Nancy Phillips is a far cry from the roughhewn Hollywood stereotype of the investigative reporter. She has a serene manner, and she's well-coiffed and well-dressed.
Phillips "doesn't look like the typical reporter schlub," says Amy Rosenberg, her colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But don't let the surface fool you: though soft-spoken, patient and polite, Phillips, 48, is a formidable journalist. Whether the story at hand calls for befriending a hit man and getting him to talk, or exposing the child-molesting past of a colleague, she doesn't hesitate, even if the story takes years and years to reach fruition.
"She's very calm and measured," says Mike Leary, Phillips' editor on the Inquirer's investigative team. "It's obvious she has a lot of empathy and connects with people telling stories. It was really evident in the Conlin story."
In late December, Phillips broke the story that longtime Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin, a legend in the city's journalism world, had sexually abused children in the 1970s. Conlin resigned as the story appeared.
After receiving the tip from Rosenberg, whose friend, Kelley Blanchet, Conlin's niece, came forward as a victim, Phillips began reporting.
While Rosenberg couldn't take on the story herself due to the conflict of interest because of her relationship with Blanchet, she says that realization came later. What she knew immediately was that Phillips was the one who should write the story.
"When I got off the phone with Kelley and called Nancy, I could hear immediately that she saw the story in front of her," Rosenberg says. "From the start, she was clear eyed and the woman for the job."
Nancy Phillips. Handout photo.
Blanchet told her story to Phillips and led her to Karen Healey, a childhood friend of Conlin's children, who also told Phillips Conlin had abused her. After the story was published, several other women came forward with stories of abuse.
While Phillips says there was "a certain level of discomfort" in investigating a man who worked in the same building she did and for the same employer (the papers are both owned by Philadelphia Media Network), "it was a tip like any other." She didn't know Conlin personally, but was well aware that they shared an office address and coworkers — she even spoke in code to her editors while working on the story rather than say Conlin's name aloud.
But the uncomfortable nature of the situation never fazed Phillips. It was an important story, and it needed to be told. So she told it.
Though Conlin declined to speak with Phillips, she was more than ready for a possible interview, armed with eight pages of questions. Of all the possibilities, at the top of her list was: "Is this true?"
Phillips' "pure reporting" is one of the many characteristics that fellow investigative team reporter Craig McCoy says makes her remarkable. "The Conlin piece showed and didn't tell," he says. "She got herself out of the story and just presented the facts, and it was all the more damning."
McCoy, who has collaborated with Phillips on several pieces — in one instance, exposing injustices in the Philadelphia court system¯says she is courageous, unpretentious and a pleasure to work with.
While her coverage of the Conlin case was graceful and precise, Phillips has quite a history of covering sensitive stories, Leary says.
"The Conlin story has attracted attention, but she's been doing this caliber story for a long time," Leary says. "Her stories elicit tremendous respect in the newsroom and in the industry."
And so many times throughout her career, it has been a powerful combination of intuition and perseverance that has made Phillips, in the words of former Inquirer executive editor Gene Roberts, "one of the finest reporters in the country."
She wasted no time getting started in the field.
After graduating from high school at 16 and from New College in Sarasota, Florida, three years later, Phillips was ready to start doing something right away, and ultimately fell into journalism. Looking back, Phillips says she can't remember the reason for her academic rush, but she's glad to have found a career so early that she still finds fulfilling.
During her final semester at New College, she had an individual writing tutorial with professor Ron Riddle, who one day asked Phillips if she was interested in writing for a newspaper. Riddle set up a meeting for Phillips with C. Edward Pierce, then the managing editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which led to a summer internship.
"I knew nothing about how to do journalism, other than being a journalism reader," Phillips says. "But I loved it immediately. I thought it was unbelievable — the things you could learn and experience. It was meeting new people and learning new things. It was an extension of my education, and still is. We become mini-masters of all kinds of topics. It's very enriching."
Phillips learned the craft quickly, and the paper kept her on full time at the end of the summer. By 1985, after two years at the Herald-Tribune, Phillips felt she had had absorbed everything she could learn there and sought to return home to Philadelphia, to be closer to her parents and two younger sisters. So at age 21, she boldly applied to the Philadelphia Inquirer, at the time one of the nation's premier dailies. And she caught on.
For her first three years, Phillips was in the paper's correspondent program, in which she shadowed an experienced reporter while writing stories of her own. At the end, the paper kept her on the roster.
A great win for readers in the City of Brotherly Love.
After more than 25 years, Phillips remains at the Inquirer as an investigative reporter. She briefly tried editing, and loved it, but missed her true calling, which she calls "the best job in the newspaper industry."
"It's utterly fascinating work," Phillips says. "We get to delve deeply into a variety of issues and work to get out the truth. To me, that's very fulfilling."
In 1994, Phillips began investigating what would become the most-followed saga of her career: the murder of Carol Neulander, a rabbi's wife from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Slowly, throughout the next five and a half years, the story would unravel, and Phillips would follow it relentlessly.
In early 1995, after his wife had been murdered, Rabbi Fred Neulander, a beloved community fixture, left the congregation he had begun with his wife in 1974 after his affair with a Philadelphia radio personality surfaced.
When Phillips met Len Jenoff, Neulander's private investigator, that same year, she sensed he knew more about Carol Neulander's murder than he was revealing-- a hunch that would ultimately help solve the case.
So over the next several years, the two became friends, of sorts.
As Alicia C. Shepard reported in her AJR article about the case in April 2001, the two shared meals, chatted on the phone, discussed Judaism and even shared recipes. Phillips allowed Jenoff to speak off the record. She was patient, and her intuition yielded gold.
Several times over the next few years, Jenoff confided in Phillips, from this off-the-record comfort zone. In November 1996, he alluded to being involved in the murder of the rabbi's wife, but did not admit outright participation until December 1999.
Phillips knew Jenoff's secret, but she never considered going to the police — to do so would violate journalism ethics. Though honoring her word meant she was sometimes fearful of Jenoff's murderous capabilities, Phillips believed that Jenoff ultimately wanted to share his story.
On April 28 2000, Phillips convinced Jenoff to confess to authorities, leading to his arrest.
When she went to court the morning after Jenoff was arrested, Phillips was surprised to find herself in the spotlight. While she wanted to join the throng of reporters, she instead found herself the subject of press attention, with cameras in her face and never-ending questions for her to answer.
Jenoff testified against Neulander, strengthening a case that initially had been based on circumstantial evidence. The rabbi was convicted of murder, and Jenoff pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter. Both men remain in prison.
Looking back, Phillips says she would change nothing about her approach to the Neulander story — except for the suit she wore the day the cameras converged around her outside of the courthouse.
Of all the awards Phillips has received for her work — and there are a great many¯ she says nothing matches the sense of accomplishment brought about by the grateful phone calls from Carol Neulander's siblings.
Aside from personal accolades for the Neulander case, Phillips earned a special citation from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2003 as the judges called her work "an outstanding example of a reporter of great courage who persevered long after most would have given up."
Phillips also shared a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 2007 for coverage of Philadelphia's failing Department of Human Services and has been a finalist for the Selden Ring Award, Scripps Howard Award and National Headliner Award.
When she's not breaking news, Phillips loves spending time with her Labradoodle, Max, making weekly flower arrangements for her home and cooking.
She calls rich food her biggest vice, but she's also an avid gym-goer, a fan of Pilates, yoga and swimming.
"I can spend hours in the kitchen, trying out new recipes, making big pots of soup or a long-simmering Bolognese," Phillips says. "To me, there is something soul-satisfying about making wonderful food and sharing it with others."
Whether she is cooking or writing, Phillips' ability to connect with others is clear. She pours herself into everything she does.
"With great investigative reporters, there is this almost magical quality that transmits in which reporters have the ability to make almost immediate rapport with sources," Gene Roberts says. "Nancy had this from the beginning. She's one of the few."