FREDONIA, N.Y. – With an escaped convict suspected of killing one trooper and wounding two others still on the run, the first day of school in rural western New York Tuesday meant recess in the classroom, no outdoor sports practice and armed state troopers searching vehicles.
The normal rhythms of life in this sleepy corner of the state have been radically jolted as authorities scour the woods for Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, who has been on the run for five months. Safety concerns have locals worried the beloved deer hunting season might be canceled, and the village of Cassadaga even called off Labor Day festivities.
“They’re trying to do their job but it’s annoying,” said Fred Mead of Silver Creek, outside an auto parts store across from a media camp that has sprung up.
Phillips, 44, broke out of the Erie County jail on April 2 by using a can opener to pry open a 2-by-2-foot hole in the kitchen ceiling, then escaping through the roof, police have said. He was serving 90 days for a parole violation.
Since then, the 6-foot-tall, 240-pound Phillips, who has threatened “suicide by cop” and once promised to “to splatter pig meat all over Chautauqua County,” has left a trail of burglaries and car thefts across central and western New York and neighboring Pennsylvania. He is suspected of stealing 41 weapons from a local gun shop in late August.
Police suspect he ambushed two troopers on Aug. 31 as they staked out a house. Joseph Longobardo died three days later; Donald Baker Jr. remains in critical condition. He’s also suspected of wounding Trooper Sean Brown in June.
Police said Tuesday that 33 stolen firearms taken from a home in Ludlow were believed to be among those Phillips took during a burglary. They were holding Todd Nelson, 31, of Ludlow, Pa., for hindering Phillips’ apprehension, but wouldn’t explain what his connection was to the stolen weapons or Phillips.
“This has been a nightmare for the people of Chautauqua County,” State Sen. Catharine Young said. “People are living in fear, our schools are in lockdown, people’s lives are being disrupted and people’s safety is in jeopardy.”
Residents are worried the deer hunting season, set to begin in mid-November, might be called off if Phillips isn’t caught. There has been no official announcement. Many in rural Chautauqua County, which is part of federally recognized Appalachia, supplement their diets with deer and other game.
“It’s something here in this rural area we were brought up to do,” said Bill Frost, who owns a gun shop in Sinclairville.
On Tuesday, students and sports teams at Fredonia School District’s high school, which borders police barracks, were kept inside until police patrols could be set up, said Superintendent Paul DiFonzo. At the other end of town, elementary school students will stay inside until at least the end of the week, he said.
Initially, the manhunt turned Phillips into something of a local legend in the county, a 1,500-square-mile chunk of land in far western New York, bordered on the northwest by Lake Erie. One restaurant offered a “Bucky Burger” and bars in the area sold T-shirts emblazoned with “Got Bucky?”
But after the ambush on the two troopers, some of the mystique faded. On Tuesday, signs of support and sympathy for the state police started appearing on businesses and flowers were left at the police barracks flagpole.
Amita Parikh, who was picking up her 16-year-old son from school, said she was worried Phillips was desperate enough to kidnap a child. She’s keeping her alarm system on around the clock.
“He has killed troopers so you don’t know what he can do,” she said. “He’s a threat to the whole community because, to get his way, he’ll kill anybody.”