017 - The Murder of Garrett Phillips
Garrett Philips was the first child of Tandy Cyrus and Robert Phillips, born on August 13th, 1999 in Potsdam, New York. Potsdam is located upstate in St. Lawrence County, just an hour’s drive from Canada. The small town has a population of just over 17,000, though during the school year, the combined students of State University of New York at Potsdam and Clarkson University bring in an additional 8,000 temporary residents. Garrett’s parents separated in 2001 when he was just sixteen months old. Sadly, Garret’s father Robert would pass away in 2002 due to a brain aneurysm. Garrett was just two years old at the time.
Garrett was described as a bright child who was always looking for fun and adventure. His mother would describe him as “always happy. He loved everyone.” She said he was full of energy and popular, always looking to do exciting things that were fast paced. Garrett’s fifth grade teacher, Lynn Tharett said that he was "well liked by everyone” and that he was “funny and the class clown but very respectful.” The general consensus seems to be that Garrett was intelligent, friendly and very socially oriented with many friends. Garrett was described as fearless, he liked to tell jokes and run around with his friends. He enjoyed hunting and riding four wheelers, and sports. He loved to play and was a prankster.
Tandy would become involved in several long lasting relationships following her divorce. When Garrett was sixteen months old, she began a relationship with Casey Collins. Tandy would become pregnant a second time, giving birth to Garrett’s half-brother, Aaron with Collins. Tandy and Collins were together for four years, breaking up in 2006. According to Collins, he took on the role of father to Garrett during this period of time. Collins stated that Garrett called him dad, even after the breakup, and stated “I raised Garrett as my son just as Aaron.”
A year later in 2007, Tandy began a relationship with John Jones, a deputy working for the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department. The two would split up in 2010, but Jones seemed to have a great care and concern for Tandy and her children, specifically Garrett who was older during the time they dated and he felt their relationship developed well, stating “I think we hit it off because we were both pretty sports oriented. Garratt was like ‘I wanna play soccer, I wanna play lacrosse, I wanna play football, I wanna play all the stuff, I wanna play hockey because Jonesy plays hockey,’ which I thought was awesome. So that was the relationship he and I had. When he was around, I tried to be there for him in some form or fashion as a father figure. “
In 2010, Tandy met and began a relationship with Oral “Nick” Hillary, the head soccer coach at Clarkson University. They met while Tandy was tending bar at a local establishment called Ton’s. Hillary was separating from his wife and had three children while Tandy was single with two children of her own. The two commiserated during late nights at the bar while Hillary would complain about being in Potsdam, he was originally from Jamaica, and wanting to move to coach at a division 1 school. Tandy was tired of Potsdam herself, and had dreams of raising her boys somewhere warmer and more metropolitan. After getting to know one another for a while, the two began dating and then moved in together.
Hillary moved in with his daughter, Shanna-Kay, and was sometimes in custody of his boys Elijah and Lashaka-Mani. It was a tight situation in a small apartment, and Tandy’s boys didn’t warm to Hillary. Of Garrett’s feeling about Hillary, teacher Lynn Tharrettstated “Garrett didn’t talk to me about personal issues, but he did tell me at least twice he did not like his mother’s boyfriend, Nick Hillary. “ Of Hillary, Tharrett said “He was polite when asking me questions, but I felt he was questioning my teaching methods.”
During this period, Tandy wasn’t getting along with her ex, John Jones. In January of 2011, Tandy filed a complaint against her former boyfriend, Deputy John Jones. In the complaint she alleged that Jones had kicked her and her boys out of their shared home without notifying them as to why and that, later “John sent threatening text messages to my cell phone as a means of intimidation.” She further said that Jones was “acting in various ways that cause me to fear for the safety of myself and my sons.” Tandy would later recant this letter, claiming that Hillary forced her to write it due to his jealousy and possessive controlling personality. According to Tandy, Hillary had an issue with Jones, most likely due to his past relationship with Tandy, and in October of 2010, he filed a complaint stating that Jones threatened him and that his car had been vandalized and he suspected Jones. Tandy would say “I can tell you that everything that was in the letter was complete BS. Never in my life have I ever been afraid of John Jones.” She further stated “Nick had a beef with Jonesy over what happened to his car, which had nothing to do with Jonesy. Do I wish I hadn’t written the letter? Absolutely.”
The relationship began taking a darker turn, with Hillary taking more control. According to Tandy, Hillary would sit her down each week and scold her for the way she was raising her boys, telling her that if she didn’t begin disciplining them more that they would grow up to be out of control Tandy says that Garrett complained that Nick was too strict, threatening him and not allowing him the freedom he once had. While Hillary was away on a recruiting trip, Tandy sat down with her boys who complained about Nick and told her they didn’t want him around. Considering the way the relationship had evolved, Tandy felt it wasn’t in their best interest to live together anymore. Shortly after that, the decision was made that though they would continue dating, they should live in separate residences.
Hillary helped Tandy and the boys move into a second floor, three bedroom apartment located in a nearly 100 year old building located at 100 Market Street in August of 2011, right around the time that Garrett turned twelve. The details of what occurred after this are uncertain, but while the two lived separately, they continued their relationship for a short time before it eventually ended. The end of their relationship, though, did not bring an end to Hillary’s behavior. According to Tandy, by September, she wanted time away from Hillary and “I told him I needed some space, and Nick said ok, and he was going to leave me alone.” Oddly, that night, while she was sleeping, Tandy was awoken by the sound of her bedroom door opening. She looked up and “saw Nick standing there. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was just going to sleep.” After that, she asked for her key back. Hillary would later state that he did not let himself into the apartment after their breakup and that he had no additional copies of the key, which he did return to her.
According to Tandy’s sister, on several occasions after the breakup, Hillary showed up at the apartment. He wanted to get back together. She stated “Nick was very persistent about trying to get back with Tandy. He showed signs of wanting to be in control of her life.” When asked about details of the breakup, Tandy alleged that Hillary “always blamed Garrett for our breakup.” Hillary, however, when asked about Garrett said “All our interaction was positive.” He went on to say his relationship with Tandy’s 12 year old son was wonderful and claimed that the reason for the separate living arrangements wasn’t because of issues with the children, but because Garrett was being teased at school since his mother was dating a black man.
For the next few weeks, things seemed to settle down. Hillary and Tandy had gone their separate ways. Tandy and the boys seemed to be doing well in their new apartment and their future was beginning to seem more hopeful. All of that would change in the later afternoon, early evening of October 24th, 2011. The event of that day are still hotly debated, but what cannot be argued is that after the tragedy of that day, Tandy, Hillary and John Jones’ lives would be permanently intertwined in a complex mess of finger pointing, accusations and legal proceedings.
Having not heard from her son yet, Tandy placed a call to Garrett’s cell phone at approximately 4:30pm. He answered and said that he was playing some basketball. Tandy told him to head home and get his homework started. Garrett left school on his skateboard at approximately 4:52pm according to school surveillance cameras and traveled the five blocks to the apartment where he lived with his mom and brother. Garrett is presumed to arrive home around 5pm. A few minutes later, Marissa Vogel and her Fiance Sean Hall, who lived next door, heard some odd sounds.
In a statement, Vogel said “It sounded like something fell over. Something big. I have never heard a noise like that. It was like a heavy object falling onto the floor. About five to ten seconds later I heard an “ow” or a “no” come from across the hall. It sounded like one of the kids. Immediately I heard the same voice yell “help.” The help sounded like a moan and I heard it more than once, maybe three times.” Concerned for the safety of the children, Vogel went across the hall and knocked on the door. She would state “I could hear faint movement near the door and then I heard a click on the door. My first thought was that someone just locked the door. We decided to call the police, something didn’t feel right about this.” The 911 call came in at approximately 5:07pm.
Vogel looked out her window as she called the police to see if she could see any strange cars or suspicious people around but there was nothing. After that, she heard nothing. She further said “It was creepy quiet. After the noises, I never heard anyone exit down the stairs. If they had, I would have heard it.” Officer Mark Wentworth arrived on the scene around ten minutes later and knocked on the apartment door at 5:17. He received no answers, and knocked two more times at 5:24 and 5:35pm. He would later say that each time he knocked, he could heard soft footsteps in the apartment but no one would come to the door. Remember, at this time, he is only responding to a call about weird noises from the apartment. According to his official statement “I then heard what sounded like something falling… It was as if something was knocked off a table or fell off a shelf.”
Wentworth then got the buildings’ maintanence man, Richard Dumas, and the two entered the apartment. The two saw the kitchen light was turned on, there was an article of clothing on the floor. Inside the master bedroom, they came upon Garrett, laying on the floor. Dumas stated “I ran to the threshold of the bedroom and looked in, he looked like he was sleeping but his face looked dark.” He was laying on his back with his head turned towards the door, his arms were at his sides and his legs were close together. He was wearing a t-shirt and blue and white checkered shorts. Neither the room nor the apartment appeared to be disturbed or show signs of a struggle. Wentworth noted that even the bedspread was neat and untouched.
Of the condition of the apartment, Potsdam Police Chief Mark Murray would later say “Everything was clean. Nothing in the living room area was out of place. You could see that Garrett had neatly set his sneakers by the closet. His skateboard was neatly propped against the wall. His backpack was taken off. The only real signs of a struggle was his sweatshirt lying in the hallway and his physical body.”
Wentworth got down on the floor and checked Garrett for a pulse, and found one, though the boy wasn’t breathing. He immediately radioed dispatch for paramedics and began conducting CPR. Dumas was present, and said “I kept telling him ‘Come on buddy, wake up!’” When paramedics arrived, they began life saving measures while Wentworth began photographing the apartment. In another bedroom, Wentworth noticed something curious. The window appeared to be disturbed, the blinds were bent and the screen was partially bent outward. He theorized that the perpetrator may have pushed his way out the window and jumped twenty feet down to make his escape. Chief Murray stated “We weren’t sure what we had. We weren’t thinking it was a homicide immediately, but something happened. You know, outlandish thoughts like ‘Maybe Garrett fell out the window and made his way back up here or an accident happened in the apartment and one of the kids didn’t wanna get caught in trouble so he went out the window. But when we looked at it closer, that’s a remarkable jump from the window. It became clear that the only place to get in or out, other than the front door that hadn’t been utilized, was this window.” It was also noted that there was a small dumpster below the window.
Paramedics prepped Garrett, who at this point was suffering cardiac arrest, and rushed him to Canton-Potsdam Hospital. At approximately 5:30, Tandy was at the school gym watching Aaron’s basketball practice. Suddenly, she saw her landlord enter the gym and approach her. He informed Tandy that Garrett was at the hospital and she needed to get there as soon as possible. Tandy rushed to the hospital as fast as she could. She assumed Garrett had fallen and been injured, but she wasn’t prepared for what the reality was. She arrived and saw that Garrett “had bruises on his face, marks on his neck. The doctor was talking to me and I just remember him looking down at me over the tops of his glasses, telling me that there was nothing else they could do.” Patricia Phillips, Garrett’s grandmother, arrived at the hospital. She said “I went over to Garrett and I bent down and I hugged him and told him to come on for Grandma. And then he coded.” Garrett was pronounced dead at 7:18pm. Tandy stayed at her son’s bedside, saying later “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.” Outside of family, many friends turned up at the hospital that night, including Tandy’s ex-boyfriend and Sheriff’s Deputy John Jones.
Tandy still didn’t know what had happened to Garrett. She was beside herself when she was informed that he had been strangled. State Police Forensic Identification Unit Senior Investigator Ricky J. Adragna began processing the scene. He found fingerprints on the window sill and DNA evidence in the form of hairs found in the apartment. Policebegan canvassing the area. No one had seen or heard anything, other than the neighbors who had called the police. There were some people outside, changing a tire, who reported hearing the sound of the screen being pushed out, but didn’t see or hear anything else.
Police immediately began to theorize the possibility that one of Tandy’s ex-boyfriend’s may be responsible for the crime. They first went to Hillary’s home approximately two hours after Garrett was pronounced dead, though they stated that it wasn’t to question him, but to inform him about Garrett’s death since up until recently he had been involved as Garrett’s surrogate father, of sorts. According to Chief Murray “At that point in time I had no reason to believe he was a suspect. It was more of a death notification capacity that we went and spoke to him at his house. 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.” When asked about this first meeting with police, and his reaction to the news, Hillary stated “First I was numbed, I mean, I just was at a loss for words.”
Two days later, On October 26th, Hillary was brought in by Police for questioning. It appears that within the first twelve hours after the murder, Hillary was considered the primary suspect. Many people would look at this as a leap in logic, a decision made partially due to racism and based only little more than the speculation at the time. The investigation, at this point, would focus primarily on Hillary, and ignore the possibility of other possible theories for the most part.
Hillary was unaware that he was a suspect, but when he found out, he attempted to leave. At this point he was given his Miranda Rights, and told he could not leave, though he was also not arrested nor charged. Hillary requested a lawyer, which ended the questions, but according to Hillary, outside of being questioned, he was strip searched and his clothing as well as his phone were confiscated. He alleged that police provided him with a hazmat suit to go home in, having not notified him that they would need his clothing and he had nothing else to wear. Hillary was released 9 hours after being brought in for questioning. No arrest was made at that time, but Hillary got the distinct impression that he was being considered the prime suspect. They obtained his DNA and fingerprints from a cigarette butt and a coffee cup. According to police, one of the details about Hillary immediately following the murder which troubled them was that he was walking with a limp, one which they believed could have been caused by jumping out of the second floor window. The limp is enough for the Potsdam Police to gain warrants to search Hillary’s home and vehicle. The Police reportedly asked Hillary to show them his ankle after he requested a lawyer, and also was asked how he injured it.
Hillary developed a ground swell of supports, as well as a growing mass of detractors. According to a civil suit which he filed against the Potsdam Police Department, he felt his “standing in the community dramatically changed” and that his face became associated with Garrett’s murder. He would state “I went from a father, soccer coach and member of the community to, in the eyes of the public, a child murderer. My children were bullied in school. Threats against my physical safety became part of my everyday life. My home was egged and people would openly scream ‘murderer’ at me in public.” Many also considered Hillary’s position as a suspect to be due to racial bias. Potsdam’s population was nearly 90% white at the time, with less than 3 of the remaining 10% being black. Police denied all allegations posed against them in the civil suit.
Those who would stand in defense of Hillary would point to another potential suspect, that being Sheriff’s Deputy John Jones. Unlike Hillary, while Jones was spoken to about the case, he felt he was never considered a suspect in the murder. There came accusations that Jones wasn’t asked to submit his DNA for testing, and that he couldn’t prove his whereabouts that day. In response, Jones responded “From day one, I gave everything voluntarily when I was asked.” Jones claims he was questioned and thoroughly so. Others have claimed that the police are covering up for one of their own, to which Jones stated “There is no way that the state police are going to cover up for a county deputy in the murder of a 12 year old boy. It’s not going to happen.” Gregory E. Brown Jr, a convicted rapist, made a statement that he witnessed Jones entering the building behind Garrett that evening. Jones dismissed the claim as ridiculous, instead stating his strong belief that Hillary was responsible for the crime. In regard to Hillary, Jones stated “I feel confidant, and am putting my feelings aside from the victim and from the family, meaning Garrett’s family, on both sides, that we have the right guy, without a doubt, he is our guy. He is the guy. There is no way there is anybody else. There’s just no way.”
Potsdam Police constructed an official timeline of the movements of Hillary and Jones leading up to Garrett’s murder. According to the timeline:
At approximately 4:30, around 30 minutes before Garrett is attacked, Brian Phillips, Garret’s uncle, spots Hillary turning on to Market Street, the road that Garrett and his family lived on.
At 4:43, witness Dale Rice spots Hillary heading South onto Leroy Street, then turning right onto Side Street.
At 4:47 a light blue SUV resembling Hillary’s pulls into the parking lot at Potsdam Central High School and sits by the Tennis courts. It finally pulls into a parking space at 4:51.
At 4:52, John Jones arrives home. Garrett leaves Potsdam Central High School. The light blue SUV pulls out of its parking space and Garrett walks passed Canton-Potsdam Hospital on Cottage Street, heading towards Market Street.
At 4:53 the SUV exits the parking lot, heading South, the same direction as Garrett just sixteen seconds after he passed by it. Hillary lived North from that location.
At 5:07, Marissa Vogel calls 911 reporting strange noises in the apartment in which Garrett lives.
Between 5:12 and 5:13 John Jones is seen walking his dog on surveillance camera, though it has been argued that the camera quality was poor and it is difficult to identify the individual’s face.
Officer Wentworth arrives on the scene at 5:17.
At 5:21, Officer Wentworth calls dispatch asking for Rick Dumas, the building’s maintanence man’s phone number.
Between 5:21 and 5:23, Hillary arrives at the home of his assistant coach, Ian Fairlie on Garden Street. Fairlie says that Hillary appears and behaves normally.
5:33, Officer Wentworth calls for Emergency Medical Services.
5:34, Wentworth radios in that he has started CPR.
At 5:53, the ambulance carrying Garret arrives at Canton-Potsdam Hospital.
5:55, Hillary calls his lawyer Mani Tafari.
7:18 Garrett is officially pronounced dead.
Several notes about the timeline: Tandy later admitted to driving by the apartment building and seeing a police car outside, though she didn’t think it had anything to do with Garrett and didn’t stop. It should also be noted that there has been a report that a canine unit was brought it and that it picked up a scent on the ground outside of the window and followed it down Market St, to Washington St and towards the railroad tracks. Hillary’s residence as well as his assistant coaches home are in the opposite direction. In addition to this, there is allegedly a section of surveillance footage which shows John Jones having a conversation with Garrett on the sidewalk outside of him home (which Garrett was walking past.) The prosecution was later accused of tampering with the footage and blurring out this interaction.
Later that evening, Hillary has a soccer practice to attend. His soccer player’s reported a difference in his behavior, saying that he was easy going which was not his style. According to Freshman Michael McDonnell, Hillary “seemed on Monday that he was taking a step away. Almost like he doesn’t care anymore.” Chief Murray attended Hillary’s game the next day and made note that Hillary seemed to be walking with a distinct limp. Video footage was shot at this game, though upon viewing it, Hillary does not appear to have a limp.
Police find it suspicious that a vehicle resembling Hillary’s was seen in the area, and that he contacted his lawyer within an hour of the attack on Garrett. Hillary counters this, though, explaining that outside of being his lawyer, Tafari is also a fellow Jamaican and former soccer teammate from St. Lawrence University. Hillary becomes their prime suspect, despite the fact that DNA and fingerprints found at the scene do not match him. Rumors are begin circulating that that Hillary murdered Garrett. The morning after the murder, Dan Manor, an investigator for the District Attorney’s office calls Chief Murray and asks “Does the mother have a boyfriend?” He then explains that his granddaughter heard a rumor that the boyfriend committed the murder. Chief Murray responded “Yeah, that’s the rumor.” Interestingly, just over twelve hours after the murder, we have an investigator for the DA and the Chief of Police discussing a potential suspect based on little more than an unfounded rumor.
Weeks, then months, passed with little movement on the case. In Tandy’s mind, Nick becomes more and more likely to be the man responsible for the death of her son. When asked about it, Tandy states “When I put everything together, Nick’s actions, before and after, I think he was very possessive and controlling. When we broke up Nick told me my kids were making my decisions for me… Nick always blamed Garrett for our breakup. I can’t think of any other person who would want to hurt Garrett.” Despite the growing tension in the town, and strong beliefs on both sides. Nothing had yet happened. Then, nearly a year after the murder, in September of 2012, Hillary filed a civil suit against the village and police officers. His suit alleged that his civil rights had been violated, that he had been detained and his property was seized and searched without a warrant.
Several years passed, and the investigation remained active but District Attorney Nicole Duve would never bring charged against Hillary nor anyone else. In 2013, during the race for St. Lawrence District Attorney, challenger Mary Rain built a platform that if elected she would bring the case to trial. Tandy got firmly behind her, campaigning for her and being active on social media in support of her. The next spring, just five months after winning the election, Rain brought the case and evidence before a grand jury. Rain stated “The generalities are, Nick was dating Garrett’s mom. Nick did not want to split up. They had been split up for about two months when he killed Garrett.” Judge Jerome Richards wrote a summary of the of the Grand Jury testimony in which he stated that the Jury was “invited to conclude that the defendant took out his frustration over the relationship with the mother by picking on the victim.”
On May 15th, 2014, Hillary was indicted on a second-degree murder charge to which he responded “I am 100 percent innocent. That’s all I have to say.” Almost immediately, Hillary was fired from his job at Clarkson. Later, in October, the charges were dismissed due to an overreliance on circumstantial evidence and that the inclusion of video evidence lacked adequate foundation. Judge Richards accused District Attorney Rain of bullying Hillary’s daughter, Shanna-Key, who provides the alibi for her father. According to this Alibi, if the crime is truly to have taken place between 4:56 and 5:30, he was at the home of his assistant coach for part of the time, and at his own home with his daughter for the rest of the time. The problem with the Alibi is that Shanna-Kay claims she had dinner with her father around 5:30, but in subpoenaed phone records, there is a text from Shanna-Kay’s phone sent to her father at approximately 6:20pm in which she asks “What’s for dinner?” The prosecution argued against the timeline, stating that the location of Hillary’s assistant coaches home, Hillary’s home and Garret’s apartment are all within a mile of each other offering plenty of time to be in all three places. However, John Jones, the other man many point to as a potential suspect, also lived within a block of Potsdam Central High School and directly across the street from Canton-Potsdam Hospital. Garrett’s apartment building was located just around the corner from Jones’.
Rain was not deterred, and instead of appealing the dismissal, she brought her case before a new grand jury and again, Hillary was indicted, this time in January of 2015. Much of the prosecutions case rested on a new type of DNA analysis known as STRMix. This analysis was developed in Australia and New Zealand and replaced typical DNA analysis with a complex software that uses mathematical modelling to conduct statistical analyses of mixed DNA profiles. Unfortunately for District Attorney Rain, the judge threw out this evidence. In a ten page decision, the Judge concurred that the STRMix analysis was dependable and verifiable, but he stated the problem lay elsewhere. According to the Judge, the state laboratory that collected the DNA samples was not approved as reliable in collecting samples for the new STRMix analysis. That forced John Buckleton, to use other reliable sources to help frame the data which he admitted was not an optimum practice.
On Wednesday, September 21st, 2016, Oral “Nick” Hillary was acquitted on charges of second degree murder. It was argued that the prosecution had provided little hard evidence. No fingerprint matches, no hair or fiber samples, no DNA, no witnesses placing Hillary at the scene of the crime. The trial was a non-jury trial, and lasted two weeks. Judge Felix J. Catena found there was not enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hillary was responsible for the crime. Tandy slumped in her seat and cried at the announcement. The prosecution made several misteps during the trial including an attempt to conceal a witness who claimed to have seen John Jones entering Garrett’s building that day.
Despite the results of the trial, District Attorney Rain remains convinced that Hillary is the man responsible. In a statement given to the press, Rain said “He’s the one who did it. Just because he was found not guilty doesn’t mean he’s innocent.” When the judges decision was announced, there was an explosion of outbursts in the court room including that of Brian Phillips, Garrett’s uncle, who shouted “Karma will get you.” In an interview following the acquittal, Hillary stated “I’ve been exonerated by the judicial system. I mean, that should be enough, one would think. But people will forever be humans. And there’s not much more convincing you could do.”
A twelve year old boy was murdered for no reason and six years later, the prime suspect was acquitted, to the joy of many and the dismay of others. There are three main theories which revolve around the sad and tragic case.
The first theory is that, despite his acquittal, Oral “Nick” Hillary is responsible for the murder of Garrett Phillips. Theories suggest that Hillary was angry at Garrett, and held him responsible for the breakup of his relationship with Tandy. They point to the witnesses and surveillance footage which noted a vehicle identical to Hillary’s stalking Garrett that afternoon and following him home. Many have theorized that Hillary kept a copy of his key to the apartment, with which he let himself in, and that he confronted Garrett. Some people have speculated that Hillary had only planned to hurt Garrett, or maybe even just threaten him, but in a rage, things got out of control and he murdered him. After that, the neighbor knocked on the door and he knew he couldn’t go out that way, she he jumped from the window, injuring his leg and had his daughter, Shanna-Kay perjure herself by constructing an Alibi for him. Despite the fingerprints and DNA not matching, many still believe that Hillary is the killer, especially Garrett’s family.
The second theory is that John Jones, the Sheriff’s Deputy murdered Garrett and that, not only did he commit the crime, but he was protected in a coverup conducted by the police department who attempted to railroad Hillary and use racial tensions to sway the public’s opinion in favor of the theory. Motive seems to be somewhat lacking in this theory, though many believe that Jones had a grudge against both Hillary and Tandy and that his attack on Garrett was designed to hurt both of them. Why he would choose to murder Garrett isn’t clearly defined, though many believe murder wasn’t his intent. Of course, in his case, there are also the details that the DNA and fingerprints found at the scene do not match his either. An interesting note, though, is that while Hillary did not have a key, Jones did in fact possess a key to Tandy’s apartment which he provided to police during their investigation.
The final theory is that someone other than any known suspect was responsible for the murder of Garrett Phillips. When you factor in the unmatched fingerprints and DNA, it seems hard to place the blame on the shoulders of either Jones or Hillary. A motive behind this crime is hard to pin down, though many believe that the murder was either accidental or incidental. Someone may have been in the home with the intention of robbery, or something else, and was startled by the arrival of Garrett and wanted to silence him, but went too far and killed him. Unfortunately, if this was a crime committed by a yet unknown suspect, considering the passage of years and the lack of investigative work to find him or her, this person has a massive head start. There was also some discussion, early on, that the crime may have been committed by a friend of Garrett’s who was roughhousing with him and things got out of hand but other than an off handed remark by the Police Chief, little else has ever been suggested about this.
The murder of Garrett Phillips is a heart wrenching story. An innocent young boy was murdered and for no reason at all. The investigation’s focus on one particular suspect, regardless of whether or not people believe he was guilty, severely limited the scope of possibilities and therefore made it unlikely that Garrett would receive justice. His mother and brother have gone forward without him, without answers and without closure. Potsdam itself remains split on who they believe was responsible and with the acquittal of Hillary the answer has only grown more mysterious.
Garrett Phillips was laid to rest at Chapel Hill Cemetery . There have been memorial activities such as charity kickball games and balloon releases done to honor his memory. There is even a memorial park with a monument dedicated to him. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, this is still an active case, with the District Attorney’s office, as well as the family, still firmly behind the belief that Hillary murdered Garrett. Whether or not an answer is found, and a suspect can be matched to the DNA and fingerprints remains to be seen, and until that day, the murder of Garrett Phillips remains unsolved.
[Thoughts & Theories]
The murder of Garrett Phillips is a really sad story. The idea that a twelve year old boy had his life stolen from him is just heart breaking. His future was taken away, and so were the futures of several other people involved in this tragedy including his family who still have no answers and cannot fathom how someone could commit such a cowardly crime. I am always moved by stories of crimes committed against children and this story has bothered me since the first day I read about it. I first learned of this case a few years ago, and followed news updates on it. There’s a couple of things about it which have always bothered me, and it’s one of those cases where there is evidence on one side pointing one way, and yet the direction of police and prosecutors tends to go towards the opposite. It’s one of the few cases where I can easily see both sides of the story. The authorities point of view makes sense, in many ways, but not in others while Hillary’s defense made sense in many ways, but not in others. It’s exceedingly frustrating to have a wealth of evidence, but no real way to apply it. I have read that there were as many as 140 DNA samples taken from the home that day.
This case is so chock full of information I couldn’t report it all without making this a three hour long episode. In my research I did my best to include what is most pertinent to the story and to give perspectives from all sides. There has been a lot of talk that the drive for the arrest of Oral “Nick” Hillary was race based, and although I’d like to believe that is untrue, I can’t exactly present an argument against it either. It would hardly be the first time someone was cornered and pressed as a suspect based on racial bias. There were arguments on both sides of the case, with many people believing that Hillary was guilty, regardless of a lack of evidence, and especially early on when there was very little information about the crime itself which was made public. Tandy firmly believes Hillary was responsible, others are not so sure. The District Attorney certainly considers Hillary to be the responsible party, even after his acquittal.
This has been a difficult case to research for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, there is a lot of information about the events leading up to the crime, and then everything after that becomes about the legal proceedings and it’s difficult to find much information related to the investigation itself. Beyond that, the theories are fairly limited in that they essentially follow that Hillary did it, Jones did it or someone else did it. There wasn’t much related to a theory that was proposed beyond that. The final, and most important reason, is that the facts in this case are difficult to trust. When you have the prosecution hiding witnesses, allegedly suppressing video footage and ignoring the lack of matches for DNA and fingerprints, its hard to known which facts are pure and which facts have been manipulated in some way.
The final thing I wanted to address before examining the case and theories was some of the controversy surrounding district attorney Mary Rain. There has been a lot accusations of misconduct, fraud and improper actions swirling around her position since she was sworn in. There are a lot of newspaper articles discussing her actions and choices, which many have been extremely critical of. There was an instance where Rain allows one of her interns to prosecute a felony case without a law license. When it came to the case of Garrett Phillips, Rain was accused of misconduct during the grand jury for her treatment of a witness, and she failed to disclose a possible witness to a man entering the building the day Garrett was murdered. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of talk surrounding her time as the District Attorney. Former Chief Assistant District Attorney Frank Cositore resigned in November of 2016, writing a scathing letter in which he accused Rain of being negligient in her duties and said she had a “willingness to throw victims to the wind when its convenient.” He also said “It is my regret that so many young attorneys have had their careers ruined while working under you in this county.” I just thought it was important to discuss these details and perhaps put into perspective the system as it was in place at the time.
So almost everything we know about the murder of Garrett Phillips comes from surveillance camera footage and a timeline that the police constructed, even though specific details of the timeline itself are disputed. The forty minutes or so surrounding Garrett’s death are fairly well fleshed out. We know that Garrett received a call from his mother telling him to go home and start his homework. Following that, he walked and skateboarded from the High School where he was playing basketball, the five blocks home. Sometime after he arrived home, everything went wrong. He made it into his apartment untouched, which is confirmed by the fact that he had taken off his shoes and leaned his skateboard against the wall. At this point, someone either gained entry to his apartment, or revealed him or herself from a hiding place having already been inside.
The across the hall neighbor, Marissa Vogel hears disturbing sounds and when she knocks on the door, she hears something which to her indicates that someone is inside. Then she hears the door lock. She stays pretty perceptive of the situation while she calls 911, and according to her, no one exited the home via the front door. Police arrived, but they are only dealing with a noise disturbance so rather than breaking in, the first officer on the scene knocks a few times and eventually gets the building maintenance man to let him in for what is essentially a wellness check. Upon entering, the officer and the maintenance man find the apartment in perfect condition other than a sweater laying on the floor in the hallway. In the master bedroom they find Garrett’s body on the floor. He has a pulse, but is in distress. A call is placed to emergency medical services who arrive, prep Garrett and rush him to the hospital just around the corner.
Just over two hours after the initial attack, Garrett is pronounced dead. His family is there, and they are in shock over what could have happened to him. Police search the apartment and surrounding areas, they photograph the scene and bring in a forensics team. Damage to a window screen tips them off that the perpetrator bent the screen outward and jumped twenty feet down to the ground to escape. A forensics sweep of the apartment pickups many different samples of DNA and finds fingerprints on the window sill. To this day, those fingerprints and DNA samples have never been matched to anyone. Within twenty-four hours of the crime, Oral “Nick” Hillary is focused on as the prime subject and from thereon out begins several years of back and forth, investigation, political moves and poor decisions which ultimately leads to a trial in which Hillary is acquitted based on a lack of evidence. So, what exactly happened to Garrett Phillips and who was responsible?
The first theory is that the crime was committed by Tandy’s ex-boyfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy John Jones. We know that following their breakup, Jones had several negative interactions with her new boyfriend, Oral Hillary. On one of these occasions, Hillary claims that Jones threatened to kill him, while Jones says he simply asked Hillary what his problem was and whether or not he wanted to settle it like men. Hillary filed a complaint, and that same day his vehicle was vandalized with obscenities being painted on it, which he blames Jones for. Tandy would file a complaint against Jones later, alleging that he threatened her and her children with violence. She would later recant this complaint, saying that Hillary forced her to do so. Could things have gotten so bad that Jones decided he was going to hurt Garrett and things got out of control and he ended up murdering him? Perhaps, but there are problems with the Jones theory as much as there are problems with the Hillary theory. It’s been reported that on the day of the crime, Jones is seen on surveillance footage outside of his house, just around the corner from Garrett’s apartment, talking to Garrett on the sidewalk. We don’t know what was said, but there was an interaction here, even though it does not exist on the official timeline of events. Jones is alibi’d because surveillance footage shows him walking his dog, but the footage isn’t clear and it’s honestly difficult to get a positive identification here.
Jones had a key to the apartment and we know this because during the investigation, he provided it to authorities. This means he had access to the home and could have gotten in without making a fuss. Everything that could suggest Jones could have gotten in and committed the crime is highly circumstantial, but where I find this theory really lacking is in motive. Perhaps something was said between he and Garrett that made him angry, or maybe he wanted to get back at Tandy, or to frame Hillary, these are the speculations surrounding his possible involvement. The problem is, there’s really nothing to support it. Jones was never seriously looked at as a suspect, but he has said that he provided investigators with everything they wanted which I’m lead to believe includes fingerprints and DNA.
We know that the fingerprints, nor the DNA, found in the apartment that day matched. Also, Jones was on the scene at the hospital to support the family and even drove Tandy down to the station the next day to make a statement and discuss the case. If in fact he committed this crime, those are some ballsy acts. Jones has a good relationship with Garrett, and it seems unlikely to me that he was going to take any anger out on him. As we saw with his confrontation with Hillary, he’s much more likely to go to the source. There is almost nothing which links him to the case, other than the fact that he is one of Tandy’s ex-boyfriends and the statements of a convicted rapist who claimed to see a man resembling Jones entering the apartment building that day. Not the most reliable of sources, but still a claim which should probably have been investigated further than it was. The family doesn’t believe he was involved, and neither does the prosecution. I do think he should have been looked at much more closely at the time, but short of some new evidence or something which can more strongly connect him, I just can’t say that he is the one who murdered Garrett Phillips.
The second theory is that Garrett Phillips was murdered by someone who is yet unknown. Perhaps someone who planned to enter the home and rob it, although there were no signs of forced entry and no hints that the apartment had been ransacked in any way whatsoever. Perhaps someone who had run into Garrett on the stairs up to the second floor, or who had followed him home from school, although nothing is seen on surveillance footage to suggest this. It seems most likely that when Garrett arrived home that day, whoever was responsible for this crime, was already inside of the apartment. We know that the screen of a window was popped out, and police viewed it as a likely escape lane, but could it have also been an entrance? Maybe. We are talking twenty feet up in the air, but a perpetrator could have climbed up. The ultimate question is as to why and what the motive was. It seems to specific to be a random attack, and it also seems like Garrett’s death may have been accidental. Obviously, if you strangle someone, it takes quite a while to kill them. It isn’t like the movies, it isn’t a thirty second thing, but do we really know what happened? Is it possible that someone in that apartment choked him, or grabbed him with an arm around the throat, in order to silence him and I went too far? It’s all possible, and it’s all speculative. The evidence which suggests that the murder was committed by a yet unidentified party is that the fingerprints and DNA have never been matched and that a police canine unit picked up and scent and followed it from the window to the railroad tracks. If I am going to be black and white on the evidence, if I am going to rule out circumstantial details, rumor and speculation, then all I really have to go on is what limited physical evidence we have: DNA and fingerprints. They did not match any of the named suspects, and to me, this suggests that this crime was most likely committed by someone who Police have either chosen not to identify yet, or more likely, someone who they do not know the identity of. What’s fascinating is that since there are no hits on the DNA or fingerprints, it was likely someone who doesn’t have a record.
There is a subsect to this theory, and one which I believe must be considered. During an interview, Chief Murray put forward the theory that, originally, they thought it was possible that Garrett may have been killed, accidentally, by a friend or another boy or girl with whom he was playing and things got out of control. This is certainly a possibility, though I think that the apartment would have been much more of a mess if this was the case and a twenty foot leap from an apartment window would almost certainly have injured a child, but it does have to be considered a possibility. I chose to file this under the unknown suspects theory, and there is very little to go on here, but it’s impossible to rule this out at this particular time. It would also explains fingerprints and DNA not being in the system, as a child, unless one who has been arrested, is unlikely to show up in the system to be matched. Whether or not any of Garrett’s friends were ever questioned or considered I don’t know, but considering the tunnel vision on Hillary, I somehow doubt it.
The last theory is the one which authorities ran with, that Hillary murdered Garrett Phillips. In support of this theory are several pieces of information with the police used to build their case against him. First, we have the accusations from Garrett’s mother, Tandy, that Hillary was a controlling man who had on multiple occasions entered her apartment without permission and held Garrett responsible for the dissolution of their relationship. Let me preface this by saying I am in no ways accusing Tandy of anything here, but this wasn’t the first time she made public statements about an ex-boyfriend which weren’t true. In relation to John Jones, she filed complaints against him for threats of violence and stalking, though she later recanted and claimed Hillary forced her to do so. Also, her son was murdered shortly after her relationship with Hillary came to an end and this would hardly be the first time that one member of a relationship had terrible things to say about their ex later on. Couple that with the fact that Police chose Hillary as a suspect within the first twenty four hours, and she was likely asked about him, it isn’t hard to imagine that in her desperation for wanting justice for her son she would have had negative things to say about him which may have drawn police’s attention to him even more so.
What’s important to note is that, despite all of the claims she makes about Hillary’s behavior, at no point does she point to or suggest anything violent. Hillary was controlling, and Hillary would get angry, but as far as we know he was never physically violent with her or her children. That isn’t to say that he couldn’t have committed the crime, but that in the heat of the moment, he didn’t become violent. Perhaps he had a more calm and cooled personality and was able to premeditate this murder, but it’s a large leap to make especially after several weeks away. So, Police go to speak to Hillary and notify him of the death because he had lived with the family up until recently. This is strange to me also, he wasn’t a relative so I don’t know why they would perform a death notification with him. I do believe they went there because they likely asked Tandy who she thought could have done it and his name was said. That is speculation on my part, but it doesn’t make sense to me any other way.
The limp comes into play here and we are told that either an officer that night, or the Chief of Police who went to the soccer game the next day, notices a distinct limp on Hillary which they relate to the twenty foot drop from the apartment window. The problem is, no one else sees this limp. The video, which was shot by police at the soccer game, is alleged to show a “significant limp” but from what I have seen, there’s no limp. There is no indication that anything is wrong with Hillary in this footage. The supposed limp is what will gain the police warrants to take Hillary’s clothing and search his vehicle and apartment. Now, there has been some conversation that during his nine hour interrogation, which takes place the day after the murder, that Hillary admits to an ankle injury, but relates it to something else. If indeed his ankle was injured, that could certainly be enough for police to take a closer look at him, especially considering his former relationship. In addition to this, police question the students he is coaching and make note of the fact that they all said his behavior was different the night of the murder. The problem is, that’s all police say. When you look into it closer, his behavior wasn’t different in that he was angry or seemed withdrawn or troubled. They all said he seemed more care free, less strict and happier than usual. It’s difficult to imagine someone being happy and light hearted after murdering a child, but stranger things have happened.
According to the investigation, surveillance footage shows Hillary’s light blue SUV stalking Garrett in the minutes leading up this murder. In fact, the SUV parks at the high school and sixteen seconds after Garrett passes by, the vehicle exits and heads in his direction. If true, this is damning evidence. The problem I have seen with this is that I’ve seen nothing which concludes with a certainty that it was Hillary’s vehicle. No confirmation of the license plate, no video footage of him behind the wheel. Now, I admit, it’s quite a stretch that there would be another vehicle identical to his doing this and that Hillary would have an injured ankle the next day, but as far as evidence goes, we still don’t have a completely concrete foundation. When you add in that testing shows the fingerprints and DNA found in the apartment do not match Hillary, you’ve got a real problem with this suspect. Now, some argument could be made that the fingerprints weren’t left behind by the perpetrator. We don’t know if there had been any repairmen in the apartment in recent days, and it is an apartment they have lived in for only a month and a half so the fingerprints could have been from someone viewing the apartment or any number of other individuals. The problem comes in with the DNA, and we know some of that was found under Garrett’s fingernails, and that doesn’t match Hillary either.
So what do they really have outside of the statements of Tandy, surveillance footage which may or may not show him and a debatable limp? Nothing, really. Hillary claims that due to his travels that night, he couldn’t have been responsible. His assistant coach is a witness to the fact that he was there, at his home, between 5:20 and 5:30, approximately twenty to thirty minutes after the attack. This is a short drive from Garrett’s apartment, but the assistant coach notices nothing wrong with Hillary, no limp and states that he seems calm and normal. The next witness his Hillary’s daughter, who places him home for dinner. Interestingly, the state does find a text which shows that his daughter texted him after 6pm asking what was for dinner, and that does seem to contradict her story. So where was Hillary around this time? We don’t know. He calls his lawyer later in the night, but he is also close friends with the lawyer so it’s hard to look at that as a particularly leading piece of evidence either. Hillary was found to not be in possession of a key to the apartment, either, despite exhaustive search efforts.
I can completely understand how the Potsdam Police would have connected all of this circumstantial evidence and found Hillary to be a strong suspect. However, they have an obligation to construct more than that and for two years, no charges are filed against Hillary. I believe that is because the previous District Attorney knew there was not enough there to get a conviction, and it’s only after the election of Mary Rain that charges are filed. Interestingly, Hillary was charged with second degree murder which would suggest that the crime was not premeditated which I find fascinating considering that some of their evidence suggested that Hillary had stalked Garrett that day. I would have to speculate that they believed Hillary murdered Garrett, but that perhaps his intention was to do him bodily harm and to not commit a full on murder.
A huge piece of me sees the authorities side of this, and finds it hard to believe that all of this could be coincidence. An ankle injury, the same vehicle following Garrett, the call to the lawyer, his alleged problem with Garrett. It seems like a lot of pieces to the story that connect Hillary to the crime. On the other side of the coin, no prints match, no dna match, no history of violence, no witnesses put him at the scene, can’t really tell if its him on the surveillance video. The case revolving around Hillary is remarkably frustrating, but I have to agree with the original district attorney who was in charge before Mary Rain. Even if he is responsible, the police are not currently in possession of enough evidence to make those charges stick. I think Hillary is still a possibility, but the more I read about this case, the less I feel secure in that belief.
To me, whoever committed this crime was either someone that Garrett trusted, and he allowed inside of the apartment that day, or someone who had a way to gain access and was waiting there, possibly not for Garrett, maybe for Tandy and Garrett became a victim of wrong place and wrong time. It’s an extremely sad and disturbing story. A twelve year old boy lost his life and six years later we’ve got no answers. John Jones had his reputation damaged by accusations, Oral Hillary will forever be labeled a murderer, whether or not he was responsible. Tandy lost her son, and cannot achieve closure until the responsible person is found. In the years since, she has come back up and been active in campaigning for justice for her son, but for several years she lingered in a dark place with her life collapsing around her. Aaron is now older than his brother was when he was murdered.
Life moves forward slowly for all of those involved, and the town of Potsdam is split on what exactly happened and who is responsible. There is evidence in the possession of police, and some day we may get a match, but short of that or a new break in the case, or the unlikelihood of a confession, we may never know the answers, and we may never found out what kind of monster could murder a twelve year old boy in his own home. Garrett’s life was taken for no reason, and due to investigative errors and decisions made based more around politics than justice, we are left in the dark. The murder of Garrett Phillips is one of the more disturbing cases I’ve covered, and, unfortunately it remains unsolved.