A 46-year-old man convicted of murdering his neighbors while their video camera recorded the shootings was sentenced Monday to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Before he was sentenced, Richard B. Uffelman, who had engaged in a Hatfield-McCoy-type feud with his neighbors, reiterated his claim that he was defending his home from attack when he killed Michael and Florence Phillips on Aug. 29, 1989, in Machiasport.
″It was all in a father’s defense of his family,″ Uffelman told Justice Robert Browne in Washington County Superior Court. ″I was set up to be murdered in a bizarre video game.″
Browne rejected Uffelman’s claims. He sentenced Uffelman to life in prison for Mrs. Phillips’ slaying and gave him a concurrent 50-year sentence for her husband’s killing. Uffelman’s attorney said it is likely he will appeal. The slayings were recorded by a video camera the Phillipses had set up in their kitchen to record alleged acts of harassment by Uffelman in a feud between the neighbors.
Testimony during Uffelman’s trial in October revealed that he had wired his home with elaborate security systems and stockpiled an arsenal of 38 firearms. Uffelman had testified that his two sons participated in the shootings. The boys, now 12 and 14, were removed from their parents’ custody after the killings and now live in a foster home.
″We don’t need a videotape to be legitimately horrified,″ assistant attorney general Jeffrey Hjelm said during the sentencing hearing. ″His conduct that afternoon was completely unjustified.″
Hjelm said Uffelman acted like an assassin in gunning down the couple, and had involved his sons in the crime.
″The net of violence was cast far and wide and included Michael and Florence Phillips and Uffelman’s own family as well,″ he said.
Uffelman’s attorney, Kevin Wall of Camden, N.J., urged the judge to take into account his client’s mental condition when sentencing him.
″I suggest that this was an ongoing mental problem that culminated at this time,″ Wall said. ″He went over the edge. He continues to hold fast to the belief he was defending himself and his family.″
Uffelman spoke for about 45 minutes in his own behalf, describing the reasons for his actions.
″We were a family living in extreme fear,″ he told the judge. ″I did not want to shoot these people. We’ve lost everything.″
Uffelman said that on the day of the killing he thought the Phillipses had fired at him. ″I even thought I saw smoke. That’s the only thing that would make me shoot out of the living room window.″
Browne, however, followed the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation. ″This tragedy should never have happened. Whatever the provocation was, it did not justify your response,″ he told Uffelman.
A Superior Court jury found Uffelman guilty and criminally responsible in mid-October for shooting the Phillipses. After convicting Uffelman, the jury in Aroostook County, where the trial was moved because of publicity about the case, rejected his secondary defense of insanity.
Wall has said the case may be the first in which the victims unknowingly videotaped their own deaths.
The videotape played during the trial showed the Phillipses leaving their house for a walk on the evening the crime was committed.
Following a nearly silent, 10-minute period, 20 to 25 shots rang out, blanketing the front of Uffelman’s large, stately house with smoke. After a few minutes, Uffelman, carrying a rifle, was seen leaving the house and heading toward the road.
Three more shots were heard before Uffelman returned to the house with the rifle. A few minutes later, Uffelman and his two sons, who were 10 and 12 at the time, walked from the house toward the road, also carrying rifles. One more shot was heard, and Uffelman and his sons returned to the house.
The tape then shows the arrival of several state and county police officers.
Wall said after the sentencing it was likely Uffelman would appeal his convictions to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
″He’s a mentally ill man,″ Wall said, ″and he will go to his grave believing that he is not a murderer.″
Residents of this hamlet on the rocky coast of Maine believe that the feud between two neighboring families here was what the war between the Hatfields and the McCoys would have been like if there had been videotape.
In August 1989, Michael Phillips and his wife, Florence, trained their video camera on the home of their neighbor, Richard Uffelman, in an effort to gather evidence for a harassment suit, and then set out on a walk. The camera recorded what followed: a barrage of gunfire by Mr. Uffelman and his two sons, 10 and 12 years old, who shot at the Phillipses from the Uffelmans’ living room.
Afterward, Mr. Uffelman stepped out to where the Phillipses lay wounded and fired at them point blank with a hunting rifle, killing them both.
Mr. Uffelman, a 45-year-old part-time postal clerk, was convicted of murder last October and is to be sentenced next Monday. A Very Rare Crime
The shooting and Mr. Uffelman’s conviction have aroused a tense dispute in this northeastern corner of Maine, whose murder rate is the third-lowest in the nation, after those of New Hampshire and Vermont.
Some families that have known Mr. Uffelman for years believe he is paranoid and are afraid he will get out of jail and take revenge for run-ins he has had with them. Others say he is only an eccentric who was goaded by Mr. Phillips, who was 38, and Mrs. Phillips, 41.
Testifying at his trial, Mr. Uffelman said he had been defending his home against what he believed was an imminent armed attack. Mr. Phillips, in fact, was carrying a pistol in a holster when he was shot by the Uffelmans.
“I’d like to go down to the courthouse to see him sentenced, but my wife and my friends are afraid,” said Bob Kord, the former chief Selectman in Cutler, a nearby fishing village that clings to the side of a steep, narrow inlet of the Atlantic.
Mr. Kord hired Mr. Uffelman as Cutler’s sole police officer in 1978 but moved to dismiss him a week later after he shot a dog in the center of town. Cutler’s peace officer was not supposed to carry a gun. ‘I Really Lived in Fear’
After that, Mr. Kord said, Mr. Uffelman threatened to kill him and destroy his house with a homemade rocket.
“The only crime we’ve had in Cutler in years was once someone stole some branches from a balsam tree for Christmas wreaths,” Mr. Kord said, sitting in his log cabin overlooking the ocean. “But I believe Uffelman’s solution to life was, ‘Get out a gun and blow it away.’ I really lived in fear he would come down the road and shoot me.”
On the other hand, Joan Ackley, who used to baby-sit for the Uffelman boys, said she had often overheard on her car radio scanner Mr. Uffelman’s calls to the state police to complain that the Phillipses were harassing him.
They threw bottles at his house, took letters out of his mailbox and once shot at his swimming pool while his family was in it, Mrs. Ackley recounted. After that incident, the state police arrested Colby Kilton, the husband of Mrs. Phillips’s niece, but he was never charged.
“The Phillipses would be alive today if they hadn’t been harassing him,” Mrs. Ackley said. “As far as I am concerned, they committed suicide.” A Fort With 38 Guns
The precise incident that provoked the feud between the two families, who lived across an isolated stretch of shoreline road from one another, is unclear. But both families took the feud seriously.
After the killings, when the police searched Mr. Uffelman’s house they found he had turned it into an elaborate fort. He had 38 guns, several electronic security systems, sirens in the gables and aircraft landing lights mounted on the corners of his house. There was trip wire hidden on his lawn, a secret room and a secret passageway. He kept German shepherds under his front porch.
With a Marine Corps manual, Mr. Uffelman also tutored his sons, Rick and Jerry, on how to use M-1 carbines to lay down “suppressive fire” in case of an attack, he testified at his trial.
While the two families feuded, the state police, the county sheriff’s department and the district attorney investigated their various charges. In the six months before the killings, Mr. Uffelman filed 47 complaints with the state police.
The problem for the authorities was whom to believe, said Sgt. Wesley D. Hussey of the state police, who is stationed in nearby East Machias. “Both parties had multiple witnesses, family members, friends, telling opposite stories,” he said. “You couldn’t honestly say one side was more credible than the other.”
On the evening the Phillipses were shot, Mr. Uffelman testified, he had fallen asleep on a couch after reading a 40-page report he had sent to Maine’s Attorney General about the Phillipses. His son Jerry awakened him in a scared voice saying, “Daddy, they’re coming!”
Thinking the Phillipses might throw poisoned food at his dogs, he said, he picked up a shotgun and stood at a picture window so they could see him. As the couple passed, Mr. Uffelman testified, Mr. Phillips poked fun at him by making gestures with his hands around his head. Sons Followed Orders
Then, as the Phillipses turned and came back, one of his sons yelled, “Daddy, he’s got a gun!” Mr. Uffelman — thinking, he said later, that his family was about to be shot — opened fire, and his sons automatically followed “standing orders” to cover him.
According to police testimony, the two boys fired from 20 to 25 rounds, hitting the Phillipses several times. The flashes from their guns are visible on the videotape, although the Phillipses are not seen being hit.
On the tape, Mr. Uffelman can be seen coming out with the hunting rifle to fire the fatal shots, and then Mr. Uffelman comes out again, with his sons carrying their weapons.
This time, said Jeffrey Hjelm, the Assistant State Attorney General who prosecuted the case, Mr. Uffelman fired his shotgun into the chest of Mr. Phillips, who was already dead.
Rick and Jerry Uffelman were not charged in the killing because the authorities were not certain how much control their father wielded over them, Mr. Hjelm said.
Moreover, the state has taken them away from their mother and placed them in foster homes. If the state did charge them, he added, under Maine’s juvenile law they would most likely be sent to a foster home, the same outcome.
At the hearing on Monday, Mr. Uffelman could be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The Phillipses left a 12-year-old son, Mike, who hid inside during the shooting. After Mr. Uffelman was convicted, the boy said his former neighbor “was always yelling at us with a bullhorn and shining spotlights on us.”
“My mom and dad bought me a new bike,” he said, “but they wouldn’t let me ride down the road because they were afraid he’d do something to me.”
Still, a local cleric who has ministered to Mr. Uffelman blames the Phillipses. The minister, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said of Mr. Uffelman: “He was a crackpot, so nobody wanted to believe him. It’s my belief they deliberately pushed him till they pushed him over the edge.”