LOS ANGELES — More than two weeks have passed since Lawrence Phillips was found unresponsive in his stark California prison cell, said to have hung himself.
But many of those close to the ultra-talented but flawed football star remain mystified why a man so steadfastly upbeat despite a decade behind bars would suddenly take his own life. In fact, a large number of his supporters are absolutely convinced he didn’t die at his own hand.
“Lawrence Phillips didn’t kill himself,’’ said Vershan Jackson, a friend who played football with Phillips at the University of Nebraska.
Though facing a murder charge in the death of a cellmate, Jackson and others say Phillips remained confident he’d be acquitted on his self-defense claim. And his attorneys have cast doubt on the suicide note that prison officials purportedly found stuffed in his sock, saying its handwriting does not match that of letters Phillips sent them.
California authorities, however, give no credence to such talk.
The prosecutor in Phillips’ murder case, based on her briefing from prison officials, sees no reason to believe Phillips’ death was anything other than what it appears on its face: a man facing a murder charge deciding to take his own life while in solitary lock-up, just hours after an emotional court hearing did not go his way.
“It sounded clear to us it was a suicide,’’ said Andi Bridges, deputy district attorney in Kern County.
As enigmatic and controversial as Phillips was during his 40-year life, it seems he remains equally so in death.
A full coroner’s report on his death isn’t due for weeks. Meanwhile, his attorneys say they’re moving to hire civil rights lawyers to conduct an independent investigation.
So where does the truth lie?
To learn more, The World-Herald dug into the circumstances surrounding Phillips’ death, speaking to friends of Phillips, his team of attorneys, prison officials and the chief prosecutor in his murder case. The newspaper also reviewed letters Phillips wrote from prison and the transcript of the potentially pivotal court hearing Phillips attended just hours before his Jan. 13 death.
While many questions remain, the examination shed considerable light on just what transpired during the final months and hours of Phillips’ tragic life.
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In 2005 — a decade after he made headlines nationally for assaulting a former girlfriend in Lincoln and subsequently helping lead Nebraska’s powerhouse Cornhuskers to a second straight national championship — Lawrence Phillips landed in California’s penal system.
He was convicted of angrily driving a car into a group of youths he believed had stolen from him. He was subsequently also convicted in a domestic assault case — one of numerous instances after he left Nebraska in which he was accused of violently lashing out at women close to him.
California authorities threw the book at him, sentencing Phillips to more than 31 years behind bars.
As inmate G-31982, Phillips bounced around California’s vast network of prisons. He ultimately landed at Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum security lockup some two hours north of Los Angeles in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
By all accounts, Phillips led a very quiet life behind bars.
He read voraciously. He was a prolific letter writer. He worked out intensely, retaining much of the physique that had made the 6-foot, 220-pounder such a physical specimen on the football field.
Phillips also spent long hours personally working on appeals of his convictions. In fact, he was feeling optimistic about his chances of getting his long sentence cut.
“I feel it here too. I will be out of here soon,’’ he wrote in February to Tony Zane, his high school coach.
In all pursuits, Phillips largely kept to himself, and it appears he generally followed the rules, facing few write-ups for misbehavior.
But both prison officials and friends are in agreement on another facet of Phillips’ prison life: He did not like having cellmates.
Friends say it was because Phillips spurned the gang culture that runs rampant through California’s violent prisons.
Once in 2010, court documents indicate, Phillips got into a fight with a cellmate that Phillips said was “talking Crip crap.’’ Vershan Jackson said Phillips in 2011 was stabbed by a gang member.
Ty Pagone, a longtime mentor and friend of Phillips, said Phillips once was assigned to spend six straight months in “the hole’’ — a segregation unit for dangerous or misbehaving inmates — for his refusal to room with a gang member. Indeed, court documents suggest that Phillips on numerous occasions refused cellmates that prison officials attempted to assign him.
“I don’t take cellies,’’ one prison official quoted him in court testimony. “I just don’t. It ain’t going to happen. I’ll just take the write-up. Or you might as well send me to the hole. I’m sorry.’’
However, double-bunking is generally the rule in California’s badly overcrowded prison system. Prison officials persisted.
Several times in 2014 and early 2015, officers moved Phillips into a cell with another inmate only to have the two cellmates mutually agree the arrangement wasn’t working. His attorneys believe most of those inmates were gang members.
On one occasion in 2014, Phillips blocked the entrance to his cell and refused to allow another inmate to be moved in, even after he was assured by a guard that the other inmate was not a gang member. According to court documents, the guard said it was obvious to him at that point that Phillips didn’t just oppose gang members as cellmates. He didn’t want a cellmate at all.
On the afternoon of April 9, prison officials made what would become the final effort to get Phillips a cellmate. A guard escorted Damion Soward into Phillips’ cell.
This time, there clearly was no effort to keep Phillips away from a gang member. Soward had a well-known gang association, serving an 82-year to life sentence for an execution-style killing of a rival gang member. Phillips’ attorneys said Soward also had 32 behavioral write-ups behind bars, including weapons possession.
It initially appeared that Phillips was accepting of the arrangement. He shook Soward’s hand and even went downstairs to help Soward carry his belongings to the cell.
But within 36 hours of moving in, Soward was dead.
A night-shift officer who checked on the inmates at 12:15 a.m. April 11 found them in their bunks with the lights out and the TV on.
Just a half-hour later, Phillips summoned officers to his cell by calling out “Man down!’’
There, they found Phillips standing by the door and Soward on the floor, motionless. A guard said Phillips was “oddly calm’’ as he was cuffed and led away.
Authorities determined Soward had been strangled, Phillips having used an arm bar hold across his neck.
Phillips’ supporters don’t dispute he killed Soward. But they say he was acting in self-defense — a posture they still maintain.
Hired by his family, based on payments Phillips was expected to receive as part of the NFL’s concussion settlement, the attorneys say Phillips told them Soward took a swing at him. He deflected the blow, ducked under and quickly put Soward in a “sleeper’’ hold.
“We believed wholeheartedly in his defense, and we still do,’’ said Clayton Campbell, one of Phillips’ attorneys.
Prosecutors said evidence didn’t support Phillips’ version of events. They allege Phillips waited until Soward fell asleep and then attacked.
Phillips had no injuries suggesting that he had struggled with Soward, prosecutors said, with the only mark on Phillips’ body a slight abrasion on his forearm.
Like Phillips, Soward was an imposing man, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing almost 230 pounds. Yet there was no sign of a big struggle in the tiny cell, and little was out of place despite just 3 feet of floor space between the inmates’ bunks and lockers.
Prosecutors ultimately charged Phillips with first-degree murder and “lying in wait’’: concealing murderous intent and striking from a position of advantage by surprising the victim. The lying-in-wait stipulation made the case eligible for California’s death penalty, though prosecutors had not decided whether to pursue it.
The first test of the state’s case against Phillips came at his preliminary hearing on Jan. 12, a court proceeding intended to show whether prosecutors had enough evidence for the case to move forward.
Phillips left the razor-wired walls of Kern Valley for the appearance in the county courthouse in Bakersfield. And he shed his standard blue prison garb, donning a sharp new tan sport coat, gray slacks and purple tie.
“I’m good, thank you,’’ Phillips said when the judge asked how he was.
The state laid out its case, including testimony about Phillips’ unwillingness to accept a cellmate — what prosecutors saw as his motive for murdering Soward.
During the hearing, a San Diego police detective testified that Phillips had in 2005 repeatedly strangled a girlfriend in that city to the point of unconsciousness. Another officer, from Beverly Hills, testified that in 2000 Phillips had similarly strangled another girlfriend until she was unconscious.
Prosecutor Bridges said the testimony showed that Phillips had previously been guilty of “strangulation acts’’ and had prior knowledge of what it would take to kill someone that way.
“He knew what he was doing,’’ Bridges stated in court.
Prosecutors also read the judge a letter Phillips wrote to his mom after Soward moved in.
“It will almost certainly not work out,’’ he wrote. “But not to worry. This nonsense is a part of prison. I may have to give them what they want.’’
In Phillips’ defense that day, attorney Jesse Whitten said the reason Phillips didn’t want to be celled with gang members was because he wanted to avoid violent individuals.
“A gang member with a nongang member, you know, maybe only one of them leaves the cell alive,’’ Whitten said.
Whitten also said none of the evidence presented — including the lack of injuries to Phillips or undisturbed cell — contradicted Phillips’ self-defense claim. As Whitten later put it in an interview with The World-Herald: “Soward took a swing, (Phillips) ducked and got him in a hold. It happened pretty quick. No one claimed this was a tumultuous fight.’’
Bridges countered in court that if Phillips had just fought off an attack and killed a man, why was he “oddly calm’’ when led away? His adrenaline should have been racing. She also said Phillips’ own words in the letter to his mother spoke to his clear intent.
Said Bridges that day: “Mr. Phillips was going to give them what they wanted. He wasn’t going to tolerate this anymore. He wasn’t going to go through the motions anymore. He was done. And so was Mr. Soward, because he applied that arm bar hold to his neck and squeezed the life right out of him.’’
The judge promptly ruled there was enough evidence for Phillips to stand trial. The result was not unexpected. Cases rarely get thrown out at the preliminary hearing stage.
Nonetheless, multiple sources indicate Phillips afterward was upset.
He was caught by a local TV news camera accusing one of the prison officials who testified against him of lying.
Whitten in an interview acknowledged Phillips’ emotions were raw, and remained so as he was led away. Recalled Whitten: “The guard there said, ‘He’s kind of upset; you might want to talk to him.’ I said, ‘Are you OK?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
Whitten said the hearing had been personal for Phillips, who felt much of what had been said was untrue. Still, Whitten saw nothing in his final moments with Phillips that suggested the man was depressed or suicidal. “It was not a sense of giving up,’’ Whitten said. “He was ready to get in there and fight back.’’
Phillips returned to Kern Valley. And in a matter of hours, he was dead.
Just after midnight, a guard making rounds discovered Phillips. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour and a half later.
The coroner, prison officials and district attorney to this point have offered no details on the state in which Phillips was found other than to say his death was a suicide.
Phillips’ attorneys, however, say they were informed by the district attorney’s office that Phillips had hung himself and left a note.
The note was stuffed in Phillips’ sock and was ultimately given to Phillips’ mother with the rest of his possessions.
Whitten, who has seen the note, last week could not remember its exact contents. But the day before Phillips’ funeral, Whitten recalled to USA Today that one side of the note said: “Did you hear the one about the football player who hung himself from the TV mount in his cell?’’ The writer had later added an “X’’ before football player.
Whitten recalled the other side of the note began, “What’s the black person do?’’ and ended with, “They should just die.’’
A day after Phillips’ death, his mother publicly raised the prospect that her son had actually been murdered, her words read on an Omaha sports call-in show. It’s a belief still firmly held by most of those close to Phillips.
“I’m 100 percent certain he didn’t commit suicide,’’ said Zane, his high school coach. “Whatever happened in there, everyone I talk to says the same thing: There’s no way Lawrence killed himself.’’
Phillips was certainly a marked man behind bars after having killed a gang member, Zane and others said.
But given the conditions in which Phillips was locked up, it would have taken a conspiracy — including the complicity of prison staff — for Phillips to have been murdered.
Held in administrative segregation, Phillips was apart from all other inmates. And for anyone to gain access to his cell, the door would first have to be remotely unlocked by a control room officer on a separate tier of the prison.
“He basically had no physical contact with any other inmates,’’ said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The biggest red flag raised by Phillips’ supporters was the note found with his body. Whitten said the handwriting was “obviously different’’ from that of letters he’d seen from Phillips. Phillips’ letters were written in a flowing cursive. The note, Whitten said, was printed.
“This is suspicious as all get-out,’’ said Daniel Chamberlain, another member of Phillips’ legal team. “Let’s look at everything, take an independent review of it and see what happened.’’
However, in Zane’s Los Angeles-area home, a World-Herald reporter recently saw letters penned by Phillips in two different styles.
Most of the letters were in the neat cursive that Phillips’ friends frequently describe. But one letter was mostly printed. Additionally, Phillips appeared to have been upset when he wrote that printed letter.
In the printed letter, written in June, Phillips expressed concern that Zane and others had shared with the news media criticisms Phillips had written about gangs. Phillips said he should have been given a heads up first because of the danger the release could cause him.
“Are you guys crazy?’’ the letter began, much different than the “How are you doing coach?’’ he typically started letters with. “I know you’re only trying to help. Needless to say people in here are pissed off.’’
Bridges, the prosecutor in Phillips’ murder case, said she, too, was familiar with different writing styles from Phillips. It seemed plausible to her that a suicide note would not be written in his typical style.
“How can you anticipate what someone’s handwriting will be like when they are contemplating taking their own life,’’ she said. “I think that’s different than when you’re writing to a beloved coach or your mother.’’
She also noted that Phillips “didn’t seem pleased’’ as he left the courtroom on Jan. 12.
In the end, the biggest reason Phillips’ friends are so adamant that he wouldn’t kill himself is that it just doesn’t square with the Phillips they knew. Despite all the troubles he’d been through in life, from a childhood of abandonment to the controversy in Nebraska and more than a decade behind bars, they say Phillips remained unfailingly positive in his outlook.
Jackson, Phillips’ Nebraska teammate, recalled a day more than two decades ago, shortly after Phillips had arrived in Lincoln from a California group home. Phillips asked Jackson why he always walked with his head down.
“Ain’t nothing down but ground,’’ Phillips told him. The point: Phillips was always looking up, Jackson said.
“Lawrence Phillips was a lot of things,’’ Jackson said last week. “But to kill himself? That’s not one of them.’’
Given such feelings, it’s clear that even should the facts ultimately point to suicide, many of Phillips’ friends will continue to find it all hard to comprehend.
Indeed, in death, Phillips appears to remain much like the running back that tacklers so often struggled to get their arms around. Elusive to the end.
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