Officer Seen as a Hero Faces a Year Behind Bars
March 17, 2006
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.]
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.
Sergeant Anders as a hero, and supporters have raised the $50,000 that his legal
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?"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Anders says: "I won't, honey. Back up, honey."
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!"
returns to Mr. Flippen, shoos the little girl inside and fires a single shot
into his chest.
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.
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.
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
when Sergeant Anders was indicted and turned himself in, the Otero County
sheriff, John Blansett, a mammoth, easygoing man, wept.
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.
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.
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.
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."