‘I’m a gambler by nature’ – Ex-fire chief accused in bank heist blames money, family woes — (The Dallas Morning News)

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The Dallas Morning News 

Sunday, March 24, 1996

Author: Douglas Holt, Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

FOREST HILL – In suburban America, the fire chief’s son is not supposed to be on cocaine.  But former Forest Hill Fire Chief Paul A. Philbin’s son had a crack – and alcohol – habit. Mr. Philbin says his son’s addiction and legal troubles, along with the jailing of a second son, played a part in Mr. Philbin’s own undoing.   “Part of the stress I was under was keeping the city fathers from knowing the fact that I had two boys in prison,” he said.  Gambling played a role in his downfall, too. Mr. Philbin wagered in casinos and bet on horses, but he says most of his trouble came in the volatile commodities market.

Mr. Philbin’s slow unraveling ended, authorities say, with a bungled January bank robbery, a desperate car chase and a shootout in which his partner, Ronald Ray O’Burke, was killed.  Based on a hospital-bed confession, Mr. Philbin is charged with two federal bank robbery charges, two federal weapons charges and three counts of attempted capital murder of a police officer. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and says he doesn’t remember making the confession.

If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in jail – a prospect that makes Mr. Philbin weep about who will take care of his wife, Tommie, and the five grandchildren left in her care.  “It’s not self-pity,” he said in a recent interview at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. “I’m 58 years old. I may never get out of prison. I just hope it’s not curtains for me, and I won’t get a chance to see my grandsons.”

Mr. Philbin doesn’t deny his role in a Ferris robbery but says he never fired a shot at any police officer. He also says he was not involved in a second robbery in Cedar Hill.  Mr. Philbin and Mr. O’Burke, 44, made an unlikely pair of bank robbers.

Mr. Philbin enjoyed wide respect as a retired fire chief in Forest Hill, a Fort Worth suburb of 13,000 people. Mr. O’Burke was a former Forest Hill fire marshal who was laid off and then enrolled at the Cedar Valley Community College police academy.

On Jan. 23, police say, Mr. Philbin and Mr. O’Burke donned ski masks and Texas Longhorns jackets for the lunchtime robbery of Commercial State Bank in Ferris. They fled in a stolen getaway car – a beige Chevrolet Sprint – with more than $16,000, police say.

In the ensuing shootout and chase, Mr. Philbin allegedly tossed roofing nails out the window to flatten the police car tires. Mr. O’Burke was killed, and Mr. Philbin was shot.  A year ago, Mr. Philbin earned $60,000 a year as fire chief. Today, he wears the plastic sandals and white jump suit, the word “PRISONER” emblazoned on the legs. His jaw still is painfully swollen from a gunshot. A bullet fragment lodged in his right palm appears as a strangely sharp bump. He also has a bullet wound on his left forearm.

Sons in prison

Two of Mr. Philbin’s four grown children also are serving prison time.  Paul “Trey” Philbin III, 31, is serving a 17-year sentence at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., for armed carjacking. Kevin Ray Philbin, 24, is serving 25 years in a Texas state prison after pleading guilty to two purse-snatching cases.

Growing up, the boys couldn’t have been more different, their father says.  Trey was once confined to a Fort Worth psychiatric institution, from which he escaped, and his medical and therapy bills totaled $40,000 one year. He drifted around the country for years, picking up a felony record, the elder Philbin says.

Kevin grew up as a mama’s boy who once loved baseball, his parents say. But he started drinking at age 12, and “by the time he was 17 he had gotten into crack,” Mr. Philbin said.  A high school dropout, Kevin stole checks from his mother and once sold a Camaro to a crack dealer for $400, Mr. Philbin says. Televisions, a VCR and his mother’s gold jewelry also fed his habit.  “When you get that deeply into it, nothing is safe,” said Mrs. Philbin, 59, who sat at her kitchen table wearing a plaid shirt, her hair neatly coiffed.  “Kevin depleted every physical thing we had from time to time,” she said. “There was always the remorse later – `I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ And I do believe he really tried. But he inadvertently broke us.”

Mr. Philbin told Forest Hill officials nothing about his troubled sons. He says he feared that such a disclosure would jeopardize his job.   Kevin’s lawyer, Kimberly Kaufman, says troubled youths usually come from troubled parents. But she says she was flabbergasted when the Philbin boys got into trouble.   “I saw nothing in the parents from a sociological or professional standpoint that would make me think they were the cause of the problems,” she said.   Mr. Philbin admits he had one vice – gambling, in the form of high-risk investments, horse racing and Las Vegas blackjack.   “I’m a gambler by nature,” he said. “I’ve always been a risk-taking personality. I never was satisfied with mutual funds unless they were very high-risk mutual funds that brought in 26 percent a year. That’s why commodities appealed to me because it moved so fast. If you’re not a gambler, you can’t understand it.”   He kept an audiotape on gambling techniques in his Fire Department office. Even today, he describes his Las Vegas trips as selfless acts to provide for his family.

“Had I not had some of those trips I wouldn’t have been able to hire some attorneys or return some of the things {stolen by Kevin} in my house,” he said. “I had to keep giving my wife money to buy groceries.”  The biggest wager was last August, when Mr. Philbin retired from the Forest Hill department and requested his benefit in a lump sum.   By demanding the retirement check before the age of 591/2, Mr. Philbin paid a 10 percent penalty on top of the regular 28 percent income tax. He also forfeited the municipal matching funds promised over the years, said Gary Anderson, director the the Texas Municipal Retirement System.  Instead of getting a $756 check each month for the rest of his life – a benefit worth a minimum of $136,126 – Mr. Philbin got a $30,000 check.

He told only retirement and city finance officials of his decision. He didn’t tell his wife.   Mr. Philbin took the money and began trading commodities through a Chicago broker. “The first month I made $8,800, and I thought, `My gosh, this is it,’ ” he said. But the market and, he alleges, an unscrupulous broker, cleaned his clock.   “I’m talking about a $10,000 loss in a day,” he said.   By late 1995, Mr. Philbin says, he was unable to pay health insurance and stopped buying Paxil, an antidepressant that a doctor had prescribed.   “I didn’t know just how close I was to straying right off the edge of the world,” he said. “The pressure of providing for my family, my kid’s family and attempting to trade commodities and getting bad information. . . . ”

O’Burke’s past

Ron O’Burke worked in Forest Hill from the spring of 1994 until he was laid off a year later. But he quickly hit it off with Mr. Philbin, according to Mr. O’Burke’s 71-year-old father, Robert O’Burke, himself a longtime former fire chief of Duncanville.   After attending East Texas State University, Mr. O’Burke was an assistant grocery store manager and a Farmers Branch Fire Department inspector. He later tried selling advertising and running his own marketing company. He quit due to “no business,” according to his Forest Hill employment application.   He was a two-time president of the Duncanville Lion’s Club, and was known for organizing celebrity basketball games with Dallas Cowboys players.   Although he accompanied Mr. Philbin on gambling trips, he did not appear to have the same financial woes. His wife, Peggy, a computer programming analyst, said her job allowed them to stay up-to-date on house and utility payments.

And rather than being despondent over getting laid off, Mr. O’Burke planned to become an arson investigator after graduating in March from the Cedar Valley College police academy, Mrs. O’Burke said.   Friends suggest that Mr. O’Burke fell under Mr. Philbin’s spell.   Mr. Philbin, however, said Mr. O’Burke was “a little man with a small man’s complex,” always bubbling over with wild-hare schemes. He said it was Mr. O’Burke who persuaded him to try robbing the Ferris bank after enticing him with a $6,000 “short-term loan.” The cash came from an earlier bank robbery that Mr. O’Burke pulled with a third unknown person, he said.

Police credit the pair with a creative plan for the Commercial State Bank robbery. To procure a getaway car, Mr. Philbin was to walk along Interstate 45 with a gasoline can, posing as a stranded motorist.   The plan got off to a promising start, officers say, when an Ennis man driving a Chevrolet Sprint pulled over to help and was carjacked.  But a decoy bomb threat at Ferris High School failed to fool police for long. Mr. Philbin blames Mr. O’Burke for the snag, saying he wanted to argue with a skeptical 911 operator.  At the bank, teller Deborah Sue Nally buzzed a silent alarm when she saw two men walk in wearing  ski masks. Police arrived in time to see the pair piling into the Sprint, which they had hoped to drive to a rented Chevrolet Corsica left along I-45.  Mr. Philbin said he pleaded with his partner to pull over and give up the chase after he was shot. He finally bailed out of the car while it was moving at 30 mph, dislocating his shoulder.

Police say Mr. O’Burke was driving and shooting at police simultaneously before he was killed. They say Mr. Philbin was leaning out of the window, shooting a Mossberg shotgun.  “Never, never. It’s a damn lie,” Mr. Philbin said. “Did not shoot at those officers.”

Police accounts

Later that day, FBI and police interviewed Mr. Philbin in his room at Methodist Medical Center in Dallas. Because investigators worried he might die, they read him his rights and pressed ahead.   According to police, Mr. Philbin confessed that he and Mr. O’Burke had robbed the First Texas State Bank in Cedar Hill of $50,000 on Nov. 27. That robbery was preceded by two separate carjackings of elderly widows visiting the graves of their husbands.  He also told investigators that Mr. O’Burke had left his $25,000 in a black satchel in the trunk of his Mitsubishi Mirage, which he had parked at the Crystal Chandelier Dance Hall off Interstate 35 in Lancaster. The FBI towed the vehicle that day.   Now recovering in jail, Mr. Philbin said he had been heavily drugged in the hospital and had no recollection of his supposed confession.   Denying any involvement in the Cedar Hill robbery, he said that Mr. O’Burke had described the robbery to him in detail to train for the January job.

Mr. Philbin’s federal defense lawyer, M. Jill Binder, said she was examining the evidence. She cautioned against placing too much weight on statements from a defendant who has gone through intense physical trauma, and who was under medication before the incident.  Friends, co-workers and family members say they probably will never know why two men with good educations, decent careers and nice families decided to rob a bank.  “I wish I knew why,” said Mrs. O’Burke. “I’m still asking myself that question and will be asking that question the rest of my life.”

Mrs. Philbin said: “I just don’t believe some of the things that have been said. I’m looking at a man’s personality over a lifetime. I just don’t believe that in a wink of an eye he would become this Jekyll and Hyde.
Record Number: DAL1554468
Copyright 1996 The Dallas Morning News Company