Phillip Ballard figured he was looking at at least 20 years.
He'd already been in the federal lock-up in Fort Worth since July, and things weren't looking good in his criminal case, which centered on seven counts of tax fraud. For almost a decade he had, according to an indictment in the case, claimed to be an attorney and doled out illegal tax advice, specifically encouraging the owner of a Dallas-area drywall business to file incorporation papers for a church, Chapel of Light Ministries, and a nonprofit called the Perma Wall Trust, for the sole purpose of hiding some $4 million in revenue. He was set to go to trial today.
Ballard is 71, and a sentence as lengthy as he expected to be handed down by U.S. District Judge John McBryde all but guaranteed he would die in prison. He figured his best shot at a lighter sentence was a new judge. His wish was granted on Friday, though not in the way he had intended.
According to an FBI affidavit, Ballard began talking with some fellow inmates in early September about how he planned to have McBryde removed from the case. On September 12, he entered jail's day room and sat with an unidentified prisoner who became an FBI informant. Ballard told him about the tax case and explained to him that he was a "sovereign citizen" and thus was immune from all laws of the United States. He proceeded to explain that he wanted the judge dead.
Another prisoner at the table left at this point, but the conversation continued. The informant told Ballard that he knew a guy on the outside who could do the job -- he said this to "engage him further," the affidavit says -- but that it would cost $100,000 in cash. Ballard approached him later that day and asked to be cell mates.
Two days later, a pair of FBI agents met with the informant, who recounted Ballard's murder plot in detail.
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According to the prisoner, Ballard wanted the hit man positioned in the Burnett Plaza Building in Fort Worth with a high-powered rifle and scope so he could be ready when McBryde entered the federal courthouse across the street. If that failed, the killer should plant a bomb in the judge's car. Ballard promised the money after the hit; he would only need to send a note to his sister to have it delivered.
Last Wednesday, the plan took a step forward when the informant brought Ballard a letter from the would-be murderer who was an undercover FBI agent. In the letter, the agent agreed to carry out the murder as soon as he received an upfront payment of $5,000.
Ballard called the number provided by the FBI agent four times the same day to arrange the hit. The next day, he sent an email to his sister advising her to send $5,000 to the Oklahoma address provided by the FBI agent.
The preparations had the desired effect, in one way at least. On Friday, McBryde recused himself from Ballard's tax fraud case, the trial for which was postponed indefinitely. Ballard now faces a murder-for-hire charge. U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cureton ruled this morning that the feds can present the case to a grand jury for a possible indictment. The maximum sentence for the charge? Twenty years.