letter was sent out from university officials on Friday telling students that the campus police department was in contact with the state police and that there was no immediate fear that Phillips would come near the school.