RICHMOND, Indiana — The man accused of shooting Richmond Police Ofc. Seara Burton has an extensive criminal history that stretches over three decades, according to court records obtained by 13News.
Those records show some Richmond Police officers knew the suspected shooter was a danger to police, and they raise questions about whether the accused gunman should have been behind bars – not on the street – at the time of the shooting.
According to Richmond Police, 47-year-old Phillip Lee shot Burton Wednesday night as she assisted fellow officers during a traffic stop. Burton, who works with the police department’s K-9 unit, is now hospitalized in critical condition and “fighting for her life,” according to Chief Michael Britt.
Lee’s rap sheet includes more than 40 criminal charges over the past 28 years, and many are for violent crimes such as:
- Auto theft
- Resisting law enforcement
His convictions also include multiple drug cases involving marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
That extensive criminal history helps explain why Lee has spent nearly 22 of the past 28 years in state prison and was still on parole at the time of Wednesday's shooting. He was released from Miami Correctional Facility just eight months ago after serving a four-year sentence for possession of narcotics.
But he could have been in prison for much longer.
Serious charge dismissed
When police arrested Lee for heroin possession in August 2017, they also found he had a loaded rifle. Prosecutors charged him not only for the drug offense, but also for being a violent felon in possession of a firearm.
Lee reached a plea deal with the Wayne County prosecutor’s office in May 2018. In that deal, he admitted to possessing narcotics and a syringe, and in exchange, the prosecutor dismissed the Level 4 felony “possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon“ charge, which carries a recommended sentence of six years in prison.
If the firearm charge had not been dropped, Lee likely would have received at least an additional two years behind bars, meaning he would have been in prison until 2023 -- not on the street where he's now accused of shooting a police officer.
Considering Lee had committed so many violent crimes, the plea deal raises questions about why a habitual violent criminal who was on parole and found with both drugs and a loaded rifle was not given a harsher sentence -- especially in light of Lee’s history of resisting police and threatening their safety.
A detailed review of court records by 13 Investigates reveals Lee has a history of endangering police officers. Investigators report during previous law enforcement encounters, Lee attempted to flee from officers, bite them and steal their service weapons.
And just six months before Lee’s 2018 sentencing, court documents show some officers were aware Lee claimed he would shoot them rather than face more prison time.
Most of his adult life behind bars
The court documents shed light on the many criminal cases that led to Lee’s convictions and the extent to which he tried to evade police and resist arrest.
In 1994, when Lee was 19 years old, he was charged with perjury and sentenced to three years in prison for giving false testimony during a burglary trial. He was required to serve only one year of the sentence, as long as he followed the terms of his probation. That same year, Lee also pled guilty to burglary and was sentenced to spend six years in prison, with an additional four years of prison time suspended on the condition that he did not commit probation violations. He was released from prison in April 1997, but quickly faced more legal trouble.
Lee pled guilty to possession of marijuana and resisting law enforcement in in early 1998. A Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy said Lee bit him on the neck during the drug arrest. Two months later, in March 1998, he was charged with battery. Lee pled guilty and served 60 days in the Wayne County Jail. But the new charges violated the terms of his earlier plea agreements in his perjury and burglary cases. A Wayne County judge ordered that Lee serve some of his suspended prison time, so Lee was sent back to prison from June 1998 to June 2001.
In September 2001, three months after Lee’s release, a Richmond Police officer attempted to arrest Lee for driving with a suspended license. A “lengthy foot pursue” ensued and the officer later found marijuana in Lee’s car, according to a probable cause affidavit.
In March 2002, prosecutors charged Lee with possession of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, possession of marijuana, resisting law enforcement by fleeing from an officer and driving with a suspended license. That same year, he was also charged with and pled guilty to a separate incident involving resisting law enforcement. According to a probable cause affidavit obtained by 13News, a Richmond Police officer stated Lee pulled away and grabbed the officer’s firearm during an altercation as the officer attempted to arrest Lee for an alleged battery. And the previous year, he was charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana.
Lee pled guilty in all three cases to the cocaine charge, resisting law enforcement and possession of a controlled substance and received a combined sentence. And in 2004, he also pleaded guilty to burglary and escape in Randolph County. For those cases, Lee served ten more years in prison, earning his release in November 2012.
Just a few weeks after his release, Lee was charged with burglary, auto theft and resisting law enforcement on December 21, 2012. According to court documents, officers observed Lee crash a stolen truck into a pharmacy during an attempted robbery and then fled as they attempted to pull him over. He pled guilty to those charges in 2014 and was sentenced to 10 more years in prison, an extended sentence based on his status as a habitual offender. Lee was released from prison in March 2017 after serving just over four years of his 10-year prison sentence in county jail and state prisons.
Officers knew Lee would 'shoot any officer'
In November 2017, Lee pled guilty to resisting law enforcement. The case started when local, state and federal investigators tried to serve an arrest warrant after pursuing him for six days. According to a probable cause affidavit filed by Richmond Police Ofc. Mark Ward and filed by the county prosecutor’s office, “Officers were aware that Lee claimed he was not going back to jail and would shoot any officer or agent that encountered him.” As officer attempted to stop his SUV, they say Lee got out and started running, eventually hiding in a garage. He then tried to drive away on a moped. Lee was surrounded by police and drove back into the garage before running out another door. Police attempted to subdue Lee using two stun guns, but that did not work. Officers eventually tackled Lee and took him into custody. Lee served five days in the Wayne County Jail for resisting the arrest.
This week, while conducting surveillance on a suspected drug house, Richmond Police recognized Lee as a prior drug offender when he pulled up on his moped and before they approached him, according to a probable cause affidavit filed Friday afternoon.
13News contacted Britt and asked if his officers were aware of Lee's prior threat to shoot police and, based on that threat, if they were instructed to take any extra precautions.
"I do not know the answer to that," the police chief said, adding that he learned about Lee's 2017 threatening comment Friday morning after it was reported by 13News. “Those comments are playing a very important role in determining charges now."
Did Lee get off too easy?
Earlier in 2017, the Wayne County prosecutor filed six charges against Lee: unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon, unlawful possession of a syringe, possession of a narcotic drug below five grams, maintaining a controlled substance, possession of marijuana and committing the crimes as a habitual offender. Lee accepted a plea agreement and pleaded guilty in May 2018 to the charges of possessing a syringe and possessing a narcotic drug. Due to his status as a habitual offender, the drug-related convictions resulted in a four-year sentence in the Indiana Department of Correction. Lee was released from state prison December 31, 2021 after serving his sentence at Miami Correctional Facility.
The charge of possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon – the most serious charge he faced following Lee's two 2017 arrests – was dismissed as part of the plea agreement, likely resulting in a much shorter prison sentence.
13News contacted the office of Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Shipman to ask why he agreed to dismiss the firearm charge in the plea deal despite Lee’s violent history against the public and police. Shipman has not yet responded, so we do not know why that serious charge was dismissed.
Delaware County Prosecutor Eric Hoffman said plea agreements are very complicated and based on multiple factors, but he also told 13News that defendants who are habitual violent offenders usually do not get big breaks.
“When you're looking at someone with a violent history, I think it's critical to consider the highest charge you can find,” Hoffman said. “I do not have all the evidence in the Richmond case, but if I were presented with a case where an offender had that type of history, I certainly would charge the highest felony I could and I’d also be looking to any sentencing enhancements that are in the criminal code. You have these repeat offenders that offend over and over and over again, and those people need to be in prison.”
(Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Richmond Police Chief Michael Britt and Delaware County Prosecutor Eric Hoffman.)