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Friday, September 15, 2006

Pennsylvania's Crime Fighting Deer

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., Sept. 16, 2006.)
When "Bucky" entered the woods,
he wasn't entering his comfort zone.
He was putting himself within a
short reach of the long arm of the law.
Three deer gave the final tip to a Sheriff's Deputy in rural Warren County, Pennsylvania.

The manhunt captivated the entire nation, and local Sheriff's Deputies were in on the beginning and the end of the chase. The final pursuit of Ralph "Bucky" Phillips apparently began in the wee hours on Friday, September 8. A prowler had been reported on the east side of Warren before midnight. A couple of hours later a car was stolen on Cobham Park Road. Two alert deputies gave chase on Scandia Road. The driver ditched the car and used the darkness to evade them.

Phillips was then chased in another stolen car about ten miles north of that location, at or near the intersection of four rural roads and just a few hundred yards from the New York border. When he entered the woods there, he wasn't entering his comfort zone. He was putting himself within a short reach of the long arm of the law.

From where Phillips began fleeing on foot, it's not far through the woods to where he was captured. With a steep rocky hillside on his left, he probably followed the stream down the valley to easier terrain, diverse vegetation and limited choices. Entering Cable Hollow Golf Course to his east would reduce him to a fat goose sitting on a golf course pond. Well-traveled roadways to his west, with law enforcement surrounding him on the ground and in the air, took away every other option.

Early in the evening a Warren County Sheriff's Deputy glimpsed Phillips along a fencerow bordering a field. Police watched the area intently, and a little more than an hour later, evening's waning sunlight brought Phillips one big disadvantage he never expected.

Ironically, he had entered territory that another Sheriff's Deputy happened to know very well -- where he watches three whitetail deer leave a woodlot and cross the field every evening. But this time the deer stopped, then retreated. The deputy is a deer hunter. He knew the deer had a reason for turning back -- the deer knew Phillips was at the fencerow. The deputy picked up his binoculars, picked out the fugitive, and pointed him out to State Troopers saying, "There he is. He's right there."

One New York Trooper said, "I'll go down there if someone will go with me." The deputy said, "Let's go." Within moments a half dozen deputies and a dozen Pennsylvania and New York State Troopers reached the fencerow. Phillips put his hands up. Red dot laser sights on their weapons "lit him up like a Christmas tree." He didn't have a chance. He never did.

This jail escapee had been compared to "The Fugitive" of TV and movie fame, but Ralph Phillips was no Dr. Richard Kimble. And apparently, the rumors about Phillips' outdoor expertise were bogus. Phillips was characterized as an experienced woodsman. A few people were led to believe he had some mystical ability to live off the land. If that's a reason to believe he had any survival skills at all, it's not enough.

It's reasonable to assume he knew squat about living off the land. For 20 of his last 23 years he had been incarcerated, giving him little opportunity to develop outdoor skills. Whatever applicable experience he had was probably next to nothing. He might as well have been from Bahrain for all he knew about survival in the Pennsylvania woods.

By the time he was captured, he had been chased relentlessly for about 18 hours and had been on the lam for over five months. Rather than self-sufficiency, he depended on the aid and comfort of others. Unless someone had packed him a lunch, or he had filched some fruit from Mom Nature's bounty, he was hopelessly hungry. And thirsty. And in no shape to face another night of darkness in the woods.

Threatening statements he was reported to have made -- plus the recent tragic shootings of three New York State Troopers -- gave reason to believe he was committed to killing as many policemen as he could. But when the end came, he had no fight left in him. Hunger and dehydration, as well as exhaustion, took a toll on his depraved intentions and left him completely drained. He was finished.

The largest manhunt in New York State history ended in Akeley, Pennsylvania when a Warren County Sheriff's Deputy noted the reaction of three deer, and deduced from their behavior where Phillips was hiding. Some woodsman "Bucky" was. A doe and her fawns were the key to bagging one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted.

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