Garrett Phillips, pictured, was murdered on October 24, 2011. He was 12. A new documentary examines his case, which remains unsolved nearly eight years later
Garrett Phillips had been 12-years-old for a little more than two months when he was murdered.
The sixth grader loved his ripstick, a skateboard-like contraption that twists, and was seen tooling around Potsdam, a town in northern New York, on the day of his death: October 24, 2011.
But almost eight years later, nothing has been resolved about the boy’s case, which left a family devastated, shocked and transfixed Potsdam, and then reverberated nationally when the person accused and tried for the crime was one of the few black men in the mostly white town – a university soccer coach and father named Oral ‘Nick’ Hillary.
The police focused on Hillary as the main suspect almost immediately. He had dated Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus, but they had broken up because her sons and Hillary didn’t get along. Police and prosecutors put this forth as the motive for the murder.
Soon after Garrett was suffocated and strangled, Hillary was strip-searched and photographed naked, lost his job and reputation, and nearly five years later in 2016, tried for the crime but found not guilty. Pain and tears flooded Tandy Cyrus’ face the day of the verdict, and she and the Phillips family continue to grieve. A new two-part HBO documentary, Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, examines the tragedy.
The murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips in 2011 shook Potsdam, a town of around 15,300 people in northern New York. Signs, above, were made that showed a picture of the sixth grader with the phrase, ‘Justice For Garrett.’ The suggested donation was $7, and if anyone gave more, that money went to a reward, Brian Phillips, Garrett’s uncle, explained in Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, a new HBO documentary. Police suspected Oral ‘Nick’ Hillary, who had dated Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus, for the crime almost immediately
Oral ‘Nick’ Hillary, above, was born in Jamaica and immigrated to the United States. He was a star soccer player at St Lawrence University, which is near Potsdam, and helped the team win a national championship. He also served in the army. In 2010, when he met Tandy Cyrus, Garrett’s mother, he was the soccer coach at Clarkson University and a father of three. Hillary and Cyrus dated for about a year and lived together but her sons did not like him. They tried living in separate places while continuing their relationship but it eventually ended, according to a new documentary. Hillary has always maintained his innocence and was found not guilty of Garrett’s murder in 2016
Potsdam police focused on Hillary as the main suspect. Garrett was murdered on Monday, October 24, 2011. By Wednesday morning, Hillary was asked to come to the police station and was told it was to go over the student roster of Garrett’s class. ‘As a person of color, oftentimes you’re told, “don’t talk to the police” just because,’ Hillary said in a new documentary. ‘Not having anything to worry about, I want to be as helpful as possible because this is a young man who has lived with me, lived around my kids, has definitely has a part of my history. So obviously, whatever I can do to help you guys resolve the situation, I’m on board.’ Above, a sign offering a $40,000 reward in the unsolved murder of Garrett Phillips
In 2010, Hillary was a successful soccer coach for Clarkson University when he met Cyrus, who was a bartender at a place he frequented. They bonded over the game and became friends.
Cyrus was then dating John Jones, a sheriff’s deputy, and Hillary was with the mother of his children, Stacia Lee, but eventually they got together. Hillary said they grew fond of each other quickly, saying Cyrus was open-minded and caring in the documentary. Cyrus told ABC News’ 20/20 there was small town gossip about them and mixed opinions about the couple. (Cyrus declined to be interviewed for the documentary, according to Variety.)
She had two sons and he had three children at the time. (Hillary now has five children.)
‘We found a house that was big enough and that’s how we end up moving in together,’ Hillary recalled during the documentary, which showed sweet messages back and forth between the couple.
However, Cyrus’ sons didn’t like Hillary, and while they tried to continue their relationship, even at one point moving to separate homes, it ended.
In the documentary, Hillary said there was no hostility after their breakup.
‘It was never like that. Quite the opposite,’ he said. ‘It was very surprising to me to have learned all these stories as to what was going on with our relationship.’
Above, Hillary, left, and Cyrus, right, met and bonded over their mutual love of soccer, which they both played, and became friends, according to Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, a new documentary. Cyrus was then dating John Jones, a sheriff’s deputy, and Hillary was with the mother of his children, Stacia Lee, but eventually they got together. Hillary said they grew fond of each other quickly, saying Cyrus was open-minded and caring in the documentary. Cyrus told ABC News’ 20/20 there was small town gossip about them and mixed opinions about the couple
John Jones, above, is a sheriff’s deputy who once dated Tandy Cyrus, Garrett’s mother. In a new documentary, Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, it is revealed that Cyrus filed a formal complaint against Jones, dated January 23, 2011 – nine months before Garrett was murdered – stating that she feared for the safety of her children and herself. In the documentary, Jones said he doesn’t believe that she wrote it because Cyrus doesn’t know the definitions of some of the words used in it. However, the morning after Garrett was murdered, Jones held Cyrus’ hand during her first police interview, video shows
Tandy Cyrus, above, declined to be interviewed for a new documentary that examines the murder of her 12-year-old son, Garrett Phillips, according to Variety. ‘I don’t even know how long I was in there. Until they came and told me… I had to come out. I told him I loved him,’ she told ABC News’ 20/20 about staying in the hospital room after Garrett was pronounced dead
At about eight minutes to 5pm on October 24, 2011, Garrett was seen ripsticking at the town’s high school, its security video showed, and it took him around six minutes to make his way home to the apartment building where he, his brother and his mother lived.
His neighbors, a couple, Marissa Vogel and Sean Hall, were eating dinner at around 5pm when they heard running, a crash, and what sounded like a moan for help. In the documentary, Vogel recalled that it was definitely a child’s voice.
‘But I could hear that word “help” and I will never forget that word,’ she said. ‘Just – they sounded scared.’
Concerned, Vogel knocked on the door, heard some type of noise, and then the distinct sound of a lock clicking. That click spurred Vogel to call the police, which she did at 5:08pm.
About six minutes later, an officer was at the apartment, knocked on the door, and thought he heard ‘what sounds like someone starting to walk around.’ He tried again to knock on the door while the police dispatcher called the landlord so he would bring the key to the apartment.
After the landlord arrived a little after 5:30 and opened the door, the officer found Garrett, who was taken to the hospital. He was pronounced dead at 7:18pm ‘due to strangulation and suffocation.’ The documentary clearly outlines the timeline and the audio of the phone calls are played.
Garrett’s uncle, Brian Phillips, recalled how he heard his aunt scream that day and knew that something wasn’t right. The family went to the hospital.
‘We went in, hugged him, kissed him. Had to leave,’ he said in the documentary, the pain clear on his face. Wiping away tears, he added: ‘It’s pretty unfair… that somebody could do that to him.’
Cyrus told ABC News’ 20/20 that she ‘stayed in the hospital room with Garrett that night.’
‘I don’t even know how long I was in there. Until they came and told me… I had to come out,’ she said, according to an article posted on September 28, 2016. ‘I told him I loved him.’
She also told the news program ‘she has no doubt that Hillary killed her son.’
‘Garrett didn’t like him,’ Phillips, the uncle, said of Hillary, during the documentary, bumping his two fists together. ‘Those two butted heads.
‘Hundred percent Hillary is responsible for Garrett’s death. The day I die, I will go to my grave, 100 percent Hillary was the killer.’
At around 5pm on October 24, 2011, Garrett’s neighbors, Marissa Vogel and Sean Hall, heard running, a crash, and what sounded like a moan for help. In a new documentary, Vogel recalled that it was definitely a child’s voice. ‘But I could hear that word “help” and I will never forget that word,’ she said. ‘Just – they sounded scared.’ Vogel called the police at 5:08pm. Police found 12-year-old Garrett Phillips and he was taken to the hospital. He was pronounced dead at 7:18pm ‘due to strangulation and suffocation.’ Above, the crime scene at the apartment building where Garrett Phillips lived with his mother and brother
Garrett’s father, Robert J Phillips Jr, died of a brain aneurysm when he was about to turn three. Brian Phillips said that he tried to be the best uncle he could be, and that he often spent time with his nephew. In the documentary, he showed pictures of Garrett with his kids and a video of him skateboarding.
The morning after Garrett’s death, Cyrus went to the Potsdam Police Department for her first of many interviews. With her was John Jones, her ex-boyfriend and a sheriff’s deputy. During the interview, he held her hand.
During the documentary, it is revealed that Cyrus filed a formal complaint against Jones, dated January 23, 2011 – nine months before Garrett was murdered – stating that she feared for the safety of her children and herself. Jones said in the documentary that he doesn’t believe that she wrote it.
Mani Tafari, a friend of Hillary’s and an attorney, said that Jones sent Cyrus sent threatening text messages and sued her in small claims court.
‘A much better case could have been together against John Jones than was put together against Nick,’ said Tafari, who worked on Hillary’s civil suit against the Potsdam Police Department.
Mark Murray, the lead investigator on the case who is now the chief of police, said Jones cooperated ‘110 percent,’ and provided a DNA sample and fingerprints. About Jones being at that first interview with Cyrus, he said: ‘She wanted that and it was accommodated. To do it over again, probably would’ve done differently but it definitely did not affect the investigation in my opinion.’
In that first interview, police make it clear that they were interested in speaking Hillary and Cyrus was asked why they broke up. ‘Um, well, the boys didn’t like him and he knew that,’ she said.
Garrett’s death occurred during the late afternoon on Monday, and by Wednesday morning Hillary was asked to come to the police station. He was told it was to go over the student roster of Garrett’s class.
‘As a person of color, oftentimes you’re told, “don’t talk to the police” just because,’ Hillary said in the documentary. ‘Not having anything to worry about, I want to be as helpful as possible because this is a young man who has lived with me, lived around my kids, has definitely has a part of my history. So obviously, whatever I can do to help you guys resolve the situation, I’m on board.’
During the interview, Murray and a member of the state police asked Hillary several questions. Eventually they read Hillary his rights, and he invoked the Sixth Amendment, which includes many rights for those accused of a crime, including the right to an attorney.
The Wednesday morning after Garrett Phillips was murdered in October 2011, Oral ‘Nick’ Hillary was asked to come to the Potsdam police station. He was told they needed help with a student roster of Garrett’s class. The police interviewed him, read him his rights, and obtained a search warrant to strip search him and photographed him naked. ‘It’s just one of those situations where which even now, it’s hard to put words to,’ he said in a new documentary. Lisa Marcoccia, an attorney who also worked on Hillary’s civil suit, said that when he left the police station that day, ‘his life was completely destroyed.’ In September 2016, he was tried for the crime and found not guilty. Above, Hillary cries after the verdict is read on September 28, 2016
Hillary also tried to leave but they bar his way, and after he called a lawyer, they took his cellphone, as seen in the video of the interview. When the lawyer called him back, Hillary said: ‘Please, allow me the opportunity’ to take the call. A search warrant was issued and the police strip-searched Hillary and photographed him naked.
They did not arrest him, however, and he left with nothing after eight hours, wearing a Hazmat suit, he said in the documentary. He further stated that their plan was to ostracize him within the community quickly and blame him for Garrett’s death without knowing the facts.
‘It’s just one of those situations where which even now, it’s hard to put words to,’ he said.
Lisa Marcoccia, an attorney who also worked on Hillary’s civil suit, said that when he left the police station that day, ‘his life was completely destroyed. Clarkson University didn’t want him back on campus, the public had already said, okay, well, this is their guy. It was really the beginning of the destruction of his life.’
Born in Jamaica, Hillary immigrated to the United States and was a star soccer player at St Lawrence University, which is near Potsdam, and helped the team win a national championship. He also served in the army.
Potsdam is part of a rural region of New York called the North Country, which includes the Adirondack Mountains. It has an estimated population of around 15,300, the majority of which is white at 88 percent while a little over 4 percent of the population is black, according to US Census Bureau data.
During the last few decades, jobs have dried up, according to Jesse McKinley, Albany bureau chief for the New York Times, who reported on the case for the paper. The area also has been hit by an influx of drugs, like meth, W T Eckert, a reporter who covered the case for the local Watertown Daily Times. But there are also universities, such as SUNY Potsdam, Clarkson and St Lawrence, nearby.
In 2012, while the police continued to investigate the case, signs featuring a picture of the sixth grader and ‘Justice For Garrett’ were being planted over town. Brian Phillips, Garrett’s uncle, led the effort. The signs were $7 and he said that if people donated more, that money went to a reward. There were also remembrance gatherings for Garrett, a balloon release in his memory, and benefits that were held.
By 2013, there was a simmering frustration about the case and that it had remained unsolved. Mary Rain used that tension to beat the incumbent district attorney for St Lawrence County, Nicole Duve. Promising to bring Garrett’s killer to justice, Rain campaigned at times with Cyrus by her side.
In May 2014, Hillary was indicted for murder in the second degree and arrested.
‘I’m 100 percent innocent,’ he said as he led away in cuffs.
He spent 70 days in jail before he was released on bail.
A new HBO documentary, Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, examines the 2011 murder of a 12-year-old in Potsdam, a town in the northern part of New York. Suspicion fell on the ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, a soccer coach at Clarkson University named Oral ‘Nick’ Hillary. Hillary has always maintained his innocence. In September 2016, Hillary was found not guilty of the crime. Above, Norman Siegel, left, a civil rights lawyer who was part of Hillary’s defense team, Mani Tafari, a friend of Hillary’s and lawyer who worked on his civil suit, Hillary, and director Liz Garbus in New York City on July 17 talking about the documentary
The judge ultimately dismissed that first indictment, citing prosecutorial misconduct, which was for Rain badgering Shanna-Kay Hillary, who was in high school when she testified before the grand jury, according to the documentary.
‘Mary Rain was relentless during the whole questioning part,’ Shanna-Kay Hillary recalled in the documentary.
She testified that when she got home at 4:30pm, her father was there, according to news reports.
‘I was in the shower about 20 minutes,’ she said, according to ABC News. ‘I got out of the shower at 5pm. My dad was home when I got out. I could hear him move around the apartment. I spoke to him 10 minutes later, so about 5:10pm.’
In 2015, Rain convened another grand jury and Hillary was indicted for a second time.
Much of the prosecution’s case hinged on a video that shows Garrett ripsticking at 4:52pm at the high school, and a minute later Hillary, who was in his car, driving out of the parking lot. He took a left instead of a right out of the school, which he should have taken to get to his house. Prosecutors maintained that showed Hillary was following Garrett. Hillary said he took that route because he might have passed by his assistant coach’s place.
Rain said that the murder likely took place at 5:06pm, saying that the timeline of events was from 4:53 to 5:06pm.
‘That would have given him enough time to go down two blocks, park the car and you have to remember he’s extremely fit – he’s not only got a six-pack, he’s got an eight-pack… And to jog two blocks to get to Garrett’s home wouldn’t take but 45 seconds max for him. We believe he had a key. We believe he opened the door. Garrett recognized that it was him – tried to push him back out and then tried to retreat and he was murdered,’ she said in the documentary.
Hillary’s trial began on September 12, 2016, and after a jury was selected, he opted for a bench trial, meaning that only the judge decides the verdict. The night before the verdict was to be given, Hillary drove from his new home in New Jersey back to Potsdam, saying, ‘Everything I have built until this point has been totally destroyed.’
Judge Felix Catena found Hillary not guilty.
Hillary has filed two civil rights lawsuits against the Potsdam police and other entities. Some of the second civil suit were dismissed but other parts, such as the discrimination and defamation claims, will be able to proceed, North County Public Radio reported on March 4.
The investigation into Garrett’s murder continues and the new district attorney confirmed there was a new tip in the case, North County Public Radio reported on March 8.
‘Cyrus raises money for after-school programs in Garrett’s memory,’ according to the documentary.
Brian Phillips told North County Public Radio that while Garrett ‘was alive the boy was deeply loved.’
‘He was something else. Just like his father, spitting image of my brother, a heck of a little athlete. He loved his ripstick,’ Phillips said. ‘He was a kid – he was a 12-year-old kid. What 12-year-old kid just isn’t right full of life?’
Liz Garbus, above, the director of the documentary, Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, told Variety that she read an article about the case in the New York Times. ‘The Phillips family was victims of prosecutorial misconduct, as well as Nick,’ Garbus told Variety. ‘The original DA did not feel that she could mount a case, and Mary Rain mounting the case put them through an enormous amount of hope, and then disappointment’