This week, The Daytona Beach News-Journal broke the disturbing story of Colton Phillips – the son of Tim Phillips, owner of P&S Paving, described by the News-Journal as “one of the most successful businesses in Daytona Beach,” and a member of the incredibly powerful CEO Business Alliance – a young man who just three years ago “…faced up to 15 years in prison for his role in what investigators called the “The Colton Phillips Drug Trafficking Organization…”
This is no reflection on the Phillips family. Kids will embarrass you. That’s what they do.
Some grow out of it. Others, not so much.
But this goes beyond youthful indiscretion. . .
In 2018, investigators from the East Volusia Narcotics Task Force found Colton Phillips and his co-conspirators in possession of some 2.8 pounds of cocaine, 4.25 pounds of methamphetamine, vials of testosterone, marijuana, “a large amount of cash,” computers, and drug paraphernalia at his Daytona Beach home.
According to the report, the organization was suspected of importing one kilogram of cocaine into Volusia County from California each month. In turn, Phillips sold the illicit drugs to his roommate – identified as Arad Radfar – who then trafficked the substance on something called the “dark web.”
From what I gather, this wasn’t the most sophisticated bunch of dopers in that shadowy world – something akin to a spoiled Little Lord Fauntleroy meets Miami Vice story – openly communicating their nefarious activities via text message, shipping cocaine through the mail, and employing some drug-addled kid as a runner.
Regardless, the cost in lives destroyed and the corrosive impact of illicit drugs on our community is incalculable.
According to the outstanding reportage of the News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez, in 2019, all public records related to the Phillips case were mysteriously sealed and “vanished from public view” for more than a year.
In October 2020, an attorney for Gannett, the parent company of The Daytona Beach News-Journal, was successful in having the documents unsealed and open for public view later that year.
According to reports, in November 2018, State Attorney R. J. Larizza’s office “…filed nine charges against Phillips. They included three first-degree felonies including trafficking in cocaine more than 400 grams and trafficking in methamphetamine, as well as multiple third-degree felony and misdemeanor drug charges.
Phillips entered a plea of no contest to all nine counts in his plea agreement. Based on sentencing guidelines filed in the case, he scored a lowest permissible prison sentence of 179.40 months, which works out to 14.95 years in state prison.”
Officials say that following his arrest, Colton Phillips provided substantial assistance in ancillary investigations – cooperation which earned him an unheard-of plea deal of 15-years’ probation, forfeiture of two vehicles, $19,020 in cash, and reimbursement for costs associated with the investigation – while his co-conspirator, Radfar, was deported to Iran on an immigration violation where he was most likely welcomed home a national hero for helping weaken the fabric of our society. . .
In addition, Phillips was specifically prohibited by the terms of his probation from consuming alcohol – and reports indicate he spent a stint in a residential rehabilitation facility.
“The plea deal waived a fine of $262,000” and prosecutors put aside minimum mandatory sentences paving the way for the extended probation.
Plea agreements are nothing new – they happen every day and are an important part of our criminal justice system – especially for first time offenders like Phillips – and I believe the State Attorney’s spokesman who said, “All actions taken by every agency involved in this case were appropriate efforts to achieve the investigatory goals of utilizing the “dark web” to seize illegal drugs and disrupt their distribution networks locally and nationally.”
He also had a damn fine criminal defense attorney in Aaron Delgado.
But given the serious nature of the charges – Colton’s “deal” left many questioning whether his family’s prominence and powerful political connections had more to do with the extraordinary leniency he received than any information he provided.
Because that is the sorry state of the public’s trust in once unquestioned institutions here on the Fun Coast – a place where political influence is seemingly traded like a commodity through a skewed campaign finance process, and people frequently confuse the size of someone’s bank account with their civic vision, confusing selfishness with altruism, something that has cost local government the confidence of its constituents – and resulted in every policy or legislative action subject to the question, ‘Who benefits?’
Is that accurate? I hope not.
But from hard-earned experience I know perception is reality in matters of official fairness – and our criminal justice system stands or falls on the trust and respect of those it exists to serve. That is why those who serve within it have such a high duty to defend the integrity of the process.
Inconceivably, after being given what Circuit Judge Dennis Craig described as “The deal of the century” – supervised probation which specifically prohibits Phillips from visiting bars or consuming alcohol – in late August, Colton Phillips was found in a blatant state of intoxication – I’m talkin’ shitfaced – clearly in actual physical control of his running pick-up truck in a parking lane at Biggins Gentlemen’s Club in Daytona Beach Shores.
Yeah. You read that right.
An employee of the establishment confirmed that Phillips drank a beer (before being cut off due to his state of intoxication) inside the bar.
Let’s just say things went downhill from there. . .
I spent my entire adult life in law enforcement, coming up through the ranks, working in every operational and administrative post in my agency – including extensive experience in narcotics investigations – and I know better than most the physical and political pitfalls inherent to serving and protecting from the impossible damned if you do, damned if you don’t position behind a badge.
That is why I rarely second-guess the on-scene decisions of working police officers – but what happened during this encounter is undeniably confusing – and concerning.
For reasons that remain murky, rather than arrest Phillips for the obvious DUI – the officers also opted to release Colton on his own recognizance for the glaring probation violation – then an on-duty Daytona Beach Shores Public Safety officer gave him a “courtesy ride” home.
In explaining her call to another officer, as seen on a body-worn camera video, the officer is overheard saying, “This is not a traditional way we handle things. But it’s making the best of what could be a messy situation.”
Yeah. I know. . .
Fortunately, the officer clearly made the decision to release Phillips before he pulled the old “Do you know who I am?” jive – directing an investigating officer to, “Look up who my dad is” – then slurring his way through a blathering explanation of the area roads his father’s company has paved.
When the investigating officer asked Colton who is father was, he dropped “Tim Phillips” like he was laying down a Royal Flush. . .
After that, things got, well, weird.
As the field interview continued, one young officer gushed about how “my chick” was at the Phillips’ “place” (a Flagler County ranch owned by Tim Phillips) in Bunnell the day before – mentioning other prominent names who were apparently also in attendance – before reminding Colton of the obvious:
“Your dad is a very wealthy man.”
Then, after officers assumed the extraordinary liability of directing an employee of Biggins to park Colton’s truck (?) – because he was too “twisted” to drive it – Phillips was given a “courtesy ride” home. . .
As a crusty retired police supervisor said to me after watching the disturbing video, “I thought we stopped giving drunks a ride home twenty-years ago? – then proceeded to recite a litany of good officers and former law enforcement executives who had their careers ruined over the mere appearance of favoritism in criminal cases.
There is a kernel of wisdom in that for the young officers depicted in this video.
To their credit, the Daytona Beach Shores Department of Public Safety charged Phillips for the probation violation, and he will appear before Judge Craig to answer for his actions in November.
Trust me. Many will be watching to see if Colton’s string of extraordinary luck continues – or if he gets a wake-up call – a dose of reality beyond the six-month curfew suggested by the Office of Community Corrections.
It is important, because Mr. Phillips’ unusual good fortune now has many questioning the basic fairness and impartiality of our justice system.
That is unacceptable.
Look, I am familiar with many of the public officials and prosecutors involved in the News-Journal article – all dedicated professionals, including DBSPS Director Stephan Dembinsky, who is one of the finest law enforcement executives I know – and I consider them honorable people who perform a difficult and dangerous job protecting our community and seeking justice with great skill.
They do not need a washed-up has-been like me to lecture them from the comfort of a Barcalounger regarding the perception of preferential treatment for some entitled poor little rich kid with a silver spoon – who, by all appearances, could give two-shits about the provisions of his generous probation.
As the News-Journal’s article rightly pointed out, “While the decision not to take Phillips to jail or charge him with DUI may have been questionable, it did not appear to have anything to do with the prominence of his father, Tim Phillips, owner of P&S Paving and a member of the CEO Business Alliance.”
But there is no denying that the suggestion of privilege and undue advantage is what made this story newsworthy in the first place – and why I felt compelled to write about it’s corrosive effect on the public trust.
The fact is, even the insinuation of favoritism and cronyism undermines the foundational underpinnings of our system – the assurance of basic fairness and impartiality – where no one is above, or beneath, the law.
Unfortunately, many in the community who have reached out to me since this sordid story broke feel very differently about the appearance of things. . .
That loss of confidence in our system of justice disturbs me more than watching the life of a clearly troubled young man unravel like a cheap spool of rotten yarn in full view of the community he continues to thumb his nose at.
Like many of you, I sincerely hope Colton Phillips gets the help he needs – and our community receives the protection from this irresponsible behavior we deserve.