Freeze Frame on a Bad Cop

Still stuck in prison for three decades: the once famous, now forgotten, Bill Phillips

Having turned 76 this past May, the survivor of a stroke and three cancer surgeries, including one that claimed his right eye, and suffering from diabetes, Bill Phillips figures that the only way the state parole board will let him out of prison is in a wooden box.

Every odd year since 1999, Phillips—a corrupt NYPD cop turned whistle-blower who was then convicted of murder and has been in prison for more than three decades—has been turned down for parole. In 2003, the board called him "a criminal of the worst kind whose danger to public safety is in the highest degree."

Most of the parole board members don't seem to recall Phillips's key role in exposing police corruption before the Knapp Commission in the early '70s. They don't know about his links to "Happy Hooker" Xaviera Hollander or F. Lee Bailey. They don't seem aware of how pivotal a role he played three decades ago, as a star during riveting televised hearings, in dismantling what had become an organized system of bribe-taking in the police department.

photo: Jason Torres

At least the parole board has gradually acknowledged that Phillips hasn't totally wasted his time in prison. In September 2005, the board substantially altered its tone, Commissioner Robert Dennison telling him, "You are what they call a model inmate." Dennison acknowledged that Phillips was rehabilitated, no longer posed a threat to society, and had done all the right things in prison. He noted that Phillips got religion, obtained an education, did charity work, taught his fellow inmates, cooperated with prison officials, and didn't commit a single infraction in his three decades behind bars.

Nicer words, but same result: "Denied—hold for 24 months, next appearance date: 9/2007. . . . This panel feels that to release you at this time would deprecate the seriousness of your criminal acts and undermine respect for the law."

Phillips says he knew it was a lost cause when, right before the session ended, Dennison asked him, "Don't you feel you can pay your debt to society by continuing to help people in prison?"

"The whole thing is a charade," a white-haired, bespectacled Phillips tells the Voice during an interview in Fishkill Correctional Facility. "They question you just to make a record, to make it look like they're giving you a chance. But they're not interested in the answers. I know now I never had a Chinaman's chance."

From the time he was indicted, in 1972, Phillips has maintained he was the target of a "frame job," brought to bear by the forces—the NYPD, the city's district attorneys, and the judiciary—that he had helped expose as corrupt while he was the key undercover agent and star witness for the Knapp Commission. It's a theory that gets sympathy from clean cop Frank Serpico, whose whistle-blowing led to the Knapp Commission's being formed in the first place.

"The feelings I had back then," Serpico, now 70, tells the Voice about Phillips's theory, "was I wouldn't put it past certain elements of the department to do that."

The Knapp Commission's chief counsel from those days, Michael Armstrong, has stood up for Phillips at parole hearings. In a 1999 letter, Armstrong noted that "in 1970, Mr. Phillips was a decorated police officer with 14 years' service" but "like many other police officers of that era, he actively participated in the corruption that was then a way of life in the New York City Police Department."

Armstrong went on to write: "When he was uncovered by [Knapp] Commission investigators, Mr. Phillips agreed to work with us as an undercover agent. As such, he was resourceful, courageous, tireless, and extremely effective. It is fair to say that, without the undercover work and public testimony of William Phillips, our committee would not have been able to hold its public hearings."

Armstrong doesn't buy Phillips's all-encompassing conspiracy theory. More importantly, though, Armstrong says he thinks that Phillips, convicted of a double murder and an attempted murder, is serving time for another man's crimes.

But in the most savage twist to Bill Phillips's crazy career as a cop gone bad—and then worse—the detective who put Phillips behind bars for the murders may have pursued Phillips as revenge for a fellow cop's suicide. The cop killed himself because he thought Phillips was going to out him during the Knapp Commission. In fact, Phillips never did.

After more than three decades in prison, Phillips still denies committing the murders for which he was convicted. Conspiracy theories aside, did Phillips do it? "More than anything," Armstrong tells the Voice, "I don't think Bill did it because I don't think the proof adds up."

Phillips concedes that his latest foes in the criminal justice system aren't part of the cabal against him. Lumping the parole board into the conspiracy against him, Phillips believes, would give its members too much credit. A more plausible scenario, he says, is that the board is stacked with political flunkies who do as they're told.

"Most of these guys were in diapers when I was testifying," he says. "They don't know what it's about. They have no idea about my story."

His best shot at freedom now requires him to shelve his conspiracy theory and try to convince the parole board of something he says isn't true. It was tough enough for Phillips to own up in public to the various crimes he committed as a cop. It's even more difficult for him to express remorse for crimes he insists he did not commit. His appeals are exhausted. Proving he's innocent now is beyond a long shot. At least if he says he's the killer and admits responsibility, he still has a chance to get out.

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