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.
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.
Or maybe there’s another way. Pending in Manhattan federal court is a constitutional challenge to Governor George Pataki’s parole policy, or lack thereof. The lawsuit claims that Pataki has imposed an “un- official policy” that murderers don’t get out. In recent years, an average of only eight to 10, under 4 percent, of the 250 or so of the A-1 felons up for parole have gotten out, compared with about 25 percent who were paroled under Mario Cuomo.
Phillips isn’t a named plaintiff on the case, but he would be part of the suit’s defined class, a dubious lot consisting of hundreds of murderers and a handful of kidnappers and arsonists.
Lawyer Dan Perez, who is appealing Phillips’s most recent parole denial on similar grounds as the lawsuit’s, isn’t expecting a groundswell of public support for efforts that could lead to convicted killers being set free.
Perez says that in Phillips’s case, Judge Harold Birns could have given him consecutive sentences, meaning Phillips, then 44, would have had to serve at least 53 years, a virtual death penalty. But because Phillips was sentenced to 25 years to life, Perez believes that Birns (who died in 1982) intended for Phillips, probably because of his work on Knapp, to one day have a shot at parole.
Perez said he’s not asking anything extraordinary from Pataki; Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose office has successfully fought Phillips’s past attempts to challenge the board’s decisions; or the parole board, “just that they follow the law.”
Phillips still has to contend with the
fact that his work for the Knapp Commission seems not to matter. “OK,” said one parole board member in 2001. “Now this was the culmination of some corrupt practices that you were involved in as a police officer, is that right, sir?”
Two years later, after Phillips related his story, another board member gushed, “Wow. That’s incredible. That’s really incredible.”
At another hearing, the dialogue went like this:
A board member asked, “So, when the movie came out, they didn’t use you?”
Phillips replied, “There was no movie made about this.”
“Not that I knew of.”
Another board member interjected, “That was Serpico . . . I don’t think it was about this.”
Phillips added, “Yes, Serpico was a whole different thing.”
At one time, Patrolman William Phillips didn’t have to retell his story. It was front-page news for two solid weeks, so compelling in 1971 that when Channel 13 stopped live coverage of his testimony before the Knapp Commission the station received hundreds of calls demanding it be put back on.
Nearly two years before the Water- gate hearings captivated the nation, New Yorkers sat glued to their TVs during the Knapp hearings, especially during the three days that Phillips, a typical hardass Irish cop from Queens, took them behind the NYPD’s blue wall of silence. His story had it all: corruption, sex, betrayal, intrigue, and high living—much of the tale recorded undercover.
For the most part, it is now a story for the ages and the aged.
As Phillips breaks a 15-year silence with the media—he got burned on one broadcast and turned his back on subsequent requests—to discuss the case with the Voice over the past few weeks, he starts by saying, “How you gonna write this story? Everyone is fuckin’ dead.”
Wearing a neatly ironed yellow golf shirt for one interview and a pressed maroon one for another (to go with a stiff- looking pair of prison-issued green Dickies), Phillips, despite all his physical ailments, looks a good 10 years younger than his age. He has a ramrod-straight posture, a flat stomach, and forearms thickened by the several hundred push-ups he does a week.
Phillips became a cop almost as an afterthought. After spending four years as an Air Force mechanic in the Korean War, he took a job at a tool-and-die factory. In his book, On the Pad (written by Leonard Shechter with Phillips’s help), Phillips recalls sitting on “the throne” one day reading the newspaper when he saw an ad to become a city cop. The big enticement then, as now, was a pension after 20 years.
On June 28, 1957, Phillips entered the police academy. At 27 he was a man among a bunch of pimply-faced kids, but he insists he was just as naively enthusiastic.
His father and namesake had been a detective before him, one who wasn’t above taking a few bucks to turn a blind eye to barrels of beer being delivered to speakeasies during Prohibition or to not arrest gamblers when he was on the Policy Squad. And though the two had a tumultuous relationship—Phillips says his father used him as his “whipping boy”—he hung around Dad enough to know that a cop could make a few quick bucks on the side.
He had no idea how pervasive corruption was on the force, but it didn’t take long to find out. After Phillips landed at the 19th Precinct, on the Upper East Side, the seduction that transformed him from gung ho rookie policeman to cop on the take was subtle. For the first six months, none of the veterans as much as talked to him or the other newbies. Then one day, an older cop mentioned that if he was hungry there was a restaurant that took care of cops. His first time there, Phillips tried to pay, but the owner told him to keep his money. “You might say the doors opened up,” Phillips later testified at Knapp.
Word soon got around the station that Phillips was a “good guy,” which really meant the opposite. An older cop he was riding with offered him $5, half the payoff
from a bar the cops protected. He stuffed the bill in his shirt. He was now one of them.
From there, the money flowed from all the businesses “on the pad.” Construction sites would pay beat cops $5 to $10 a week apiece and more to the precinct because police were in charge of code enforcement back then. Bodegas paid $2 apiece to stay open on Sundays despite the old blue laws. He could expect another $5 or $10 a week from a particular bar. If there was trouble in the place, an arrest report protecting the license by stating that a fight occurred outside instead of inside was worth a couple hundred.
His slide, he now says, was like eating chocolate: You take a bite, put it down, hmm, that was good, just one more bite, “and before you know it you ate the whole fuckin’ thing.”
Phillips didn’t consider meals on the arm and a few fivers or a bottle of whiskey from a bar owner a big deal. Back then, he says, there was a universal understanding among cops, crooks, and “taxpayers” that a few bucks tossed in the right direction could make problems go away. Burglars carried big rolls just in case they got caught. He estimates that eight out of 10 motorists he ticketed tried to bribe him.
Selling arrests was another thing. Even now, Phillips takes a great deal of pride that he was always an “active cop.” That meant in the best and worst ways. “I had this enormous energy,” he recalls. “I used to do good police work, and I’d do the other with just as much energy. A lot of people don’t understand how you can be a good cop and be on the take at the same time.”
Over the years he has repeated a story about his first arrest in the 19th Precinct many times. He told it at the Knapp Commission; he’s told it to newspapers and magazine reporters who’ve interviewed him; he’s told it to the parole board. He told it when he was interviewed for this story:
It’s a rainy night and Phillips has ducked into a building doorway to stay dry. He looks across the street and sees two men breaking into a plumbing-supply store. Phillips calls for backup, but before it arrives he pulls out his gun and arrests both guys. “A good fuckin’ collar,” he says. A radio car takes the guys to the station house. But by the time he arrives on foot to do the paperwork, a lieutenant tells him, “The two guys you arrested, we sent them home.” The father of one of the suspects is a local hood paying protection money to a colleague, but Phillips doesn’t know that at the time and talks to his lieutenant: “I said, ‘They were my fuckin’ prisoners. How did you send them home?’ So the lieutenant goes, ‘Here’s $10.’ They sold my first fuckin’ arrest right from under my nose. Can you believe that shit?”
Even nearly 50 years after it happened, the anger, the betrayal, the disillusionment are etched on Phillips’s face as he tells this tale. It’s easy to imagine that this was his crossroads, the place where the honest cop was turned irrevocably bad. Until Phillips tells the lesson he learned that day: “I said, ‘Take that $10 and stick it up your ass. You’re not going to see me again. I’ll take care of my
business on the street from now on.’ ”
A fairly happy hooker:
photo: Courtesy Xaviera Hollander
Bill Phillips was eventually transferred to the Central Office Bureaus & Squad— these were the cops, Phillips says, who were supposed to “suppress gambling and prostitution.” Just saying that makes him laugh out loud.
What they really did was line their pockets.
After six months of squeezing gamblers like Spanish Ray, the Gimp, the Gout, Johnny Cigar, Joe Cuba, Tampa Charlie, and Crappy, Phillips had the down payment for his house.
Every once in a while, just to make things look legit, they had to make an arrest. So the “KGs” (NYPD lingo for “known gamblers”) would designate a fall guy. Then the cops would write up the arrest report in such a way that the charges would never stick—for example, they’d say they found the betting slips on the ground next to the guy. The cops called this an “accommodation arrest” or a “dropsy pinch.”
Other detectives—not him, Phillips insists—would take it a step further and plant policy numbers on innocent people or rivals of the gamblers paying them. This was known as “flaking.”
In July 1962, Phillips made detective. The gold shield was a license to roam the precinct and steal more. The graft became almost “fun and games.” With more than a hint of pride, Phillips says, “You have to have some fuckin’ imagination to come up with some of that shit.” One of the all-timers, he recalls, was when a lieutenant demanded $1,000 to make a drunk driving arrest go away. When the man could come up with only $200, the lieutenant marched him to a bank and made him take out an $800 loan for the rest.
One of Phillips’s side deals led him to the apartment of a guy who was running a bookie and prostitution operation. Phillips hit him up for $1,500 in protection money, a score that would prove to be his undoing.
Eventually, Phillips was “flopped” out of the detective squad and demoted to patrolman. The demotion caused Phillips to lose all interest in being a cop and, strangely, caused him to go straight for about a year. His heart wasn’t into it anymore, he says. But eventually, the costs of Phillips’s high living forced him back. Through scamming, Phillips estimates, he was able to double or triple his salary each year, which at its height was about $15,000.
“I’m not a fuckin’ millionaire,” he was caught on tape telling an undercover
Knapp Commission agent before he flipped. “I do OK. I live pretty good, but I’m not a guy walking around with $100,000 in the bank.” Whatever money he had he pissed away on booze, women, sharp clothes, and good food. Phillips was a regular at P.J. Clarke’s, where he bent elbows with actors, models, and athletes like former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano, who was a close friend.
He was an excellent skier and a 4- handicap golfer. Eventually, Phillips bought a Cessna and, along with some other cops, started the NYPD Flying Club. As the club grew, he and some other cops leased four other planes. By the fall of 1970, he says, he was contemplating turning in his badge and running the airplane business full-time.
By then the feds had started to make some high-profile corruption cases against other police departments, and Phillips realized “it was like an era coming to an end, time to get out. I saw the handwriting on the wall, but I seen it too late.”
If he hadn’t been contemplating such a drastic move, Phillips says now, he would have never bothered trying to shake down a madam. One of his long-standing rules was “don’t mess with prostitutes; they’re too risky.” But when a friend came to him with a madam looking to pay police so she wouldn’t be harassed by them, Phillips went for it.
What unfolded next can be traced back to Frank Serpico. Unable to get anyone in the police department to investigate their allegations that gamblers and drug dealers were paying off cops, Serpico, then a patrolman, and his sergeant, David Durk, went to The New York Times.
The resulting April 25, 1970, Times story prompted Mayor John Lindsay to appoint an investigative committee of public officials. But they told the mayor they didn’t have the time for such a job and recommended he appoint an independent civilian committee. In May 1970, the Knapp Commission was formed. Its head, Wall Street lawyer Whitman Knapp, had first made a name for himself as an assistant district attorney in 1948, when he was able to ban Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County from city bookstores for being too sexually explicit.
Coincidentally, the Knapp Commission’s success would depend on a madam who subsequently wrote a far steamier book: Xaviera Hollander, a/k/a “The Happy Hooker.” And Phillips’s downfall was hooked to Hollander as well.
Until told about it while being interviewed for this story, Phillips had no idea of how the commission got wind of his deal with Hollander. As it turned out, it was dumb luck. Dumb bad luck for him.
Hollander had acquired a new list of clients from another madam. She called an “A. Moore” on the list, and Robin Moore, the author, answered, Hollander (now 63 and running several businesses including a bed-and-breakfast she calls a ” bed-and-brothel”) tells the Voice.
A few days later, Moore showed up while, as Hollander recalls with a laugh, “I’m in the middle of a heavy s/m session— a big banker, and he’s crawling on the ground barking like a dog.”
Moore wasn’t interested in sex. He’d pay $50 a pop but only wanted to talk. After a few weeks, a lawyer who worked for Hollander became suspicious and suggested Hollander check Moore for a bug.
When she found one, says Hollander, Moore came clean, saying he was gathering material for a book. He already had its name: The Happy Hooker. To this day, Hollander says she hates that title. A hooker, she points out, is a street prostitute. She says she would have preferred a classier title, like Cum and Go.
For the book, a surveillance expert named Teddy Ratnoff installed hidden microphones in Hollander’s brothel—she claims it was done without her knowledge. When Phillips offered her protection, Ratnoff called the Knapp Commission, for which he worked as a consultant, and asked its investigators if they were interested in a dirty cop. Michael Armstrong recalls that the commission was so strapped for resources that it ended up enlisting Ratnoff to work undercover.
The tapes Ratnoff made included three different deals. The last of them recorded Phillips’s discovering Ratnoff wearing a wire during a meeting with a connected lawyer who was trying to fix a case involving Hollander’s boyfriend and a $250,000 stolen check. Ratnoff’s undercover role came to an end, and Phillips’s was about to start.
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.
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.
Phillips left the courtroom scowling when a mistrial was declared after the jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal.
On the Pad ends at this point. But the outcome of a retrial appeared so in-the-bag for Phillips that the author speculated, “His future will be a new, unfamiliar job in a strange city and a personal life which has been so shattered it will be impossible to put back together again. . . . But Phillips will smile a lot, though. He’ll have reason to. Almost anything is better than con-viction and prison.”
The smiles stopped in 1974. A falling- out with F. Lee Bailey over money left Henry Rothblatt as Phillips’s lawyer for the retrial. Phillips recalls that Rothblatt, who had a pencil-thin mustache and always wore bow ties, would pull the buttons off his own shirts and then sew them back on—in the courtroom. “The jury looked at this guy like he was fuckin’ crazy,” Phillips said.
With Rothblatt in charge, Phillips’s defense went awry, and he was convicted of both murders and the attempted murder.
“Lee Bailey is one of the best defenders that ever worked a courtroom,” Armstrong says. Referring to Phillips’s second lawyer, who died in 1985, Armstrong adds, “To put it kindly, Rothblatt was not.”
Before Phillips was sentenced, though, it seemed he might get a break. During the trial, a juror had sent his résumé to the Manhattan district attorney’s office to apply for a job as an investigator. Jack Litman, who prosecuted the retrial, knew about it but didn’t notify his boss, District Attorney Richard Kuh, until after the trial.
The case of the job-seeking juror’s allegedly tainting the prosecution would eventually go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued by William Kuntsler, who lost a 6-3 decision.
Sentenced to 25 years to life, Phillips didn’t accept it quietly, calling the prosecutors and judge “the most corrupted of the corrupt in this city.” The case, he added at the time, was “the greatest frame job in the history of law enforcement.”
Forget the theory. To this day, Armstrong believes Phillips is innocent.
“Sure, he’s a tough guy, and I don’t know whether he’s capable of murder or not,” Armstrong says. “But if he were, he’s not capable of murder where he leaves a live witness.”
After being shot, Gonzalez stumbled out of the apartment and ran into the killer, who was waiting for an elevator. The killer screamed at Gonzalez to get back into the apartment. Why would a guy who killed two people leave an eyewitness? Armstrong says that when he once asked Phillips what he would’ve done in that situation, Phillips replied, “Are you kidding? Me, I would have shot that fucker right between the eyes.”
Before his conviction, Bill Phillips had spent one day in jail—right after he was indicted in 1972. In his book he recalled thinking, “I could never, never spend the rest of my life in fucking jail. . . . To be locked up like an animal in some fuckin’ jail, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t survive.”
Phillips has not only survived in prison but, to the greatest extent possible, he has excelled.
Refusing to hide in protective custody, Phillips spent the first couple of years in Attica being “terrorized” every minute of every day, as he recalls.
What changed things around was, oddly enough, the law. Around 1978, he started studying it just as a way to pass time. Phillips was soon spending 15-hour days, seven days a week working on cases for fellow inmates.
“When you’re doing this kind of work, you can’t put it down,” he says. “I would get one and live with it until it was done. Then get another one and live with it.”
In short order, he went from the guy with the “big target” on his back to the guy no one had better touch. For many fellow inmates, he was now their chance at freedom.
He estimates he helped more than 80 inmates get out, mostly by finding technicalities that reduced their sentences. It’s a claim that is impossible to check. But he was featured on CBS’s Street Stories, which interviewed some of the inmates Phillips helped free.
“I’ve been championing the cause of the underdog in here,” says Phillips. He feels that through his legal work and other good deeds, he has redeemed himself.
Like many others considered for parole, Phillips provides the board with a “résumé.” His is two pages, single-spaced, to include all his activities, including membership in the Jaycees, a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College, a master’s with a 4.0 GPA from Buffalo State University, and certification in legal research. He has done charity work through an upstate Quaker group, received counseling from Mormons since 1990, and rewrote a prison’s substance and alcohol abuse treatment program.
He has a standing offer to teach legal research at Manhattanville College and is set up—if he’s ever released—to live in a Veterans Administration halfway house.
Phillips is also armed with letters from Whitman Knapp (now deceased), Armstrong, state judge Vincent Doyle, and a deputy prison superintendent, among others, supporting his release.
Because he has never been cited for a disciplinary infraction, he was moved to a medium-security prison about five years ago. He believes he is the oldest prisoner there, and odds are that he’s one of the oldest in the system.
The reason his parole was denied in 1999 was that he told the board he didn’t do the murders. “You accept no responsibility for these crimes,” they ruled. So for the past five years he has told the board—sort of—that he takes responsibility for the murders of James Smith and Susan Stango.
“I had many, many sleepless nights,” he says. “I had to decide if I am going to go in there and keep getting hit or am I going to acquiesce, tell them what they want to hear, and come up with a story. So I’ve done the best I can to piece together a story.”
His first effort to admit he did something he says he didn’t do came in 2001, when he started his pitch to the parole board this way: “I have no legal remedies left in this matter, and therefore, at this particular time, I have to accept culpability for this.”
His story has since gotten better, but his performances still lack remorse, which he says he can’t muster, “because I didn’t do it, but if I tell them that I’m never getting out.”
After reading the minutes of last year’s parole hearing, Phillips’s lawyer included
a paragraph in the appeal stating that Parole Commissioner Robert Dennison “actually wants [Phillips] to be released at this point” but won’t do it because of “the political sensitivities involved.” (Dennison declines comment through a spokesman.)
For public consumption, Dennison told Phillips, “You are what they call a model inmate. . . . It’s just that you killed two people, you tried to kill a third. And I know the courts have commented on it and the judge commented on it the last time about rehabilitation and the fact that, you know, you are not a threat to society, that what else can someone like you do, except just to do what you are doing. But the hard part for us is that you’re responsible for two lost lives. . . . I know that was many years ago, but that is the hard part for us. How many years is enough for taking two lives and trying to kill a third?”
Bill Phillips thinks he knows the answer: “All of them.”