CARROLL, N.Y. – Days before breaking out of jail in April, a disconsolate Ralph "Bucky" Phillips sent his parole lawyer a thank you note that hinted at an ominous turn in his life.
"I'm just not cut out for the life you folks live. I tried it, it didn't work," Phillips wrote, nearing the end of a 90-day sentence for a parole violation and fearing that his sentence was going to be extended — for months, if not years.
A petty criminal for most of his life, he'd only left prison in November after 13 years for burglary and larceny. Out of the past 23 years, he spent 20 in state prisons.
Friends and relatives insist Phillips was trying to straighten up. But then he became the suspect in the shootings of three state troopers, including one who died, and was pursued in the state's largest manhunt ever. He was placed on the FBI's most wanted list.
Phillips, 44, surrendered without firing a shot Friday night just across the Pennsylvania line. He appeared in courts in two counties Saturday to face the first of many charges, including attempted murder.
Despite a long disciplinary record in prison that included fights with fellow inmates, he had no criminal history of violence.
Phillips' court-appointed parole lawyer isn't sure what happened.
"He's certainly no angel," John Keavey said. "But the Phillips I knew was definitely not some kind of animal. This was a guy who was really trying to turn his life around when he came out of prison, who wanted just to work and reconnect with his daughter and was not allowed to."
"He simply wanted to be a father and grandfather and work and see family, just like the rest of us," Keavey said.
Phillips got a job repairing machinery soon after his prison release in November, said his employer and longtime friend, Dan Suitor.
"I know what he's accused of doing, you can't get any worse than that," Suitor said. "But to know him the way I have for as long as I have, up to this point I could never say a bad word about him. He's very generous, very giving, very caring."
Phillips spent Christmas Day with his former girlfriend and their 23-year-old daughter, who was pregnant with her third child. Until then, he'd known his daughter only from prison visits.
In January, Phillips violated his parole when he was ejected from a halfway house following an argument with a counselor who refused to give him a pass to visit family.
Back in jail, Phillips wrote to Keavey in late March.
"I just wanted you to know I enjoyed meeting you and I hope you and your kids will always be able to share the things that make your life most happy," Phillips wrote. "At least one of us has it."
Within days, authorities said, Phillips started his high-profile flight from justice. He used a can opener to cut a hole in the kitchen ceiling at the Erie County jail near Buffalo and escape on April 2.
On June 10, Phillips allegedly shot Trooper Sean Brown during a traffic stop near Elmira. Brown survived.
Phillips had threatened "suicide by cop" in the past and once, as he left a county jail, left a note promising "to splatter pig meat all over Chautauqua County."
Police say he sealed the promise on Aug. 31. Two members of a state police team, Joseph Longobardo and Donald Baker Jr., were ambushed by a sniper who was in woods behind the isolated log cabin of Phillips' former girlfriend, Kasey Crowe.
Baker, 38, was critically injured by a bullet that penetrated his bullet-resistant vest from the back and passed through his torso. Longobardo, 32, was struck in the leg by a bullet that severed a major artery; he died Sept. 3.
In the weeks leading up to those shootings, authorities said Phillips zigzagged across western New York state and into Pennsylvania, stealing vehicles and helping himself to food, clothes and guns in unattended homes and hunting cabins.
Phillips was an experienced woodsman, familiar with the hilly terrain. That and help from a network of friends and relatives kept Phillips one jump ahead, police said.
Seven people — including Crowe and the daughter she had with Phillips — were arrested for allegedly helping him evade custody.
Friends said those arrests might have enraged Phillips enough to attack the troopers.
"Buck has made it clear numerous times over the years, you don't mess with his family and you don't mess with his friends," Suitor said.
After Phillips' jail escape, he attracted widespread attention in the region. A restaurant served a "Bucky Burger" and area bars sold "Got Bucky?" T-shirts.
State police said the tone changed after the shootings of Baker and Longobardo, and the eroding safety net may have undone Phillips.
"His comfort zone became his destruction point," Bennett said when asked what brought Phillips down. "He's cocky. He got really confident in his ability to get away."