Aaron Phillips' Deal With the Devil
"This case is about one thing. Deception."
Aaron 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.
Tall, 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.
"We have the deception of Tonica Jenkins. Her first deception is the conspiracy itself."
Phillips 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.
"She needs to get a victim. She needs to get somebody to be her."
Jenkins 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.
"She needs to get somebody to be her and have that person be killed."
This 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.
"Where else would Melissa Latham get a name like Tonica Jenkins? She gets it from the deceiver, Tonica Jenkins."
Deceiver, deceive, deception; he repeated the words 22 times, to leave an impression.
Phillips 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.
"Finally, ladies and gentlemen, Tonica Jenkins is trying now to deceive you all."
But 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.
"She 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."
Phillips' 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.
"This 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 victim."
Sheriff's deputies had convinced a judge to let their informant out of jail. He was waiting for Phillips to return his calls.
"No 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 victim."
The 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.
A 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 16.
In 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.
Charming 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.
"He's 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."
So when sheriff's deputies told prosecutors they were investigating Phillips, his bosses figured nothing would come of it.
"I 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 pans out."
Still, 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.
But 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 investigation began.
"I 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 courtroom.
"When Aaron had a row of things that happened, I always balanced that with what he provides for this office. The office was benefiting."
Mason 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."
Mason 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.' "
A 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 level."
Phillips 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 proud."
On a 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.
"I 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."
Phillips was "a trusted friend," Lucci says. She called the jail.
But 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.
Now, Conner and Phillips were alone in a holding cell on the Justice Center's 18th floor.
"You know what I'm here for," Conner remembers Phillips saying. "I can help you out with your situation."
Phillips 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.'
"I 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.
"He 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.' "
Conner told Phillips he'd try to get the money to him.
Ray 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."
"What would the prosecutor want from you?" Moran asked Conner afterward.
Conner 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.
Bradley 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 suspicious."
A 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.
Then, 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.
Deputies 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."
"I 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," Carter added.
"But he does fix cases, though, right?" Rosa asked.
"You want to talk to Aaron," Carter replied.
On 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.
"You can't be offended, but I gotta ask you this," Phillips said. "Lift up your shirt."
The deputies had set up the sting like their narcotics busts. Rosa was wearing wires and carrying marked cash.
Phillips patted Rosa down. "You ain't talked to no cops? You're not wearing any wires?" he asked.
Other deputies sat outside the building, ready to bail Rosa out. But the wires were hidden too well. Phillips didn't find them.
"I'm going to go out on a big, big limb," Phillips said. "So we've got to be able to trust each other."
The 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.
He 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 myself."
Phillips 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.
"I 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.
Rosa said he had a friend, arrested on a heroin charge, who needed help, too.
"When he makes bond, have him come and see me right away," Phillips said.
"I got plenty of business," Rosa offered.
"You bring me substantial business, I'll work that off of your bill. But it's got to be substantial."
It was time to close the deal. Rosa gave him 10 $100 bills.
"This is a deal with the devil," Phillips said.
"In 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!"
Jackson 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 cursed.
"I'm 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.
Around 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.
Phillips' 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.
"You get one chance, Aaron, and one chance only to help yourself," prosecutor Tim Miller told him. "You gotta come clean. You gotta say everything."
Phillips 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 Robert Carter.
"We 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."
Bartko remembered that Carter had allegedly said he'd "partied" with Phillips. He asked Phillips if he'd ever taken drugs as payment.
"Do you have a habit?"
"Do I have to answer that question?"
Miller asked Phillips how many bribes he'd taken.
"There is no case that has ever been compromised," Phillips answered evasively.
Someone pointed out that he'd told Rosa he took money on Carter's case.
"I was lying to him," Phillips replied. "I told Rosa that to believe that I had special juice."
"So you're saying," asked a detective, "this is the only instance you've ever taken money?"
"I didn't use those words, no."
"Did you tell Robert Carter, you being the inside guy, we're gonna take care of his case?" asked Miller.
"Oh 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.
"Did Butler know, Aaron, what you were doing?" asked prosecutor Kestra Smith.
"No, he didn't know."
"What exactly was your plan, Aaron?" Smith asked.
"I don't know."
"So you were scamming on both sides?"
"Yeah." Phillips' defense was becoming clear: He'd taken money to fix crooks' cases but never really fixed them.
"You accepted money for services that you can't give," Bartko said. "That's a felony."
Someone asked Phillips why he took the money.
"I needed it."
"What'd you need it for?" a detective asked.
"What 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."
Bartko asked Phillips if he'd pass a urine test. He wouldn't answer.
The detectives told him they had search warrants for his house, offices and Ford Expedition. They asked him what they'd find.
"There's a black bag in my car. Zippered briefcase. There's drugs in there. Might be 3 grams powder cocaine," Phillips said, defeated.
That much cocaine costs about $300, detectives say. The night Phillips took the second payment from Rosa, prosecut
12:00 AM EST
November 1, 2003