On an autumn afternoon in 2011, 12-year-old Garrett Phillips was strangled to death in his own home. His murder remains unsolved to this day.
The town of Potsdam in St. Lawrence County, New York is a traditional upstate hamlet. Two local universities diversify the otherwise 95 percent white town, while Amish buggies occasionally trudge through the streets. The Raquette River flows through downtown up to Canada, which is only 18 miles away.
In October 2011, however, the murder of a young boy shook the town to the core.
The homicide occurred on an otherwise normal, rainy afternoon, at around 5 p.m. on October 24. The victim, Garrett Phillips, was only 12 years old. He was a popular, athletic kid.
The last time Phillips was seen alive was on school surveillance footage, in which he’s seen making his way home on a Riptide skateboard. Forty minutes later, he was found strangled to death in his mother’s bedroom. The sixth-grader’s mother, Tandy Cyrus, however, was at work when it happened — leaving authorities befuddled.
The murder of Garrett Phillips rocked Potsdam into a frenzy. It took years before a suspect was finally on trial, with signs, billboards, and t-shirts demanding “Justice for Garrett” littering the town until then.
What exactly happened, who had the most captivating motive, and how this case ended — all questions that will be explored in the HBO documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips? — left Potsdam and the world at large with more questions than they had on the day Phillips died.
Tandy Cyrus And Nick Hillary
Phillips’s mother was a hardworking single mom: a bank manager by day, she tended bar at night, all while supporting Garrett and his younger half brother, Aaron. Garrett was such an energetic pre-teen, he was involved in just about every sport there was.
“Soccer, lacrosse, basketball, hockey, football,” his mother recalled. “It just seemed like he was 100 miles an hour all the time.”
Cyrus’s physical beauty stood out in the small town of Potsdam, where everyone knows each other — and knows who’s single and who’s not. As such, she received quite a few propositions while moonlighting at the local watering hole.
One night in 2010, she met Oral Nicholas Hillary — a black soccer coach who had emigrated from Jamaica and served in the army before pursuing a career in education. The two started dating and quickly moved in together. They stood out together even more than the pretty single mom did when she was single.
“She showed a lot of interest in what I was doing, and she was an athlete herself,” said Hillary, who goes by Nick. “She was very good looking.”
Hillary came to the U.S. as a 16-year-old and served three years in the Army before attending St. Lawrence University in neighboring Canton, New York. He was an extremely talented soccer player, and led his collegiate team to the national championship. After a short stint as a math teacher in Florida, he returned to Potsdam and became head coach at Clarkson University.
As one of the few black families in town, Hillary and his kids felt like The Other almost every day.
“Oh yeah, most definitely,” he said. “Sometimes you’re the only one of color in the grocery store.”
It was about a year before Garrett Phillips was strangled to death that Hillary and Cyrus became romantically involved. They were happy, excited, and content — regardless of how much the couple stuck out in the homogenous little town.
“There was a little bit of mixed opinions, I guess,” said Cyrus about the town’s response to the pair’s relationship. “Gossip, small town ‘Oh, I can’t believe they’re dating’ or ‘That’s weird.’”
According to Hillary, it was a little more visceral than that. He described the energy around him as “a very hostile environment for myself, trying to have a relationship with Tandy.”
One year into the relationship, Cyrus and her kids moved out of their house. The two lovers had broken up — with dueling narratives of how mutual it was. Twelve-year-old Garrett Phillips was killed soon after.
The Murder Of Garrett Phillips
The day Garrett Phillips was killed, two college students in another apartment across the hall heard some odd, suspicious sounds of struggle emanating from Cyrus’s apartment. Sean Hall and Marissa Vogel, an engaged couple, were watching Dexter at the time.
“We heard running next door in the hallway and then we heard a loud crash,” said Hall.
“I said ‘Did you hear that?…Either ‘no’ or ‘ow’ and then definitely a ‘help.’” recalled Vogel, “So I knew it was one of the children right away….It just sounded urgent.”
They heard the sound of someone falling, which caused some concern — they knew two kids lived next door. With the added, audible “help” thrown in, Vogel immediately felt something terrible was happening. When Vogel walked over and knocked on the door, chills went down her spine.
“It was completely quiet until I heard a click of a lock,” said Vogel. “It was an instant goosebumps….There is somebody on the other side of this door who does not want me being here right now.”
That’s when Vogel called the cops. A few minutes later, an officer arrived and entered the Cyrus residence. Phillips was going into cardiac arrest on the bedroom floor of his mother’s room. He died in the hospital at 7:18 p.m.
Cyrus later recalled seeing her son dying on a hospital bed. When she was called to the hospital, she had assumed a dislocated shoulder or a sprained ankle. “I felt like I was watching it happen to somebody else,” she said, fighting back tears.
It was only after the autopsy, which found signs of strangulation and suffocation, that Phillips’s death turned into a homicide case.
“The next day I had gone down to the police station and that was when I had found out it wasn’t an accident and that somebody had been in my apartment,” Cyrus said.
Police at the scene found an open window with its screen pushed out and its plastic blinds ajar. They also found a muddy footprint on the ground outside.
It was a 20-foot drop to the ground, so police assumed the suspect was athletic and might have hurt their leg or ankle. But no one in the neighborhood recalled anyone jumping out of the second-story window.
The morning after Phillips’s death, lead investigator Mark Murray called the D.A.’s office with some bold news.
“We got some strong feelings about certain people…or one person,” he said. “There’s one person in particular that we want to talk to.”
Cyrus was asked if she knew anybody who would want to hurt her son. She was initially dumbfounded, in disbelief that anyone had an issue with her child so serious that they’d kill him. After a bit of prodding, she mentioned a name.
“Oh, there was one person who had an issue with Garrett,” she said. “Nick.”
Cyrus broke up with Nick Hillary just a month before her son’s murder.
“He made a lot of attempts to get me to change my mind,” she said in reference to her breaking up with him. “A lot of Nick’s rules started getting enforced as far as…there was no TV during the week for the kids.”
She never saw him discipline her children — nor did he strike any child — but there was still tension between her sons and her boyfriend. So she needed out.
“I told him that my kids weren’t happy and I wasn’t going to stay in a relationship where my kids were miserable,” she said. “He thought that I was letting them make my decisions for me.”
“He blamed my son for our relationship ending,” Cyrus added.
Though Hillary later denied that Cyrus and he ever argued, and claimed that his and Cyrus’s breakup was mutual, text messages recovered during the investigation proved otherwise.
Two hours after Phillips’s death, police knocked on Hillary’s door. Potsdam Police Lieutenant Mark Murray, the case’s lead investigator, claimed in a deposition that police simply wanted to notify him of the boy’s death, since Phillips had lived with Hillary for several months.
“I’m assuming if he was a father figure to this young boy he would want to know something was wrong, something had happened and that the boy had died,” Murray said.
The next night, however, Murray secretly shot a video of Hillary during a soccer game. Police clearly saw him as a prime suspect.
The next morning, police called him and asked him to come to the station to help them with the Phillips case. Hillary went voluntarily without issue — but wasn’t allowed to leave after an hour of answering questions.
“They physically blocked the doorway and told me, ‘Look, you’re not going anywhere,’” Hillary recalled.
The police brandished a warrant that permitted them to confiscate his clothes — the ones off his back. Surveillance footage shows Hillary being forced to strip naked. Police give him a hazmat suit to wear on his way home.
“They pretty much stripped me naked as the day I was born,” he said. “Everything was taken. All I left there with was in a hazmat suit.”
Since Hillary had two alibi witnesses — his then-15-year-old daughter Shaunna and his assistant coach Ian Fairlie — he was released.
The crime scene, meanwhile, produced not a single shred of evidence besides four fingerprints left on the very window authorities believed the suspect fled out of. The prints did not match Hillary’s. When asked why the cops were so eager to pin the crime on him, Hillary said:
“Because they think I have crossed the line of being a black man. Honestly….I sincerely think its all about race.”
Did police zero in on Nick Hillary because he was black in a nearly all-white town? Was it because St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Deputy, John Jones — another suspect in the case who police didn’t pursue with nearly as much intensity as they did Hillary — had dated Tandy Cyrus just before Hillary began seeing her?
Two years passed without a single arrest in the investigation.
The Police Arrest Nick Hillary
Security camera footage from Potsdam’s school complex turned out to not only show Phillips skating home after a basketball game, but a light blue Honda CRV leaving the parking lot seconds after the kid made his exit. The grainy footage couldn’t make out the license plate or the driver, but Hillary turned out to own that exact make and model — in that color.
By this time Hillary had filed a civil suit against the police department for false arrest, false imprisonment, defamation, and illegal search and seizure. The suit required him to give a deposition.
In the deposition, attorneys asked him about his car and his whereabouts on the afternoon of October 24, 2011. He confirmed he drove the car from the security camera footage, and said he was at the high school that day to watch a soccer game and scout for potential players.
By 2013, there was a new district attorney in town. Mary Rain campaigned on the promise of delivering justice for Phillips. On her first day in office, she dusted off the file on the case, which was about two inches thick. It soon grew to 20 boxes worth of files.
In 2014, four months after his deposition, Hillary was arrested. He didn’t just have his old soccer buddies vouch for and stand by him — Hollywood producer Sarah Johnson, a St. Lawrence University alum of Birdman fame, bailed him out, and said she’d spent “as much as it takes” to protect him.
A trial was now looming firmly beyond the horizon.
Rain hired veteran Onondaga County D.A. Bill Fitzpatrick to assist, since he had over 75 homicide cases under his belt, and she had only one. The prosecution’s case revolved mainly around the surveillance footage and Hillary’s deposition. Fitzpatrick called it “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Hillary explained in his deposition that, on the afternoon of October 24, he stayed in his parked car outside the Potsdam school complex because it was raining — which it was — and that he planned on walking to the soccer field when the weather improved. He waited for six minutes and drove off, right as Phillips skated by.
He claimed he went home. Prosecutors argued he went to kill Cyrus’s son.
The Trial Of Nick Hillary For The Murder Of Garrett Phillips
The defense had a compelling case: There was not a shred of physical evidence and not a single witness that pointed toward Hillary’s guilt. And so the prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence, like how his car was spotted leaving the parking lot at the same moment Garrett did, as well as one other aspect:
Hillary had an ankle injury — one he refused to show the police when they asked him to raise his pant leg during his very first interrogation. Hillary claimed he got the scrape while moving new furniture around. Fortunately for him, this portion of his police interview wasn’t allowed to be introduced as evidence during the trial, since it happened after he asked for a lawyer.
His civil deposition, however, was admissible. In it, Hillary said he went home and talked to his daughter after leaving the school parking lot, and then went to his assistant coach’s house. Fairlie, the assistant coach, told investigators that Hillary was with him at the same time the police were on the scene and heard noises coming from Phillips’s apartment.
The defense argued that Hillary couldn’t be the killer if he was with his assistant coach while the killer was strangling Phillips in Cyrus’s bedroom. Hillary’s lawyers repeatedly brought up reasonable doubt during his statements, and questioned the prosecution’s narrative.
“You kill the poor kid with the hope that the mother will come running back into your arms?” posited attorney Earl Ward. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
The prosecution concluded its arguments by claiming whoever killed Phillips wasn’t just some vagabond driving through town — it was somebody that knew the kid, and had a personal connection to him. “Garrett Phillips wasn’t killed by someone passing through town who hates little boys,” Fitzpatrick argued. “He was killed by Nick Hillary.”
Ultimately, reasonable doubt won out, and Hillary was found not guilty. Weeping in relief, he was surrounded by a packed courtroom shouting abuses at him, and tearful relatives of Phillips in disbelief Hillary was walking free.
In a press conference outside the courthouse, Hillary’s lawyer reminded the public of the police’s abuse of power in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, and that police have long held an underlying grudge against the people of color in this country.
Hillary’s civil lawsuit against the Potsdam Police Department was still pending.
Who Killed Garrett Phillips?
The two-part HBO documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, which airs July 23 and 24, was directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus. The filmmaker has proven her mettle quite notably already, with HBO’s A Dangerous Son under her belt.
This latest effort tracks the entire Garrett Phillips case from beginning to end — through the initial investigation and arrest of Nick Hillary, to the legal proceedings and lawsuits thereafter. The racial biases and potential police mishandling will play an important part, as well.
Who Killed Garrett Phillips? chronicles the aftermath of the titular figure’s murder. With a family in mourning, a community without closure, and a suspect demanding his rightful reparations, the project is bound to cover all the bases both peripheral onlookers and those familiar with the case would want.
For Hillary, the investigation and trial made him lose his job, all while he pursued a civil case against the Potsdam Police Department and had to raise his five children. But prosecutors — including now former D.A. Mary Rain, who was voted out of office and had her license to practice law suspended on the grounds of professional misconduct — still think that Hillary was the murderer who got away.
In 2016, a couple months after his exoneration, Hillary filed a second civil lawsuit against the authorities who so virulently tried to convict him. Some parts of that suit were dismissed in March, but the heart of it — whether specific police officers and prosecutors pursued Hillary as their main suspect because of his race — remains to be tried.
After learning about the unsolved murder of Garrett Phillips and Nick Hillary’s trial, read about Stephen McDaniel, who was interviewed on TV about a murder – that it turned out he committed. Then, learn about the unsolved mystery of Roland T. Owen’s gruesome murder in room 1046.</e