'Who Killed Garrett Phillips?' In A Small Rural Town, Everyone Has A Theory

12-year-old Garrett Phillips was strangled to death in 2011. His mother's ex-boyfriend Oral "Nick" Hillary was tried for the murder, but as a new HBO doc shows, it wasn't that simple of a case.

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The Garrett Phillips Murder Case and Prosecutor Mary Rain

In 2011, a small rural town in upstate New York was rocked by the loss of its own: a 12-year-old boy named Garrett Phillips. That day, October 24, the boy had been playing basketball at a high school and decided to ride his skateboard home, a trip captured by several surveillance cameras. But one of the boy’s neighbors, who lived in the same apartment building, heard a scream and strange sounds coming from his home just 15 minutes after he passed by the building's cameras. She knocked at the door and heard the clicking of a lock, so she called police.

The police only found Phillips, who had been strangled. Nobody saw the killer leave the apartment.

The shocking murder had police soon zeroing in on one suspect: Oral “Nick” Hillary, one of the only black men in Potsdam and the ex-boyfriend of Phillips' mother. And while he was charged for the crime in 2014, he was found innocent after a very contentious trial, full of allegations of misconduct and racism, as shown in the new two-part HBO docu-series “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?”

So who actually murdered Phillips? While nobody can say for sure, many in the small town of 16,000 have their ideas. Here are some of the main theories:

That Hillary did it

After Hillary’s 2016 acquittal, the prosecution made it clear they didn’t think anyone else was responsible for the murder.

“I’m 100 percent certain that Nick Hillary was the man,” Mary Rain, district attorney at the time, said in 2016. “There will be no search for anybody else. He was the only person who committed this crime. I’m 100 percent certain of that.”

Two years later later, her license was suspended amid allegations of professional misconduct, North County Public Radio reported. Judges in the Third Judicial Department ruled Rain exhibited "a pattern of disregard for defendants' rights." 

So why was the prosecution seemingly so certain, anyway? The prosecution's argument concentrated mostly on surveillance footage, which captured Hillary leaving the school just seconds after Phillips took off on his skateboard. They argued that because Hillary turned left leaving the lot, instead of taking a right, which was the fastest way for him to get home, he must have been hunting down the child.

Investigators also pointed to a small wound on his ankle, suggesting it could be an injury caused by jumping out of the boy’s apartment window after killing him (remember, no one saw anyone leave the apartment). They also claimed that he seemingly forgot about the injury until he was strip searched and it was discovered, according to the docu-series.

And what could be his motive? The prosecution and investigators claimed Hillary had blamed the boy for ruining his relationship with Phillips' mom, Tandy Cyrus. Hillary has said that Cyrus' sons got upset over racist comments made about the couple, while Cyrus admitted to investigators that she left Hillary because her sons didn't like him.

A publicist for the film said that it’s been difficult for Hillary to move forward since the allegations. He lost his career as a soccer coach and lost his reputation as a respected athlete about town.

“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.”

Who Killed Garrett Phillips

That it was someone else, maybe a kid

“We did hear these rumors, and we wanted, as much as we could, to go out and explore them and accompany local journalists,” Liz Garbus, who directed and produced the HBO doc, told Variety, “but there really was so little [to go on]. There was really nothing beyond what’s in the film that we were able to learn.”

There were rumors that Phillips was hanging out with some other children before he died, and possibly horseplaying with them or playing a game of knockout.

Neighbor Shannon Harris said she heard that Phillips didn’t get along with some kids, and additionally said she heard rumblings of rumors they did it.

“But it was very brief and nobody mentions it to this day,” she told the producers of the documentary.

Who Killed Garrett Phillips

That a sheriff’s deputy did it

Sheriff’s deputy John Jones also dated Phillips’ mother, Tandy Cyrus. Plus, there was some overlap between Jones dating Cyrus and Hillary dating her, the HBO doc implies, which could give a motive. The day that Phillips was found dead Jones called 911 to get information about it and he even stayed with Cyrus that night and held her hand in police interviews. 

Furthermore, the prosecution-led investigation resulted in an interview with a man named Gregory Brown, who said he saw Jones enter the apartment building where Philips was killed just 15 minutes before the boy entered it, according to documents obtained by the HBO series. Brown said on a scale of 1 to 10, he was a 20 in terms of how sure he was that it was Jones, according to those documents.

Jones and Brown had played football together in the past and Brown was also a football coach at Clarkson University where Hillary worked as a soccer coach. (Again, it’s a small town.) However, Brown was an inmate at Attica at the time at the interview.

Brown "believed that Jones was the killer but he never mentioned that to Jones,” according to the documents that detail that interview.  Brown said that he just couldn't "believe that a black man could kill someone in Potsdam, N.Y. and jump out of a second story window, without having someone see him."

That interview was suppressed by the prosecution because it was favorable to the defense, according to one of Hillary’s defense attorneys, Peter Dumas, who called it “clear cut Brady material.” The "Brady rule" forbids such suppression of evidence.

Surveillance footage does put Philips right on Jones’ street as Jones is pulling into his driveway the day of the murder.

Then there’s also the fact that Cyrus once sued Jones in small claims court, claiming Jones pushed her, used his profession to harass her, and left her in fear of her safety and the safety of her children, Syracuse.com reported. In court, though, she later claimed that Hillary made her do that. 

The prosecution has admitted that the suppression of that information was inexcusable, but they claim they did so only because they had proof that Jones didn't commit the crime, so therefore they thought that Brown was merely a liar, according to the docu-series.

Civil defense attorney Tom Mortati noted that Jones was spotted on video walking his dog during the time the murder is believed to have taken place. Mortati said in the docu-series, “Who brings their dog to a murder? Nobody.”

Additionally, he said Jones' DNA doesn’t match the DNA profile found under Phillips’ fingernails.

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