What’s it like to be accused of murder in a town so small that the sheriff's deputy once dated the mother of the child you’re accused of killing?
For Oral “Nick” Hillary, one of the only black men in a rural upstate New York town, that claustrophobic idea was reality.
Hillary was once accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend’s 12-year-old son, Garrett Phillips, in Potsdam. At the time, Hillary was beloved in the community. Not only was he a soccer coach at Clarkson University but he had been a college soccer star when he played at St. Lawrence University.
He had met Tandy Cyrus, Phillips' mother, in 2010 at a bar where she worked as a bartender. She had played soccer, so they bonded over that, and soon their friendship blossomed into a more romantic relationship. Only problem was that they were both dating other people, causing some drama between Hillary and sheriff's deputy John Jones, Cyrus’ boyfriend at the time, as shown in the new HBO docu-series which examines the case and the aftermath, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?”
But things between the two, who moved in together, would eventually sour. Hillary said that Cyrus' sons got upset over racist comments made about the couple while Cyrus has admitted to investigators that she left Hillary because her sons didn't like him. Soon after the pair parted ways, tragedy struck: Phillips was found dead in Cyrus' home in 2011, strangled to death. Fingers were quickly pointed at Hillary, and although his name would be legally cleared, his life, as show in "Who Killed Garrett Phillips?" had changed forever.
So where is Hillary now?
Where is Hillary now?
His life has certainly changed, and not for the better. He went from soccer coach to outlier.
“As a coach, everybody knew who I was,” he said in the documentary. Hillary said everywhere he went people would say, “Hi, coach,” and make cheerful small talk.
“There’s an old phrase that everybody likes a winner,” he said. “Nobody likes a loser, so you know when I was on the winning side, it was unbelievable.”
He lost his job
He lost his prestigious and beloved job as soccer coach as a result of the legal issues.
Lisa Marcoccia, one of his attorneys, said in the HBO film, that the school “didn’t want him back on campus.”
Hillary is still struggling to rebuild his life, according to a publicist for "Who Killed Garrett Phillips?" He is coaching youth soccer part time on a voluntary basis and is working night shifts for a company. However they said his professional career has come to a halt. Because of the murder allegations, continuing his previous career has been a challenge.
"You apply for a job, they will do their background check," He told Mel Magazine. "That tells me that I will forever be in a disadvantaged position going forward unless I’m able to eradicate all this negative stuff around my name from the internet. And I don’t even think that’s remotely possible."
He did tell that outlet that it is a "great feeling to be able to work with kids" while volunteer coaching again.
He’s taking care of his children, whom he had with Stacia Lee, a woman he was dating before he began dating Cyrus. When the documentary was filmed, he was taking care of the children full-time.
“The best way for me to put it is it's like living on house arrest,” he said in the HBO documentary. “You have to calculate your every move that you are going to make within the community. It really takes a toll on you.”
Hillary said he’s trying to remain strong for the kids.
His reputation has been destroyed
Hillary still lives in the same community, which obviously causes some hurdles for Hillary.
“Nobody will ever look at you the same way. Nobody wants to interact with you the same way," Hillary explained in the documentary.
Marcoccia said his life was “completely destroyed” as a result of the allegations made against him.
“The public had already said, well this is their guy. It was really the beginning of the destruction of his life," she said.
He’s still viewed as the killer by some
Sheriff's deputy John Jones, who is also Cyrus’ ex, told the producers of the docu-series that he is certain Hillary is the killer.
Jones is not the only one who believes this. As the documentary shows, his possible guilt is still a contentious and divisive issue in the town of Potsdam, a town with a population of 16,000.
He’s trying to find justice
Not only has he participated in the filming of the HBO documentary, but he tried to file a civil suit which accused New York State Police, the St. Lawrence County prosecutors, and local police of violating his civil rights and of racially discriminating against him. The suit claims he was taken into custody two days after the murder and was strip-searched and sent home without his clothing.
A federal judge has thrown out some of that civil suit’s allegations earlier this year but aspects of it, including the discrimination claim, are moving forward, North Country Public Radio reported in March.
Hillary first filed a suit back in 2012 accusing police of violating his civil rights, which was two years before he was actually arrested for the murder. After he was acquitted of all charges in 2016, he filed a more extensive suit. Hillary is going forward with that suit.
The death of Phillips remains an open investigation. North Country Public Radio reported that a new possible lead has been turned over to police.
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