Freeze Frame on a Bad Cop

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

Initially, Armstrong thought there was no chance of getting a tough guy like Phillips to talk, much less go undercover. But he gave it a shot.

"I started giving him the lecture, you know, 'You can't be a little bit pregnant,' and so on, and he stopped me and said, 'Listen, Mr. Armstrong, I've been sitting where you're sitting, and I've had people sitting where I'm sitting. I know what I've got to do.' "

While Serpico and Durk were lauded at the start of the Knapp Commission for getting the ball rolling, as honest cops they were outsiders. It was Phillips, the crooked cop in it up to his neck, who ran with it for Knapp.

photo: Jason Torres

On October 18, 1970, the commission played the recordings for its first day of hearings. To build suspense, the crooked cop on the tape was referred to only as "Patrolman P."

The next day, wearing a gray suit, orange-colored shirt, orange floral- patterned tie, and Gucci shoes with gold tassels that jingled when he walked, Phillips began telling the public what he knew.

"He testified for three days," says Armstrong, "and it was very, very telling."

So was the backlash from the NYPD. Police chief Patrick Murphy made the unprecedented move of broadcasting a message over police radios saying, "There is no reason to be ashamed because one or another traitor to the uniform that you wear so proudly seeks to justify his own dishonesty by pretending that none of you are honest."

The head of the Patrolmen's Benevo- lent Association called the proceedings a "Roman circus" and demanded the hearings be suspended and Phillips arrested. Even the New York Civil Liberties Union protested the commission's "trial by public exposure."

In all, Phillips took part in 69 operations in which he recorded conversations, resulting in 17 cops and 14 gamblers being indicted. Amid this shit storm, a detective began putting together a murder case against Phillips.

Detective John Justy later testified that as he watched the Knapp hearings it struck him that Bill Phillips looked like the composite drawing of a suspect in a three-year-old double murder he had never solved.

On Christmas Eve 1968, a 50-year-old pimp named James Smith and an 18-year-old prostitute named Susan Stango were killed inside a midtown apartment.

The detective testified that when he started reinvestigating the homicides he remembered that a hooker in the apartment had told him, "Maybe you don't want to solve this case. You might be digging up bones in your own backyard." Justy had never noted that conversation in any report. The prostitute testified against Phillips. (Years later, she recanted, to no avail.)

Justy said he later found out that the unnamed pimp-bookie whom Phillips testified at the Knapp Commission that he shook down was named James Smith.

That was the story from Justy, who's now dead. Here's Phillips's theory: Justy's former supervisor and friend was Eddie McNamara, a cop Phillips tried to get to help him fix a stolen-check case involving Xaviera Hollander's boyfriend. McNamara committed suicide the day after Phillips began giving testimony.

"Justy set me up because he blames me for Eddie Mac," Phillips says. "But I had nothing on Eddie Mac."

Armstrong confirms that some in-vestigators believed McNamara killed himself because he thought Phillips was going to name him at the Knapp hearings. But Phillips wasn't wired when he talked to McNamara.

In March 1972, when Phillips was in the federal witness protection program, working on gambling investigations he helped make on some East Harlem gangsters, he was indicted for the double murder.

There was no physical evidence, and most of the witnesses, as Judge John Murtagh noted at the time, were "creatures who are in the depths of depravity."

Phillips says F. Lee Bailey, then at the height of his celebrity, took his case only on the condition he pass a lie detector test, which he says he did. (Bailey could not be reached for comment, but Armstrong says Bailey told him Phillips passed.)

The case hinged on the testimony of a john named Charles Gonzalez, who survived the shooting, and the prostitute who repeated the "digging up the bones" comment and said she heard Phillips threaten the night before the murders to kill Smith if he didn't pay the $1,000 he owed.

Gonzalez gave a powerful recounting of the murder, identifying Phillips and walking the jury through Smith being shot, Stango pleading for her life, and Phillips telling her, "Shut up, bitch." Gonzalez says he pleaded, "I have four kids," before Phillips shot him.

But Gonzalez's credibility was shaken under questioning. He had spent time in a psychiatric institution years earlier, and though he testified he would always remember Phillips's face, Gonzalez picked another man out of the initial lineup. He had originally described the killer as five foot eight or nine; Phillips is just about six feet. And Gonzalez said he had been drinking heavily that Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, Phillips's alibi appeared ironclad. Christmas Eve was one of the few nights he spent time at home, where he decorated his family's artificial tree with 50 $1 bills. Then he and his wife visited with various relatives, many of whom supported that account.

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