Forty-six years ago today, as a young reporter for UPI, I was in a courtroom in New York covering the final act of a sensational murder trial. (The defendant is pictured above, under arrest.)
From the beginning, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, the show’s stars lived up to their billing:
Bill Phillips, a New York City police detective, was charged with killing a pimp and a prostitute, and wounding her john, in a posh East Side apartment on Christmas Eve 1968.
A cop charged with such a crime would have been big news under any circumstances. But Phillips was also a celebrity of sorts, having been the star witness at the Knapp Commission hearings into corruption in the NYPD.
For days during the fall of 1971, Phillips testified, live on television, about his fourteen years on the force pursuing payoffs and perks to support his playboy lifestyle. He bragged of owning five airplanes, driving a fancy foreign sportscar, frequenting the hot nightspots and fine dining establishments on Manhattan’s East Side, jetting off with stewardess girlfriends to ski weekends in Colorado and golf vacations in Palm Springs – all either on the house or on the proceeds of the graft he took from mobsters and other criminals – while his clueless wife in Queens thought he was out making cases as a police detective.
He admitted he would have still been shoveling in the cash if he hadn’t been caught on tape trying to take protection money from an East Side madam – Xaviera Hollander, The Happy Hooker – and turned into an informant for the commission in exchange for immunity from prosecution and round-the-clock protection by U.S. Marshals.
Phillips said being charged with an old unsolved murder was a frame-up to get back at him for informing on other cops and to discredit testimony he was scheduled to give against them. He hired F. Lee Bailey, probably the best known and most flamboyant lawyer in the country, to defend him.
Considering the players and the case – rogue cop, celebrity lawyer, pimp and hooker shot in the head, on Christmas Eve, no less – it was a dream for my first murder trial.
It began in late June 1972 in a large, stately courtroom on the thirteenth-floor of the Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. Behind the bench was State Supreme Court Justice John Murtagh, silver-haired and square-jawed, right out of Central Casting.
For the prosecution was Assistant District Attorney John Kennan, wiry, combative, in an off-the-rack suit, looking every bit the honest and overworked civil servant.
Bailey, appearing older than his thirty-nine years, led the defense team, his ruddy complexion well scrubbed after a night of scotches and manly bravado, his chunky build packed into a well-tailored three-piece suit.
And then there was the defendant, forty-two-year-old William R. Phillips, every hair in place, fashionably long sideburns, conservative suit, Windsor knot in his silk tie, fresh shine on his Gucci loafers …
The prosecution’s case was based primarily on eyewitness testimony. Four prostitutes, who the courthouse wags christened “Hogan’s Hookers” – Frank Hogan was the longtime Manhattan district attorney – each testified that Phillips had been a frequent visitor to the apartment of their pimp, Jimmy Smith, also known as James Goldberg. (Only in New York would someone named Smith use Goldberg as an alias.)
They didn’t say they saw Phillips on the night of the murders but that he’d come by occasionally – not for sex – that they knew he was a cop, and they assumed Jimmy was paying him protection money.
The doorman and another employee identified Phillips as the man who entered the building at 157 East 57thStreet and went to Smith’s apartment, 11-F.
Then Charles Gonzales took the stand. He was the forty-year-old john who had just finished having sex with nineteen-year-old Sharon Stango when the killer arrived.
Gonzales said he was sitting on a living room couch with Smith and Stango when the visitor pulled a .38 from his coat pocket, shot Smith once and Stango twice – both in the head – and fired a bullet through Gonzales’s arm, into his gut, before walking out of the apartment.
Gonzales was a pathetic excuse for a man, a father of four who had spent Christmas Eve drinking with his buddies before going to have sex with a teenager. But, though Bailey at times seemed to shake the sweaty witness, Gonzales insisted that Phillips was the shooter.
The prosecution alleged Phillips killed Smith because the pimp was holding out on a $1,000 payoff. Why did it take three years to identify Phillips as the shooter? The prosecution said it was a lucky break, that the homicide detective on the case was watching Phillips on TV, testifying before the Knapp Commission, when he realized Phillips fit the description of the suspect in the Smith-Stango murders.
The defense countered that the detective was angry at Phillips for portraying the NYPD as institutionally corrupt, and fit Phillips for the frame. Bailey relied mainly on alibi witnesses – Phillips’s wife and other family members – who said he spent Christmas Eve with them.
The main event came when Keenan cross-examined the defendant. Phillips freely admitted he’d been a crook with a badge, that he’d lied and cheated and abused his authority at every turn to feed his greed. But he never flinched when it came to the murders.
Didn’t do it. Wasn’t there.
It was an impressive performance by a truly repulsive man. I believed him.
But, in the end, on August 9, 1972, after 22 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury announced it could not reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.
I interviewed Phillips the next day in his motel room, guarded by U.S. Marshals, and again seven years later, in Attica, after he was convicted at a second trial. He served 32 years in prison before being paroled in 2007 at the age of 77.
I recently corresponded with a filmmaker who made a documentary on the case called Patrolman P. and remains in touch with Phillips.
There is much more on the trial and my experiences with the main characters – including a sexy blonde who was my seatmate at the press table – as well as other cops and crooks, in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.