case is about one thing. Deception."
Phillips, six-year veteran of the Cuyahoga County prosecutors' office, stood in
front of the jury and the Court TV camera broadcasting his final argument live
across the country.
with ex-football-player shoulders, confident and friendly, he connected with
juries right away. When he spoke, they'd sit up and listen, eyes fixed on him.
have the deception of Tonica Jenkins. Her first deception is the conspiracy
and his partner were trying to prove that Tonica Jenkins had plotted to kill
Melissa Latham and pass the body off as her own to avoid federal drug charges.
needs to get a victim. She needs to get somebody to be her."
and her co-conspirators found Latham in a crack house, asked her to join an
insurance scam, and had Latham go to a dentist for X-rays using Jenkins' name.
Then, Jenkins' cousin bashed Latham's head with a brick and Jenkins shot Latham
up with so much insulin it almost killed her. They thought the dental records
would fool police into thinking Jenkins was dead. But Latham regained
consciousness and escaped.
needs to get somebody to be her and have that person be killed."
was Phillips' big chance to prove his talent, to prove that county prosecutor
Bill Mason had been right not to fire him. He'd been disciplined three times
for getting involved in cases he wasn't supposed to touch. He came to work
late, left early and often winged it at trial. But Mason kept giving him more
chances. Phillips was just too good a lawyer.
else would Melissa Latham get a name like Tonica Jenkins? She gets it from the
deceiver, Tonica Jenkins."
deceive, deception; he repeated the words 22 times, to leave an impression.
knows how to stir an audience. He's an ordained Baptist minister who's been
preaching the Gospel since he was 5, in church with his father, one of Denver's
leading black pastors.
ladies and gentlemen, Tonica Jenkins is trying now to deceive you all."
even as he delivered his impassioned argument on TV, some of Phillips'
co-workers had begun to suspect that he, too, was a deceiver. There were rumors
in the county jail that a prosecutor named Aaron would fix cases for money.
wants you to believe that she had nothing to do with this. But her name, her
fingerprints, her face [are] all over this crime. She is a deceiver and she
wants you not to be intelligent enough to see through her deceiving ways."
bosses couldn't take him off the Jenkins trial on the word of a jailhouse
snitch. But they'd seen cell-phone records that showed Phillips had been in
contact with one of the inmates.
is the greatest country in the world to live in," he declared in his
commanding, cadenced voice. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. We
have great rights here. One of those rights [is], we have a right not to be a
deputies had convinced a judge to let their informant out of jail. He was
waiting for Phillips to return his calls.
matter who you are, whether you're a crackhead, whether you're an alcoholic,
whether you're black, whether you're white, we have a right not to be a
jury returned its verdict the next day: guilty. The judge sentenced Jenkins to
20 years in prison. Phillips talked about the verdict that night on Court TV's
"Catherine Crier Live."
A day later, he returned the informant's call. Meet me tonight at
5, he said.
Phillips' charisma always attracted people, always made him a
success. When he was 15, he started his own church. "He recruited young
men off the street and baptized them in our pool," remembers his father,
Rev. Acen Phillips, a past vice president of the National Baptist Convention.
"He had a tremendous desire to evangelize and tell people about Jesus. He
was not old enough to drive a car when he first started the church. I literally
drove him through a snowstorm to visit members." The church, Mount Calvary
Baptist, is still active in Denver, under a different name.
star running back in high school, Phillips turned down a college football
scholarship to move to Casper, Wyo., and become pastor of its Christ First
Missionary Baptist Church at age 18. He attended college and law school in
Casper, founded the local NAACP chapter and remained a pastor for 11 years. He
married just before he turned 20 and had three daughters with his wife. He was
already the father of a daughter born to a high-school girlfriend when he was
1996, Phillips left his family; moved to Cleveland; filed for divorce, citing
"irreconcilable differences"; and applied for a job with the
prosecutor's office here. "Sensitive to the needs of the downtrodden with
the intelligence of the elite," read his business card, which identified
him as a lawyer and minister. He became assistant pastor at the Original
Harvest Missionary Baptist Church on Kinsman Road in Cleveland. He married his
second wife in 1998. In 1999, he ran for mayor of Warrensville Heights,
finishing fourth out of five candidates.
and affable, Phillips was one of the most popular people in the prosecutor's
office. He emceed its annual awards ceremony. Co-workers laughed about his wild
suits: one checkerboard, one velvet, one purple.
a likable guy, friendly, almost always in a good mood," says Lou Brodnik,
who shared an office with him. "That's something we treasure here, [since
we're] always surrounded by the downside of humanity."
when sheriff's deputies told prosecutors they were investigating Phillips, his
bosses figured nothing would come of it.
didn't believe for a second that Aaron was taking money to affect a case,"
Mason says. "I get a complaint about my assistants every other month,
somebody saying someone is doing something wrong. We always check it out. It never
prosecutors warned the deputies that Phillips had been in trouble before. He
was suspended in 2000 for defending an accused criminal in Garfield Heights
Municipal Court, a conflict of interest for a prosecutor. He also got a scolding
letter from his supervisors for intervening in another prosecutor's case and
not objecting when the defendant, who'd beaten someone with a bat, received
nothing more than probation. "Any further misconduct or misfeasance by you
... will result in your termination," the letter warned.
he wasn't fired. Not after a supervisor chewed him out for prosecuting a man
who'd hired his private-practice officemate, Donald Butler, as an attorney. Nor
after the court of appeals wrote that it was "troubled by the appearance
of impropriety" in that case. Not after a bad performance review in
January 2001 said he was "ill-prepared, inconsistent and unreliable."
And not after his bosses discovered that, even though Mason had told his
less-experienced lawyers to close down their private practices, Phillips was
still advertising his practice — and offering criminal-case referrals. He
served a one-week suspension for the ad in November 2002, as the bribery
liked Aaron," says Mason. "He had a lot of issues, but I worked with
him because he had a lot of talent. … He was able to get results in a
Aaron had a row of things that happened, I always balanced that with what he
provides for this office. The office was benefiting."
pauses. "I hate to venture into this, but it's very difficult to hire
African-American attorneys, period. Male African-_American attorneys — there's
a smaller pool of people to hire. The big firms pay an African-American
attorney $120,000 a year. I can't do that. Certainly, when you have tal_ent, I
try to keep it."
even gave Phillips a 33 percent raise, to almost $56,000, in April 2001, three
months after his bad review. Phillips' ex-girlfriend had just sued him for
child support and he was thinking he'd have to get a better-paying job.
"I'm going to give you the money, but I expect you to produce," Mason
recalls telling him. "The gist of our conversation was, 'You've got to get
on the ball.' "
month later, Phillips won one of his biggest cases yet, co-prosecuting Angela
Garcia for murder for setting a fire that killed her two children. Two previous
trials had ended in hung juries. Tom Shaughnessy, who defended Garcia, says the
prosecution's new theory about how the fire started made the difference, but he
gives Phillips credit for tying the case together in the final argument. He
could "summarize entire cases in a few but effective words to a
jury," Shaughnessy says. "He could break it down to an everyday-man
was promoted to community prosecutor for East Cleveland and, in 2002, he
successfully prosecuted two East Cleveland gang members for murder.
"With Aaron, I always believed I was turning him
around," Mason says. "I thought he was going to make everybody
quiet Friday — Oct. 25, 2002 — Phillips went to Judge Nancy Margaret Russo's
chambers and asked the judge's personal bailiff, Deena Lucci, for a favor. He
needed to talk to an informant in the county jail.
just need to go over his statement for trial," Lucci recalls him saying.
"It'll be five minutes and I don't want to go schedule a jail visit with
him, because I waited until the last minute."
was "a trusted friend," Lucci says. She called the jail.
the inmate, Devin Conner, wasn't anyone's informant. Another inmate had told
Conner, who was awaiting trial on a drug-trafficking charge, that a friend
could get criminal cases thrown out for money. Conner said he was interested.
Conner and Phillips were alone in a holding cell on the Justice Center's 18th floor.
know what I'm here for," Conner remembers Phillips saying. "I can
help you out with your situation."
asked Conner for $20,000. "He was revved up, like he was ready,"
recalls Conner. "He was like, 'Man, hurry up, get with me. I can have you
out the same day you give me the money.'
said $20,000 was a little steep," Conner says. His cellmate had quoted
$5,000 to fix the case. Phillips insisted: He needed $20,000.
was very persuasive," Conner says. "Him being a prosecutor, if
anybody could do it, he can. … He told me, 'You didn't think I was going to be
able to meet with you in person. You see I got that done. … I could lose my job
for me even meeting with you. I just wanted to show you that I can do what I
say I can do.' "
told Phillips he'd try to get the money to him.
Moran, the sheriff's deputy who took Conner to the meeting and back, was
suspicious. "It's very unusual for a prosecutor to be locked up in holding
cells with inmates," he says. "It was a red flag."
would the prosecutor want from you?" Moran asked Conner afterward.
wouldn't answer. But he did say Steven Bradley was one of his attorneys. So the
next time Moran saw Bradley on the 18th floor, he told him about the meeting.
went to the jail and asked Conner about it. Conner denied meeting with
Phillips. So Bradley got a record of the visit from the sheriff's records
office. He sent the county prosecutor's office a letter on Nov. 4, calling the
visit "a matter of great concern" and "extremely
supervisor asked Phillips why he had met with an inmate without his attorney.
Phillips said he wanted to use Conner as an informant on a murder case. His
bosses believed him.
on Nov. 21, a county jail inmate started telling sheriff's deputies about a
prosecutor named Aaron who took bribes. Word got to Sgt. Michael Jackson, who
remembered chatting with Bradley about Phillips' suspicious meeting.
brought the inmate, Edito Rosa, to their office. Rosa, jailed on a
domestic-violence charge, claimed that a cellmate named Robert Carter had
bragged about paying off "Aaron" to fix his case. The deputies had
Rosa call Carter's wife, Michelle, to ask for help from "Aaron."
talked to him earlier this morning. He's actually looking for a phone call from
me," Michelle Carter said. She gave Rosa the number for Phillips' private
practice. "You can either ask for Donald Butler or Aaron Phillips,"
he does fix cases, though, right?" Rosa asked.
"You want to talk to Aaron," Carter replied.
Feb. 13, two days after the Tonica Jenkins verdict, Phillips took Rosa into his
private office and closed the door. Sgt. Jackson and his boss, listening a
block away at the Justice Center, tensed.
can't be offended, but I gotta ask you this," Phillips said. "Lift up
deputies had set up the sting like their narcotics busts. Rosa was wearing
wires and carrying marked cash.
patted Rosa down. "You ain't talked to no cops? You're not wearing any
wires?" he asked.
deputies sat outside the building, ready to bail Rosa out. But the wires were
hidden too well. Phillips didn't find them.
going to go out on a big, big limb," Phillips said. "So we've got to
be able to trust each other."
night before, in Phillips' office, the prosecutor had taken $1,000 from Rosa
and told him he could get his case "squashed" for $4,000 to $5,000.
But Phillips had been vague about what he'd do.
wasn't vague now. "You can't ever know or say that you ever met me,"
he instructed. "And I'm going to take your case and fix it and handle it
promised Rosa he would tell the judge in his case that Rosa was working as an
informant in East Cleveland. That way, the judge would go easy on him. But
Phillips didn't know that the judge had already given Rosa probation after
investigators told her about Rosa's work on their case.
ain't bringing you no bullshit. I'm bringing you some real shit. This is a real
guarantee," Phillips vowed. He told Rosa to warn the victim in his case
not to testify.
said he had a friend, arrested on a heroin charge, who needed help, too.
he makes bond, have him come and see me right away," Phillips said.
got plenty of business," Rosa offered.
bring me substantial business, I'll work that off of your bill. But it's got to
was time to close the deal. Rosa gave him 10 $100 bills.
"This is a deal with the devil," Phillips said.
the 12 years I've been doing it, I've never heard a more damning tape,"
says Sgt. Jackson. "And I'm in narcotics. We record everything!"
and his boss, Lt. David Bartko, played the tape for Bill Mason and his
lieutenants the next morning, Feb. 14. Someone at Mason's end of the table
sure I swore," says Mason. "I was completely disgusted with Aaron.
[I] felt like it was treason." Mason told the deputies to get search
warrants and get ready to arrest Phillips.
lunchtime, a supervisor asked Phillips to talk to him in the conference room.
Phillips walked in and looked around, confused at all the prosecutors and
sheriff's deputies gathered there. Bartko introduced himself, shook Phillips'
hand and told him he was under arrest.
eyes fell to the floor. Deputies patted him down, found $1,620 of their marked
money in his pockets, and handcuffed him. They sat him down and played him a
tape of his conversation with Rosa.
get one chance, Aaron, and one chance only to help yourself," prosecutor
Tim Miller told him. "You gotta come clean. You gotta say
answered their questions quietly, hardly ever looking up. He admitted asking
Devin Conner for money, but said he'd never taken any. They asked him about
were friends. He sold me my car. I was representing him on his music
stuff." Carter was a rap musician and Phillips was trying to get him a
record deal. "I didn't take any money from him."
remembered that Carter had allegedly said he'd "partied" with
Phillips. He asked Phillips if he'd ever taken drugs as payment.
you have a habit?"
I have to answer that question?"
asked Phillips how many bribes he'd taken.
is no case that has ever been compromised," Phillips answered evasively.
pointed out that he'd told Rosa he took money on Carter's case.
was lying to him," Phillips replied. "I told Rosa that to believe
that I had special juice."
you're saying," asked a detective, "this is the only instance you've
ever taken money?"
didn't use those words, no."
you tell Robert Carter, you being the inside guy, we're gonna take care of his
case?" asked Miller.
no, not like that. I told Rob his case was gonna be straight. All he had to do
was go to Butler." Carter had hired Phillips' officemate as his lawyer.
Butler know, Aaron, what you were doing?" asked prosecutor Kestra Smith.
he didn't know."
exactly was your plan, Aaron?" Smith asked.
you were scamming on both sides?"
Phillips' defense was becoming clear: He'd taken money to fix crooks' cases but
never really fixed them.
accepted money for services that you can't give," Bartko said.
"That's a felony."
asked Phillips why he took the money.
you need it for?" a detective asked.
did you mean, what did I need it for?" he asked, defiant. "I needed
it to live. I make $55,000 a year. I pay $1,000 a month in child support. I got
a $800 car note. I paid $800 for rent, where I stay, and that's just regular
bills. My [paycheck] yesterday was $1,000. I need to have more than $1,000 in
bills. I need it to live."
asked Phillips if he'd pass a urine test. He wouldn't answer.
detectives told him they had search warrants for his house, offices and Ford
Expedition. They asked him what they'd find.
a black bag in my car. Zippered briefcase. There's drugs in there. Might be 3
grams powder cocaine," Phillips said, defeated.
much cocaine costs about $300, detectives say. The night Phillips took the
second payment from Rosa, prosecutors believe he put his wife on a late-night
train so she could attend her father's funeral, then spent part of his bribe on
deputies took Phillips down to the first floor. They draped his coat over his
handcuffed hands so he wouldn't be embarrassed as they walked him through the
Justice Center lobby. They took him to the county jail and booked him.
cocaine charge didn't surprise one local attorney, who asked not to be
identified. He remembers Phillips being sniffly and jumpy when the attorney saw
him at the Justice Center not long before the arrest. But his co-workers, who
learned about the arrest in an e-mail that day, were shocked. His supervisor,
Rich Neff, says the only hint of a problem he'd noticed beforehand was that
Phillips was coming to work tired, as if he'd stayed out too late.
Phillips got out on bail four days later. He went to his private
office, gave the secretary his receipt book and told her to destroy it,
prosecutors say. Instead, she turned it over to law enforcement.
phone rang and rang in the prosecutor's office the Monday after news of
Phillips' arrest broke. East Cleveland residents called to say they'd seen
Phillips at a crack house there -- probably, prosecutors say, while he was a
community prosecutor assigned to the city.
man named Dontel Jefferson came to the office with his attorney that Monday.
He'd bribed Phillips with $2,500 in October to get help on his criminal case,
he said. He had proof: He'd taped the conversation and gotten receipts.
just want to get it resolved and squashed," Jefferson says on the tape.
may be looking at another 15, up to a couple grand," Phillips tells him.
(Jefferson pleaded guilty to drug and forgery charges in April and received
brought Devin Conner before a grand jury. He admitted that Phillips had asked
him for a $20,000 bribe. Conner says he asked his mother and his ex-cellmate to
look into paying Phillips, but they backed out because Phillips seemed too
eager for the money. (His mother claims she rebuffed the cellmate and doesn't
remember talking to Phillips.) Conner was found guilty of trafficking in
marijuana in September and was awaiting sentencing in October.
Carter agreed to testify, in exchange for immunity, that despite Phillips'
denial, he had taken $2,500 from her and her ex-husband to fix his drug case.
Carter, in prison for the drug charge, was awaiting trial in October for
bribing Phillips. Rosa, the informant, was arrested again on Feb. 26, on
charges of burglary and violating a restraining order. He was sentenced to 14
months in prison in September.
a Garfield Heights police detective revealed that he'd told Phillips police
suspected a man named Henry Ivezzy of dealing marijuana and were going through
his garbage, looking for evidence. Phillips, who was representing Ivezzy in a
dispute with his ex-girlfriend, warned Ivezzy about the searches. Ivezzy
admitted to investigators that he'd rewarded Phillips with $1,000 for the tip.
the only time prosecutors can prove Phillips actually corrupted a case.
Phillips didn't really help the other guys who bribed him, concedes Steve
Dever, Bill Mason's top trial lawyer, who prosecuted Phillips. "This was a
swindle," Dever says, "to take advantage of desperate people looking
for any edge."
even soliciting a bribe is illegal. And Mason says that by letting word spread
among criminals that he could be bought, Phillips damaged the entire
says prosecutors found no evidence of illegal activity in the cases Phillips
was disciplined for in 2000 and 2002. In fact, he adds, investigators looked at
every case Phillips ever worked on and found no other evidence of wrongdoing.
Still, Dever is looking into Ivezzy's allegations that he referred criminal
defendants to Phillips. And the five men named in Phillips' indictment did not
all know one another, so it's possible that Phillips developed a reputation as
a corrupt prosecutor based on more than five bribe solicitations.
Butler, Phillips' officemate, was never implicated in the bribes. Sheriff's
deputies say they saw no evidence Butler did anything wrong. Dever is more
careful. "Mr. Butler represented some of these people," he says,
meaning the men who bribed Phillips. "There's a few more questions that
need to be answered." Butler did not return phone calls for this story. (A
defense lawyer says Butler is "mad" at Phillips for making him look
June, Phillips pleaded guilty to all 12 charges against him: bribery, theft in
office, five counts of attempted bribery, two counts of attempted obstruction
of justice, _cocaine possession, possession of criminal tools and tam_pering
was about the show," says Sgt. Jackson. "He dressed well. ... He
drove a flashy car. ... But when you pulled the curtains back, he was in over
his head with his finances."
"Developing relationships with criminals, drug dealers, you
just travel over to the dark side," Dever says. He thinks the bribes
followed naturally. "You start to tell yourself it's no big deal."
months after his arrest, Phillips returns to the Justice Center for his
sentencing. About 60 supporters flood the courtroom: his parents, oldest
daughter and other relatives from Colorado, plus ministers from various
20 members of Phillips' church, Original Harvest, come too. Ministers lead them
in prayer. A hymn wells up from the crowd. To them, he isn't disgraced
prosecutor Aaron Phillips; he's Rev. Phillips, their minister.
has been preaching on Sundays at Harvest for months, while the pastor is ill.
"He made an error, like the rest of us do," church member Ruth Harris
E. Theophilus Caviness, president of the local Baptist Minister's Conference,
will ask the judge to sentence Phillips to probation. Before the hearing,
Caviness says that Phillips has been speaking to church groups about how an
addiction led him to commit his crimes. "We need him here as an example to
show the horrendous and disastrous consequences of drugs," Caviness adds.
Phillips walks in, some in the audience applaud. He shakes hands like a
politician working a room. He's well-dressed, as always, in a conservative
black suit and a bright white tie with dark edges. He chews gum as he talks
with Caviness about which Bible verse is appropriate to the occasion.
as Judge John Sutula starts the hearing, Phillips sits with his brow furrowed,
hands in his lap. Sutula notes that he could get up to 16 years in prison.
While Dever retells the story of Phillips' crimes, Phillips closes his eyes for
a long time, then watches Dever with a hurt expression.
Phillips has lived a double life," says co-prosecutor Kestra Smith.
"[He] does what he wants to do, for whatever reason, and then acts
remorseful and looks remorseful, and says it's a slip of judgment. But then he
continues to do whatever he wants to do."
reads from the transcript of Phillips' meeting with Rosa, full of profanity and
bravado. When she reads Phillips' line, "This is a deal with the
devil," murmurs rise from the audience.
this court does not send Mr. Phillips to prison," Smith says, her voice
rising, "it will send a message to the community that this profession is
incapable and unwilling to discipline its own."
Dever stands again. "There must be a perception in the community that
assistant county prosecutors cannot be bought," he says. "I recognize
the danger he will be placed in in prison" — Phillips could end up
imprisoned with criminals he prosecuted — "but he'll have to
attorneys try to make the case for probation, a halfway house, anything but
prison. He's entered a drug treatment program, they note. "From the date
of his arrest, Mr. Phillips has been punished," Joan Synenberg says.
"He's about to lose his [law] license. ... How much hurt has to be piled
on Mr. Phillips before we say he has been punished?"
Phillips and Caviness, too, ask for probation.
Phillips takes the podium. He closes his eyes for a moment, then gives his last
this has happened, I have rolled it over in my head several times," he
says. "I blamed everybody: God, the prosecutors, people I was getting high
your honor, the fact of the matter is, I am the person to blame. I am a drug
addict and an alcoholic. There is not a day that goes by that I [don't] have
problems forgiving myself for my criminal behavior.
Smith is right. I initially went to treatment because I just thought,
'Jackpot.' ... I actually thought they'd teach me how to get high and get drunk
responsibly. But a miracle happened." Alcoholics Anonymous, he claims,
brought him to God. "Your honor, I was trying to fill a spiritual void
with natural solutions. It didn't work."
covers many of the 12 steps: He says he's powerless over drugs and alcohol and
that his life was unmanageable, then apologizes to Bill Mason, the whole
prosecutor's office, the legal profession, African-American lawyers, Don
Butler, law enforcement, the judge, Smith and Dever. He pauses to wipe a tear
grateful to Mr. Dever, because it could've been a lot worse than it is. But
they stopped me… .
honor, I have fallen, but with the help of God through Christ Jesus, I'm
getting up. I thank you."
Phillips were in church, he'd be forgiven after a speech like that. But the
judge is in the business of justice, not forgiveness.
a minister, aren't you?" Sutula asks. "According to Luke, at the time
of the crucifixion, what does one criminal say to another?"
Phillips stumbles over his answer. The judge quotes the Bible: "We have
been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our
sentences Phillips to 12 months in prison for eight of the counts. The bailiff
takes out a pair of handcuffs.
used the trappings of [your] office to victimize those that are in a period of
duress. ... They deserve to have their dignity protected."
bailiff handcuffs Phillips. The judge adds another 18 months for Phillips'
attempt to have his receipt book destroyed after his arrest. "That's the
worst of the offenses," Sutula says, adding, "I believe you have fallen
as much as anybody can fall from a position of respect, that you have betrayed
two noble callings: that of being a minister and that of being a lawyer. ...
What you do from this time forward will determine what kind of man you
As the bailiff leads Phillips away through a side door, some of
his relatives sob.
Phillips walks into the visitation room in the county jail, hands behind his
back as if handcuffed. Then he holds out his right hand, free after all, for a
handshake. He seems as self-assured as ever.
lawyers have told him not to talk about the case. "I'm not trying to dis
you," he says. "I'm just trying to get out of this orange suit."
says he won't appeal his sentence. "I took responsibility," he says.
about his ex-officemate, he says, "Don Butler had nothing to do with
sticks to 12-step maxims and a sin-and-redemption story to explain his crimes.
He claims he started drinking heavily around 1997 -- the year his divorce
became final. After that, he started smoking marijuana, then got into cocaine
three or four years ago -- around the time he started getting in trouble at
addiction is the reason he solicited the bribes, he says. He blamed his bills
after his arrest, he adds, because he wasn't yet admitting he had a drug
he think he'll be in danger in prison? "Could be. It's possible," he
shrugs. He says he isn't scared. "God is my protector."
he preached in his church almost every Sunday between April and September, he
says. "When you sin, you have to repent," he told the parishioners.
"You have to accept the consequences of your actions. You can't go blaming
he gets out of prison, he says, he'll serve as a minister again: "I'm
going to share how you can fall very low, but the grace of God is still there
to pick you up."