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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Run, Bucky Run

Dragnet Yields Whimsy and Dread Upstate

Published: July 15, 2006

CASSADAGA, N.Y. July 13 — Ralph Phillips was a 43-year-old car thief and a burglar with a record as long as his dark ponytail — and, it turned out, a little pluck, too, which everyone missed until the day he ended up in a jailhouse kitchen with a can opener and no one looking.

State troopers ran a checkpoint on Thursday in Cassadaga, N.Y., in the area that is the focus of the search for Ralph Phillips, who has been at large since fleeing jail in April.

He was serving 90 days for a parole violation. After he escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility near Buffalo, prying a hole in the ceiling with that opener, people in Chautauqua County, in the southwest corner of the state, just shrugged. Until it was disclosed that Bucky, as he is known around here where he grew up, had only had four days left until his release, and then they laughed.

But something else unexpected has happened: No one can find Bucky Phillips.

He escaped more than 100 days ago, on April 2. On June 10, a state trooper was injured, shot by a round that the police say Mr. Phillips fired. The manhunt has intensified, with roadblocks and traffic stops becoming a way of life in the rural counties of western New York and the Southern Tier. On June 25, during such a traffic stop in Sheridan, a police officer shot and killed a 25-year-old man during a scuffle over the man’s all-terrain vehicle. And this week the state police doubled the reward for information leading to Mr. Phillips’s arrest, to $50,000.

All this time, the authorities and locals believe, Mr. Phillips has been hiding out in the woods. He turned 44 out there, somewhere, last month. With every passing day, and every new roadblock and automobile search, and with mounting anger in this community after the fatal shooting, his image among some has shifted from anonymous vagabond and goofy escapee to something of a minor folk hero.

As his legend has grown over hamburger lunches at Grandma’s Family Kitchen and squawking police scanners in people’s living rooms, T-shirts ask the question that no one in charge seems able to answer: “Where’s Bucky?”

Other T-shirts, sold online and in Indian reservation tobacco shops, take a stand that might seem remarkable in such a law-and-order community, where many do not bother locking their doors: “Run, Bucky, Run.”

“He’s in for the long haul,” said Doug Canfield, 72, a retired factory worker in Sinclairville. “If I picked him up on the road, I’d give him a free meal and clean clothes and tell him to get the hell out of here.”

The county is home to hunting camps, vineyards and the Chautauqua Institution, where President Bill Clinton prepared for his 1996 debate with Bob Dole. The village of Cassadaga does not have a police department, or even a police officer, and people routinely leave their keys in their trucks. Now, every few hundred yards, state troopers sit parked on dirt roads like families on a picnic. There are more squad cars than homes on some stretches.

“I just think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Mr. Canfield, who says he does not believe that Mr. Phillips is capable of having shot the trooper.

posted by Steve @ 1:18:00 AM

1:18:00 AM

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