A friend from Laurel High School, Ryan Chippi, said that when they reached their 20s, he noticed Phillips was doing cocaine at Friday night parties.
“Then, it was Friday and Saturday. Then more days in the week. It got out of control,” Chippi said. “All the time I said to him, ‘How’s this going to end?’ His talk was just rambling. I’d say, ‘Listen to yourself.’ He was in a pretty bad place.”
Phillips is the only son of a single mother, Deborah Phillips. He never met his father. He said his mother suffered abuse from alcoholic boyfriends.
“But she was a wonderful woman. She taught me, ‘yes ma’m’ and ‘no ma’am’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” he said.
Household bills were a source of worry, he said, “But we weren’t poor. I was raised right, but somewhere along the way I got lost.”
He said one mistake he made was getting arrested in Howard County.
“Howard County is tougher than Prince George’s County,” he said.
At Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, where he was incarcerated, his mother would drive three hours to visit and she would put money in his prison spending account.
“She never gave up on me,” Phillips said.
It was at WCI he met and developed a close relationship with prison pastor Galen Beitzel. It was Chaplain Beitzel who summoned him on Oct. 24, 2015, to tell Phillips his mother had died of heart failure.
Phillips said the pastor hugged him as he wept.
He was only 18 months into his 10-year sentence. No chance for leave to attend the funeral.
“That crushed me. She was everything to me. It’s painful living with that guilt,” he said.
After being denied parole, Phillips said that, at a hearing, he was able to get his sentence modified by a judge who placed him Gaudenzia, a substance abuse tretment facility in Crownsville.
After four months there, he was allowed back out to try again to change his life.
A payout from his mother’s life insurance that he anticipated collecting was gone, but he got reinstated as a member of Local 26 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and found work again as an electrician.
Now, he gets up at 4 a.m., eats a bowl of cereal and, after blowing into a Breathalyzer connected to his ignition, drives off at 5 a.m. to his job at New Adventist Hospital in Silver Spring, where he joins a crew installing lighting. At 2:30 p.m., he clocks out of that job, changes clothes in his car and drives to his other full-time job with a home improvement contractor. He’s home about 9:30 p.m. and goes right to bed after a meal. He also spends time at work on Saturday and sometimes Sunday.
Phillips occasionally attends Grace Community Church in Fulton. He said he never watches TV, preferring to watch motivational speakers on YouTube.
He was briefly married and had a daughter, Danielle Phillips, when he was 22. His daughter, now 16, lives in Tampa with her mother. Dad said he and his daughter have a loving relationship.
He has ambitious plans.
An organization he founded called Light in the Shadows works with addicts and the homeless and he wants to get 501c3 tax-exempt status. To do that, he must raise several thousand dollars for legal fees and he says he will spend the summer seeking sponsors and grants.
Motivational speaking intrigues him and he is writing speeches with help from a friend from the Toastmasters club. He would like to start at schools and with videos on YouTube in hopes of joining an online speakers roster and getting gigs.
Phillips said he also wants to launch a personal website and has reserved the domain name RussellPhillips.com.
His friends from high school are impressed.
Chippi, a member of the same IBEW local as Phillips, said his friend has now become “an adult.”
“I trust him more than I trust a lot of people. He never did me wrong, never stole from me. Even when he was high on drugs, he’d always be there for me,” he said.
Another friend, Mike Tirakis, said he now sees “a whole different person” in Phillips.
“I am so proud of the guy. As bad as he was, I honestly felt he would end up in prison or dead. Now, he’s completely different. I didn’t even know that was possible,” Tirakis said.
In person, Phillips’s demeanor gives little indication of his past. But on his left forearm is a tattoo of praying hands with handcuffs linking the wrists.
Phillips has a photo of his mom’s grave on his cell phone. The headstone is engraved, “To know her was to love her.”