By Lance Rinker
UNTIL RECENTLY, INMATE NO. G31982 led a quiet life inside his stony palace within the confines of California’s Kern Valley State Prison. This fortress was built to house a maximum of 2,448 men beginning in June 2005, though continued overcrowding of prisons has resulted in this Level IV maximum security institution’s population to swell to an almost unmanageable 4,200 inmates – or more than 170 percent of capacity.
Lawrence Phillips is inmate No. G31982 and currently is being investigated in the strangulation death of a cellmate, while serving a 31-year sentence. But Phillips used to be known as much, much more before life inside a concrete box.
Long before Phillips landed in prison just more than four years ago, he grew up in foster care – and ultimately MacLaren Hall, a juvenile detention center where abuse was rampant according to Carla Rivera of the Los Angeles Times.
It was 1987 when Phillips’ mother, Juanita, invited her boyfriend to live in their Inglewood, Calif., home. Reports surfaced from friends and neighbors that Lawrence and the boyfriend were constantly at odds, with multiple sources stating Lawrence repeatedly was abused by his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, state officials intervened and placed Lawrence in a foster home, but after living there for only two weeks he was transferred to MacLaren Hall – a place where your childhood was stolen from you for the fun of it.
Fortunately, for Lawrence, Barbara Thomas saw something in him and decided to take him into her group home in West Covina.
“I knew sports would give him a chance, so I took him into our home and immediately enrolled him in sports leagues,” Thomas told Lars Anderson in 1995, who was covering Phillips for Sports Illustrated.
Up to this point, Phillips had already had an unusually hard life compared to most kids his age, but he soon emerged as one of the top high school running backs in the nation. He was a bully of a running back with game-changing speed and played well beyond the whistle. Those athletic gifts and killer instinct on the football field is what allowed Phillips to have his pick of nearly any college in the nation.
It was the University of Nebraska he ultimately settled on largely due to how far away it was from his troubled past in California. As a Cornhusker, Phillips established himself as the best running back in the country and proved impossible to bring down singlehandedly on the football field.
During the 1994 season, Phillips proved he had no equal on the field by rushing for 1,722 yards, still a record for a sophomore at Nebraska, and scoring 16 touchdowns. Phillips essentially helped Nebraska win the 1994 National Championship on his own.
According to several former Nebraska staff members who were with the team at the time, Phillips’ rage surrounding the traumatic events and abuses towards him early on in life were a best friend on the field – rage that fueled him endlessly sometimes.
Unfortunately for Phillips, he was not able to contain that rage to just the football field.
After declaring for the 1996 National Football League Draft, Phillips was selected sixth overall by the St. Louis Rams but due to off-field issues and an inability to control his emotions he flamed out of the NFL within three seasons.
In his less than two seasons with the Rams, Phillips was fined more than 50 times for various violations and never seemed to shape up to the expectations beset upon adults and professional athletes.
It’s no surprise Phillips had such a difficult time adjusting to life as an adult, with adult responsibilities – most adults go through life able to develop a solid foundation of ways to cope with loss, disappointment, and failure. Phillips wasn’t one to handle any sort of trauma well, nor was he the type of person who could handle letting others down or someone else letting him down.
According to his former coaches, he never was coached in the ways of life and that’s what ultimately became his undoing.
Phillips’ downward spiral began well before finally landing in prison for battering his live-in girlfriend and then, reportedly, using her vehicle – which he stole – to run over three teenagers whom he accused of stealing his belongings after a pick-up football game. Phillips began his descent while still an impressionable child, as his life growing up was filled with people who were supposed to care for him and love him abandoned him, abused him, and constantly demonstrated that violence can solve any problem.
Officially, Phillips has been locked in a prison cell since 2005 – serving 31 years and four months for convictions that include “inflicting great bodily injury involving domestic violence, corporal injury to spouse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft.” That, of course, is in addition to being convicted of driving that stolen vehicle into those three teenagers.
Fast-forward to today and if Phillips is found guilty of murdering his cellmate, he could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, according to people still close to Phillips, he’s had a target on his back for being who he is ever since he stepped inside those deadly prison walls.
The cellmate, Damion Soward, was found unresponsive in his cell in April and coroner’s officials determined the cause of death was neck compression asphyxia (strangulation). His death has been ruled a homicide.
Soward was a well-known gang member from the Inland Empire serving an 82-year-to-life sentence in the execution murder of Michael Fairly, a rival gang member. Phillips was placed in a cell with Soward after having requested to be placed in solitary confinement for his own protection multiple times.
Those familiar with Phillips say he has his demons and a troubled past, but don’t believe he’s a murderer and are convinced the death of Soward was a result of self-defense.
The story of Lawrence Phillips is a familiar one for those who grow up in troubled areas, with a serious lack of a support system, and more options and opportunities to make poor decisions than good ones. The story of Phillips is one of a broken child who never got the help he needed and simply was unable to conquer the demons that plagued him.