Image: Tim Lane

On a chilly night in January 1982, Iris Siff—arts patron, former actress, and managing director of the Alley Theatre—was working late inside her office at the downtown theater when a man entered and strangled her with a phone cord.

Cleaning staff stumbled upon Siff’s body the next morning. Police had discovered her Lincoln Continental, set ablaze nearby. Authorities quickly tracked down a suspect, former Alley security guard Clifford X. Phillips, who’d recently been fired. He confessed, but with a qualification: Yes, he was the one who snuck in through a side door and killed Siff, but he wasn’t a murderer—it was an act of self-defense.

As Phillips told it, when he demanded money to buy food and drugs, the 58-year-old charged at him, and the two wrestled for about 15 minutes. He claimed his only recourse was to strangle her. When Siff gasped back to life, Phillips said, he strangled her again before making off with her car keys, a fur coat, a watch, and a TV. “I had a lot of respect for her because I knew it was a fight for my life or her life,” he claimed. “I could see she was a very dignified woman, and I admire her really.”

After the press discovered Phillips had previously worked at the Alley—hence his familiarity with the fortress-like facility—the story took on a broader significance. Security Guard Services, Inc., the theater’s contractor, had hired him without scrutinizing his hefty criminal record, which included a nine-year manslaughter sentence for the death of his infant son, whose body was found discarded in a suitcase in New York. That revelation anchored a Texas Monthly cover story highlighting how basically anyone—even a felon—could get hired at most private security firms. Siff’s family settled a wrongful death suit against the Alley contractor and two of its employees in 1984.

As for Phillips, in 1982 he was convicted and received the death penalty; he would spend the better part of the next decade fighting to get off death row. His lawyers maintained that he’d been discriminated against at his trial, as he was black, Siff was white, and every member of the jury was white. “I am not a murderer,” Phillips said in 1987. “I don’t regret it now.” He died by lethal injection on December 15, 1993.

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