Friday, March 17, 2006
A Tragic Tale
ORIGINAL STORY HERE
March 17, 2006
An Officer Seen as a Hero Faces a Year Behind Bars
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL and DAN FROSCH
CLOUDCROFT, N.M. — Sgt. Billy Anders knew something was terribly wrong. The fresh blood spots outside the roadside cabin, the hatchback with the open rear door in the driveway and the instincts he had honed as a big-city cop in San Antonio gave him reason to be alarmed.
His gut was right.
What happened in the next few minutes on that freezing night in December 2004 would leave two men dead, a community in shock and Sergeant Anders, a beloved local sheriff's officer nearing retirement, charged with killing a handcuffed prisoner. A video camera in the sergeant's own patrol truck was unblinking witness.
That the victim was a white supremacist ex-convict, Earl Flippen, who had just killed his pregnant girlfriend and Sergeant Anders's partner, sprayed gunfire around the girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter and barely missed shooting Sergeant Anders at point-blank range, was beside the point.
Sergeant Anders, who received a minimal one-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter with a firearm, says he has trouble remembering exactly what happened but recalls that he fired to save himself and the little girl.
"I remember he was moving and I considered him a threat," he said in a rambling interview. "I don't remember shooting him when he was handcuffed."
Still, said Sergeant Anders, who was sentenced on March 3, his 63rd birthday: "I'm a reasonable person; I can't argue with the videotape. If I crossed the line, I have to take responsibility."
The sergeant spoke on March 9 while working his way through Cloudcroft's quaint wooden shopping arcade, enveloped in goodbye embraces from supporters. [He began serving his sentence on March 10.]
The case has devastated this close-knit frontier town nearly 9,000 feet above Alamogordo's atomic-testing desert, where drivers say they have no need to use their turn signals: everyone already knows where everyone else is going.
Many see Sergeant Anders as a hero, and supporters have raised the $50,000 that his legal defense cost.
"As far as I'm concerned, Billy did everyone a favor," said Charliss Randall, who works in the Copper Butterfly gift shop. Mr. Flippen had already killed his girlfriend, Ms. Randall noted, adding, "Who else would he kill?"
The emergency workers who rushed to the cabin that night credit Sergeant Anders with saving their lives. "I'm convinced that had he not eliminated the threat, Flippen would have started picking us off," Grady McCright, a former volunteer fire chief of a neighboring community, said outside the sentencing hearing.
But the district attorney, Scot D. Key, said he had had no choice: "It goes without saying that when you have a videotape that clearly shows a police execution, it's just screaming for prosecution."
If Sergeant Anders had not agreed to plead guilty, Mr. Key said, federal prosecutors, concerned about the possibility of acquittal by a state jury, were prepared to try him under a civil rights statute that could have sent him to prison for life. His guilty plea carried a sentence of up to seven years; the one year the judge gave him was the lightest possible term.
In truth, Sergeant Anders said, he should not have been on duty the night of Dec. 18, 2004. It was his 11th wedding anniversary, and he was fighting off a case of stomach flu. But when a call came in to 911 reporting a quarrel and shots fired 10 miles east of Cloudcroft, he insisted on joining his partner and best friend, Deputy Robert Hedman.
The call took them to a cabin rented by Mr. Flippen, a 38-year-old career criminal whose "white pride" tattoos proclaimed his membership in the Aryan Brotherhood.
Shortly before the deputies pulled up, Mr. Flippen had shot to death his 30-year-old girlfriend, Deborah Rhoudes, then eight months pregnant, and rolled her body into a rug for loading into his waiting hatchback. Ms. Rhoudes's 3-year-old daughter, Victoria, was also there.
In the interview on March 9, which began at the cabin, now sealed off, Sergeant Anders said a shirtless Mr. Flippen, barring the two officers from entering, had explained the bloodstains as coming from a deer he had killed, and had then slammed the door. Sergeant Anders radioed for backup, while Deputy Hedman crept to the back of the house.
When he heard a shot from the back, Sergeant Anders rushed the cabin. But Mr. Flippen, who in the darkness had slipped through the front door unseen with Victoria, popped up from behind the hatchback and fired a shot from his .357 Magnum Peacemaker at the startled sergeant, who was just feet away.
"It felt like a Civil War cannon in my face," Sergeant Anders recalled. "I thought the left side of my head was gone." Actually the bullet had torn through his jacket, searing his left arm.
In 31 years as a law enforcement officer, he said, he had never fired his weapon on duty, but now he pulled the trigger of his Glock semiautomatic four times, striking Mr. Flippen in the forehead and left hand and arm.
At this point, the sergeant's recollections and the videotape diverge. Repeating what he had told investigators, he said he recalled having seen Mr. Flippen squirming on the ground with the Magnum nearby and having shot him again in the body. Afterward, he said, he moved the gun out of reach and handcuffed him.
But the videotape and its audio from the sergeant's body microphone tell a different story. After downing Mr. Flippen, Sergeant Anders handcuffs him as Victoria, whom Mr. Flippen was helping to raise, wails nearby, over and over: "Don't shoot my daddy!"
Sergeant Anders says: "I won't, honey. Back up, honey."
He tells Mr. Flippen, "You lay there, buddy," and rushes to the back of the house, shouting: "Bob! Bob!" He finds his partner's body — draped over a railing, a bullet in the head — and gasps, "Oh God, Bob!"
Then he returns to Mr. Flippen, shoos the little girl inside and fires a single shot into his chest.
The next police officer on the scene, Terry Flanigan, said he had found Sergeant Anders all but catatonic, propped up on his truck. He found Ms. Rhoudes's body "stuffed in a closetlike garbage," and the little girl, who had minor wounds from a bullet fragment, crying that her sister was still in the house. Officers later realized she had meant her dead mother's unborn baby.
When investigators played the videotape for Sergeant Anders three days after the shootings, he seemed stunned. He said he had no memory of shooting Mr. Flippen after handcuffing him.
"I remember being afraid," he said, according to transcripts of interviews with the investigators. "I remember being worried for Bob. I remember the little girl screaming and carrying, you know, carrying on, being upset. But, God, I don't remember that."
Later, when Sergeant Anders was indicted and turned himself in, the Otero County sheriff, John Blansett, a mammoth, easygoing man, wept.
Fifteen months after the shooting, the case still bruises Cloudcroft, not simply because of Deputy Hedman's death but also out of concern for Sergeant Anders and an appreciation for the hellish circumstances of that night.
By all accounts at the sentencing hearing, Sergeant Anders was more than a standout officer. He was a model citizen known for a warm demeanor and for using humor to defuse dangerous situations.
"Billy was one of the greatest and most compassionate cops we ever had," said Willie Walker, a former colleague with the San Antonio Police Department, where Sergeant Anders spent 23 years as a patrol officer and SWAT team commander before retiring as a captain and moving to Cloudcroft with his wife in 1998.
As Sergeant Anders made his farewell rounds through Cloudcroft on March 9, residents turned out to wish him well. A man in a cowboy hat clapped him on the shoulder, enfolded him in a crushing embrace and said, "Behind you, brother."
Posted by Nikki at 3/17/2006 08:35:00 PM