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The life and death of Kelly Phillips, gentle soul

Kelly Phillips was a lineman on the Newman Catholic High School football team.

Kelly Phillips was a lineman on the Newman Catholic High School football team.


I. Good man gunned down


Not long after dawn on August 11 of last year, the Holiday gas station in Arden Hills is nearly barren, the ground a glaze of freshly fallen rain.

Josh Polos of Little Canada is alone with his car at the pumps. Out of the rush of traffic, a black BMW squeals to a stop near his rear bumper. Two angry male voices clash within. Polos glances at the stands of vacant pumps, annoyance mounting as he wonders why they chose to crowd him.

The BMW curves around him and brakes to a stop beside the store. A passenger door springs open. A clean-cut man scrambles into the gray light. He's quickly followed by the driver, who raises a gun and dispenses two quick pops.

The wounded man twists, backpedaling as he loses his footing and falls to one hip. It's all he can do to beg the shooter to halt fire. But the man with the gun advances in two long strides. Standing directly overhead, he crushes the trigger.

Polos meets the gunman's eye. For a split second, they stare at each other over the lifeless figure splayed on the asphalt.

The shooter is a hulk of a man with a leaden face and blank eyes pulsing with shock. He turns away, climbs back into the driver's seat. For a grueling half-minute, his eyes press out toward the store windows. Polos suspects he's contemplating turning the gun on himself.

Kelly and his sister, Kim Frank

Kelly and his sister, Kim Frank

The BMW backs up six inches, pulls forward six inches, backs up, pulls forward, as if the driver can't quite locate the body in his rearview mirror. Finally, he backs over the man on the ground and speeds from the lot.

Polos scrambles to check the victim's vital signs. There's a faint throb of a pulse, barely discernible.

II. A love is broken

In the days that follow, police narrow their search to a single suspect: 45-year-old Lyle "Ty" Hoffman of Minneapolis. Until recently, he'd been the larger-than-life manager of Lush, a loud and lurid gay bar in Northeast, where the drinks flowed freely and warm bodies crowded en masse. In wanted posters splashed across the region, he cuts a deteriorating figure. Ruddy lips pressed thin and an expanding jaw line mottled with stubble belie a strong frame suggestive of better days.

Standing in contrast is the deceased, bright-eyed Kelly Phillips, an attorney and Boston Scientific vice president, with his light hair cropped short, starched collar folded neatly over a dark sweater.

For 15 years he and Ty were a couple who traveled the world and jointly developed real estate throughout the Twin Cities. While Kelly fronted the cash for Lush and bought the former Bell Telephone Building in north Minneapolis, converting it into sweeping commercial spaces, Ty provided the sweat to renovate both. It didn't matter to their families that the two could never be married by the laws of the time. They were viewed as sons-in-law, uncles to nieces and nephews on both sides.

Ty was Kelly's first real gay relationship after he came out relatively late in life. Kelly, in turn, was Ty's one great love.

Their split in 2010 was a mutual decision. After all that time, their feelings had cooled, their work lives pulling them in disparate directions. They remained partners in business, but last summer, a chasm swelled between the two.

Kelly had found new love in a younger man. He was engaged to be married by the end of August. Friends advised him to disentangle himself from Ty. Kelly needed clean ground as he embarked on the golden path that awaited him with fiancé Nathon Bailey.

They disagreed over where to slice their bond. Five years since opening day, Ty had transformed Lush from an abandoned auto body shop into a rising monument to the gay club scene. But he'd done so by the grace of Kelly's generosity. Their once genial relationship had been reduced to lawyers and courtrooms. Ty couldn't produce a slip of writing to prove he owned anything.

A lawyer would eventually confiscate the keys to Lush. On March 17, Ty's birthday, he was evicted from the house across the street that he and Kelly once shared. He couldn't lay claim to that either.

On the day of his death, Kelly's enemies numbered one, friends say. And that man had vanished.

III. A good Son of Iowa

Kelly Phillips grew from the mud of Mason City, Iowa. The son of a high school wrestling coach, stringer to a pair of gregarious older brothers, he earned his pocket money at $1.80 an hour detasseling acres of corn for local farmers.

Back in 1977, kids could work as young as 12 years old. Kelly lied on the application and started at 11, the same way his brothers Bob and Bill did before him.

In a single-income household with five kids, the siblings understood that while mom and dad sustained the food they ate and the clothes they wore, they would have to report to the fields at daybreak if they wanted to race neighborhood kids on the latest Schwinns. Kelly began as the shortest head among the stalks, hastening to not only beat the sweltering midday sun, but to keep pace with the older teens who'd invariably finish first and circle back to pick him from the rows.

The work ethic instilled by his father ran deep. Where his brothers always quit their jobs come wrestling season, Kelly was never out of work. He peddled greeting cards door-to-door, bussed tables at the Pheasant Run, lifeguarded at the country club. He earned enough to buy his first car before graduation, then paid his way through the University of Northern Iowa and graduated as valedictorian of the University of Iowa College of Law.

Kelly (right) with his brothers Bob and Bill

Kelly (right) with his brothers Bob and Bill

Kelly married, moved with his wife to the Twin Cities, and began to take the corporate ladder at Boston Scientific by leaps. He would regularly return to Iowa, the land that created him, to spend time with his aging parents.

Eight ordinary years went by before he reached a watershed moment.

Bill remembers their mother, Judy, calling, just ahead of a family reunion in Mason City. Kelly had something important to say, and he didn't want to say it by phone, she warned.

The brothers sat on the patio, cracking beers and watching the sun plunge behind their childhood home. They talked about everything.

"As he was struggling to tell me, the thought popped into my mind: 'I think he's going to tell me he's gay,'" Bill says. "I guess deep down he probably always knew, but because of society he tried to fit into that square peg. He tried to live his life straight, and it got to the point where he was unhappy."

Though Kelly wrangled over leaving his marriage, there was no love lost when he and his wife inevitably parted ways.

At 30 years old, Kelly finally came into his own. He was a rising force in the legal community, young, single, and free to embrace his nature at the tail of the '90s. It wasn't long before Ty entered his life.

Ty Hoffman

Ty Hoffman

Ty was a middle child in a clan of 10. He'd grown up in Blaine, where his siblings still closely orbit one another. Like Kelly, his early years were short on financial comforts, rich in family bonds.

They did not strike others as an outwardly conventional couple. But they seemed to complement each other's strengths.

Ty owned a house in north Minneapolis and a bistro in Spring Lake Park, where he courted a steady flow from the Medtronic offices in nearby Fridley. He sold both to buy a house in Bryn Mawr with Kelly, which they restored and eventually sold for a hefty profit. Where Ty's creative drive bred a ceaseless series of entrepreneurial ventures, Kelly grounded the risks with firm financial discipline.

The Phillips family, which had accepted Kelly's coming out unconditionally, received Ty as an emblem of Kelly's happiness. Ty's siblings adopted Kelly into their ranks.

Ty's niece Ashley Paul recalls countless Christmases where she learned to love Kelly as an uncle. He was the one who offered good advice, who brimmed with thoughtful conversation. "A kind, gentle soul," she calls him. "He was very much the shy one in the relationship, the one who went with the flow, whereas Ty was more boisterous, the life of the party."

IV. The long unraveling

When the brick box auto shop at 990 Central Ave. NE went up for sale in 2009, Ty saw an opportunity to realize his dream of creating a gay neighborhood in Northeast. It would be modeled after San Francisco's vivacious Castro District, with bars, restaurants, and gyms. Kelly put up the money. Ty stripped the building of its former life, set new flooring, and painted the walls. He installed a patio, wallpapered the interior with TVs streaming '90s music videos, and hung a trim of sleek blue lights surrounding a modern, industrial bar.

Lush was born an overnight success. Ty dove headlong into its day-to-day operations, hosting networking events, art shows, and underwear auctions where male models in speedos brought in tens of thousands of dollars for children with AIDS.

Ty had found his natural habitat. He surrounded himself with mobs of celebrants, playing the magnetic host who bought rounds for the regulars and picked up tabs for friends and family.

"Him and his entire family grew up pretty poor, so he always wanted share his wealth once he'd found it," Paul says. "Whenever we came to Lush, he would say, 'Oh, don't worry about it. I wanna buy you lunch. I wanna buy you dinner, drinks,' whatever. He was so generous with that."

As Lush ensnared Ty's full attention, Kelly drove deep into the marriage equality movement. He canvassed the streets on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign to oppose a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.

Over time, the yawning incongruity between Kelly and Ty became more conspicuous. "Kelly would come down by himself," Bill says of his brother's visits to Mason City. "We never got to know [Ty]. I don't think our household was as exciting or fun for him, and if it wasn't fun for him, he wasn't going to do it."

It seemed odd to the Phillips family that Ty wouldn't make the sacrifice, though Kelly always downplayed the disappointment that must have gnawed at him.

While Ty reveled in playing maestro of the club, Kelly recoiled from the seedier thump of the bar scene.

As their interests and their social circles diverged, the breakup followed without incident. Kelly, who had been friend and confidant to Ty's young nieces and nephews, retained that role, even taking Paul on a tour of Napa Valley's vineyards.

Kelly would also soon get word that Nathon Bailey, then 34, was single. With the two having interests and temperaments in common, friends suggested a spark might await. Kelly orchestrated a double date at Restaurant Alma.

It was a little awkward, sitting down with a relative stranger as the obvious object of courtship, Nathon recalls. But Kelly oozed gentility, confidence. For all of his personal accomplishments, he had a way of steering conversations away from himself. Patiently he deduced the important things in a person's heart and cultivated his inner light.

"So many things happened at once. We hit it off right away, and after that we spent no more than a few days apart from each other," Nathon says. "It was the first relationship I'd ever had where I truly felt secure. I felt that I had someone to love."

It was clear to Kelly's family from the onset that Nathon, this soft-spoken, mild-mannered practitioner of anesthesiology, was a better fit for Kelly. The two spent their Thanksgivings with Kelly's family and Christmases with Nathon's.

They co-hosted fundraisers for the Human Rights Campaign and traveled the Minnesota countryside, knocking on doors to present themselves in the case for marriage equality.

On November 6, 2012, Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Ballot counting lasted well into the night. Six months afterward, the state legislature cast votes on same-sex marriage. Everyone would be free to marry. Nathon and Kelly, who'd spent the better half of the evening scrolling restlessly across the cable spectrum, fell exhausted into bed, weeping tears of relief.

On August 11, 2013, Kelly made a dinner reservation at La Belle Vie in Loring Park. He ordered champagne, then looked across the table and asked Nathon to be his husband.

Ty never quite replaced Kelly. "He was really busy with the bar," Paul says, "and Ty had some really good friends and family around all the time, so he never felt lonely or sad that he wasn't with anybody else. He was just having fun."

Kelly and Nathon set their wedding for August 30, 2014. It was to be an intimate, backyard affair with only their families and a handful of friends to bear witness. In the meantime, Kelly decided he wanted to split Lush's assets and dissolve his partnership with Ty, only he couldn't be sure what the bar was worth.

Ty's family warned him: The bar was in Kelly's name, and an understanding of mutual ownership wouldn't be enough to protect his share. Ty shrugged off their concern.

"I'd talked to Ty before, and when things were spiraling down, he always said, 'Kelly would never do that. Kelly's a really fair person. Kelly's gotta have a plan,'" Paul recalls. "I know he wholeheartedly believed that, so to see Kelly moving on with his life with someone else, with half of the money that Ty earned, it had to be hard and it had to be heartbreaking."

V. Fired and evicted

About three months before the wedding, Kelly discovered that cash deposits from Lush were substantially lower than they should have been. Some books had disappeared.

He fired Ty from the bar and insisted that he move out of the house across the street.

Ty tried to fight. On the days family members accompanied him to court, they saw strained variations in his mood. One hearing he wept, the next he'd smile, signaling a thumbs up. He didn't tell anyone exactly what he stood to lose — or what, if anything, Kelly meant to leave him. If he suffered deep down he hid it well, his siblings say. Looking back, they wish he'd swallowed his pride and reached out for help. Any one of them would have given him money or a place to live.

Dawn Gominsky, Ty's sister, prefaces her comments by saying she lost two brothers last summer. What Ty did was terrible, she says. But he was pushed over the edge.

"His heart and soul belonged to Lush. If it was not a gay relationship of 15 years, they would have split everything," Gominsky says. "We all loved Kelly."

But in those final months, her brother kept insisting they not worry. Kelly would be fair.

Eventually Ty was evicted. Embittered and convinced he'd been betrayed, he left empty-handed. He retreated from family, going radio silent for months. His nieces and nephews packed the furniture Ty left behind, promising they'd hold on to it for him.

A friend let him stay on and off in her downtown Minneapolis condo. Investigators would later discover a suitcase there. It contained clean clothes, his passport, prescription meds, and a .45 caliber semiautomatic magazine.

At about 5 a.m. on August 11, 2014, Ty left that condo and crossed the Third Avenue Bridge, en route to Kelly's apartment in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. By 8 a.m. Kelly's BMW pulled out of the garage, bound for the Boston Scientific office in Arden Hills, the same way Kelly had driven for years.

VI. Manhunt

Ty's disappearance from the Holiday station launched a month-long manhunt that transfixed the Twin Cities. Police sifted through thousands of hours of surveillance footage that traced Ty to Blaine, which he knew better than any place on earth. Alerts described him as armed and dangerous. Mothers suspended outdoor play for their children.

For days helicopters patrolled the skies, surveying a town overrun with police, who staked out Ty's family. In the woods beside the Anoka County-Blaine airport, cops found Kelly's abandoned BMW. There was no sign of Ty.

Two weeks later, he robbed a TCF Bank in Blaine at gunpoint. He was later spotted bare-chested, wearing a backpack with his skin stained red from an exploding dye pack the teller had slipped between the cash.

The desperate robbery signaled that Ty was still alive, and cleared his family of suspicions they were sheltering him. Gominsky took to TV to plead for her brother's surrender.

"Please come forward," she urged. "I just want to let him know that we will love and support him through anything."

The day after the robbery, Ty was caught on camera shopping for clean clothes and a burner phone at a Richfield Target. From there he headed to Mystic Lake Casino, where he sat at the slots for an hour, changing dyed money for clean cash.

Kelly was laid to rest in Mason City a week after his death. Colleagues from Boston Scientific touched down in private planes. Just days before they were due to be married, Nathon whispered his vows over Kelly's casket and slipped a wedding band on his finger. He still wears his, a band of alternating gold stripes, "because Kelly is my soulmate," Nathon explains. "He's my husband."

That same day, Thunder Bay Police alerted residents to bolt their doors. They'd been watching the border for weeks on the hunch that an armed and dangerous American fugitive might cross into Canada. But hope of an arrest fizzled quickly when a suspect turned out to be just another driver with Minnesota plates.

In the days that followed, after the blur of memorials and the condolences from around the world faded, Nathon returned to Mason City with boxes of things he wanted Kelly's parents, Jim and Judy, to have. Among them were heaps of trophies and certificates of recognition for all Kelly had accomplished at Boston Scientific.

"Of course we never knew about any of that," Jim says. "We were always proud of Kelly, but he was so humble, he never told us."

As Jim slowly sorted through the artifacts of his son's life, one office keepsake caught his eye — a medical school diploma that once belonged to Kelly's grandfather, who had stepped off the orphan train from New York at the turn of the century and put down roots in Iowa. It represented the parable that hard work could take a man anywhere in life, and it strengthened his parents to know that Kelly treasured it.

Ty was finally arrested on September 11, caught walking through the drive-thru of a Shakopee Arby's. He gave the officers a fake name, but didn't put up a fight when they pressed him. Bail was set at $2 million while prosecutors weighed the prospects of a first-degree murder conviction.

In January, Ty pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which comes with a sentence of 25 years, with parole at 17. At a hearing before Judge George Stephenson, he insisted his was an act of momentary madness. He was just going for a walk that morning, he said, when he ran into Kelly in the street with his Boston Terrier.

His car had broken down, so he asked to borrow Kelly's, Ty explained. He was supposed to drop Kelly off at work in Arden Hills. Along the way, they began to argue about Lush and how much it was worth.

Kelly climbed from the BMW at the Holiday station, where they struggled over the gun, Ty said. He didn't remember the rest. He'd been so angry. It happened so fast.

Nathon listened from the gallery, his heart palpitating in fierce protest, convinced Ty's lawyers coached him to lie. Polos caught it too. There was absolutely no struggle over the gun, the witness insists.

"Being in the same room with him, hearing him carefully pick his words to make it seem like there was no hint of premeditation — it was just a coincidence that he had a gun, that he ran into Kelly when he was walking our dog — we all know those are lies," Nathon says. "Nothing about that day created any type of closure."

The day before he was to be formally sentenced, Ty told his family that listening to Kelly's family speak would be the most difficult thing he'd ever endure.

On March 17, Ty's 45th birthday, Nathon, Kelly's parents, his brother Bill, and an aunt read victim impact statements before Judge Stephenson. Jim Phillips, Kelly's father, asserted that no amount of justice would ever give the family peace, but he would have liked to have five minutes alone with Ty in a locked room. Mother Judy submitted a letter but did not speak. She wished Ty would have killed himself long before he hurt Kelly, it read.

The courtroom air seemed to thicken with mist when Nathon spoke. "I guess I do think about it a little bit, how I could be in my 50s and he could be a free man," he said. "I don't know what I would do."

Of all the people Ty might have counted as friends in a previous life, only his closest family attended his sentencing. When Gominsky heard Judy Phillips wish for Ty's suicide, she was jolted back to her own son's suicide two years earlier. Ty had dragged her out of bed, given her money for the casino, where they gambled and drank to anesthetize her pain.

"He's alive, but what kind of life is he going to have in prison for 17 years?" Gominsky says of her brother. "And being gay on top of it? Are they going to be abusive to him? I don't know how else to put it right now. It happened within a second's decision, and once it was done, his life was done."

Stephenson chided the man in the orange jumpsuit. Ty had ample opportunity to apologize to Kelly's family, the judge said. Only callous cowardice prevented him from doing so.

On July 8, Ty again pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court, this time for robbing TCF while on the run. His sentence has yet to be determined, but his conviction in Kelly's murder will support the case for giving him a longer, consecutive term. A sentencing date awaits him this fall.