Questions of race in the case of a boy killed in Potsdam

Amid all that is an unsettling undercurrent of racial tension, at a time of simmering national debat
Oral Nicholas Hillary, who is charged with murder in the strangulation death of Garrett Phillips, a former girlfriend's 12-year-old son, in Canton, N.Y., Aug. 24, 2015. The case against Hillary has raised questions of racial bias and overreaching. In t...
Oral Nicholas Hillary, who is charged with murder in the strangulation death of Garrett Phillips, a former girlfriend's 12-year-old son, in Canton, N.Y., Aug. 24, 2015. The case against Hillary has raised questions of racial bias and overreaching. In t...

POTSDAM — At the southern edge of this village near the Canadian border, a small billboard slowly comes into focus. On the left is a black-and-white photo of a boy, reminiscent of so many missing-children posters; to the right are the words “Unsolved Murder.”

In these parts, the photo of the boy — bowl-cut blond hair, bright eyes, smiling face — is a familiar sight, as is its accompanying plea: “Help Us Get Justice for Garrett.”

Garrett Phillips, a popular and outgoing 12-year-old, was strangled in his home in fall 2011. The murder set off a mad, all-consuming pursuit for a killer in a region where such crimes are extraordinarily rare.

The investigation has garnered widespread attention in part because of the case’s pulp-fiction filigree: a gruesome murder of a child, hints of a love triangle and faded affairs and a small town on edge over the idea of a coldblooded killer living in its midst or still on the run.

Amid all that is an unsettling undercurrent of racial tension, at a time of simmering national debate over racial bias in law enforcement.

A black man who had dated the boy’s mother was a suspect from the start. The man, Oral Nicholas Hillary, known as Nick, is a former U.S. Army tank gunner originally from Jamaica who parlayed his success as a local college soccer player into a job here as the men’s soccer coach at Clarkson University.

It took more than 30 months for prosecutors to charge him with second-degree murder, in May 2014 — and months more to secure a second indictment after the first was thrown out for prosecutorial misconduct. Despite the long pursuit, the case that a jury will hear this summer is far from perfect: There is a distinct lack of hard evidence, according to police testimony — no fingerprints, no witnesses, no hair or tissue samples, seemingly no conclusive forensic evidence at all connecting Hillary to the crime.

In the long lead-up to the prosecution of Hillary, his supporters have highlighted not only the absence of physical evidence but the lack of any plausible motive or history that would suggest he was capable of murdering a child. They have also said that another man, a local sheriff’s deputy who once dated Garrett’s mother, was removed from suspicion too quickly.

But authorities say they have the right man. They believe that Hillary killed Garrett as a way of punishing the boy’s mother for breaking up with him about a month before the crime. The mother, Tandy Cyrus, is white, as was Garrett.

They say that Hillary followed Garrett home and throttled him, leaving the boy for dead, and clumsily clambered out a back window as the police closed in, a frantic escape that left him with a telltale limp.

They say Hillary’s alibi — that he was with his daughter and then at a colleague’s house when the killing occurred — is undercut by assorted evidence, including surveillance video taken that day that shows Hillary’s vehicle near Garrett as the boy heads home.

“I can’t think of any other person who would want to hurt Garrett,” Cyrus said in a statement to the police after her son died.

Like the Raquette River, which splits Potsdam in two, the case has divided opinion and tested residents’ patience in St. Lawrence County, a rural and job-challenged region where 94 percent of the population is white. But the emotional impact on Potsdam is raw and evident: Garrett’s former teachers and family friends cry at his memory, while the village’s elders echo one another, saying such terrible crimes simply do not happen in places like this.

“It was like a meteor hitting,” said Ron Tischler, the mayor of Potsdam, home to around 9,600 residents that is about 25 miles south of Ontario.

Prosecutors obtained an order against sharing evidence with the press, but lengthy reports last year by North Country Public Radio and the now-defunct website Grantland led to revelations about the investigation. And Hillary, now 41, has made his plight known. His supporters — including former teammates and alumni from his alma mater — have waged an increasingly vocal public battle, in part through a website, Truth for Nick Hillary, in hopes of bringing attention to the charges against him, which he says have devastated his life and career. He has sued the Village of Potsdam and the police for civil rights violations, leading to sworn depositions that have also shed light on the case.

Hillary has also accused the county prosecutor, Mary Rain, of forsaking justice in the name of keeping a campaign promise: Rain was elected in 2013, in part on the strength of campaigning with Cyrus and promising to focus the energies of her small office on Garrett’s murder.

Rain has enlisted William Fitzpatrick, a respected district attorney from the Syracuse area, to assist in the case.

And there are hints that the prosecution may try to link Hillary to the scene of the crime using low-template DNA analysis, which draws on small and sometimes mixed samples of biological material. The process, which often uses probabilities, has been disputed in some scientific realms.

The suspicions and repercussions surrounding the boy’s death have rippled through time and distance. A key defense witness, for instance, suddenly discovered “Justice for Garrett” signs posted near his new workplace and home — each hundreds of miles from Potsdam. Hillary, now free on bail, found himself rearrested in September for allegedly violating an order of protection by using a drive-through ATM at the bank where Cyrus worked. The prominent civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel has consulted with the defense on the case, believing Hillary to be innocent.

In Hillary’s view, the prosecution’s zeal — as well as the way he has been treated since Garrett’s death — may revolve on one other salient detail.

“It goes to show the color of my skin,” Hillary said in a soft Caribbean cadence.

Making a Chilling Discovery

Garrett Phillips was an ebullient child despite an early-life tragedy: When he was a toddler, his father, Robert — an amiable grounds worker at the State University of New York at Potsdam — suffered a brain aneurysm and never recovered. He died before Garrett was 3.

Though Garrett never knew his father, the boy emulated him as he grew. Like his father, he hunted and fished; played any sport involving a ball; and balanced his rowdy and respectful sides, rambunctious sometimes in public but polite to family and strangers.

“He was just very energetic, fun-loving,” Brian Phillips, Garrett’s uncle, said. “Just a really well-mannered boy. Just a normal 12-year-old. Just a good kid.”

Garrett and his younger half brother, Aaron Collins, lived with their mother at 100 Market St., a run-down two-story apartment building on a busy byway lined with fast-food outlets and auto shops. Apartment 4, their home, was on the second floor, its hallway illuminated by a bug-infested neon light. But the location was convenient: Potsdam’s public schools complex was a few blocks to the east.

On the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2011, Garrett was playing basketball at the middle school with some friends as rain fell intermittently. A little before 5 p.m., Tandy Cyrus called his cellphone and told him to go home to do schoolwork.

Garrett got on his caster board — something of a cross between a skateboard and a snowboard — and headed home, his progress captured by a series of surveillance cameras and later described in a police timeline.

The indictment against Nick Hillary puts the time of the attack between 4:56 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. According to police records, the first sign that something was wrong came around 5:07 p.m., when a neighbor, Marissa Vogel, called 911 to report that she thought she “heard some screaming, like ‘No!’ and ‘Help!’” coming from Apartment 4.

Vogel was initially unsure what the noises were — she and her boyfriend were watching the serial-killer drama “Dexter” at the time — but she soon went out to the narrow hallway and knocked on the door. Then, she told the 911 operator, “I heard the lock click.”

Patrolman Mark Wentworth arrived around 5:15 and reported hearing the faint sound of footsteps deep inside the apartment. A dispatcher called the building’s maintenance manager, Richard Dumas, to bring a key. At 5:24 p.m., Wentworth reported hearing a faint sound of possible movement in the apartment — “a single person walking around” — though a police investigator suggested later it might have been Garrett in distress.

Dumas and Wentworth entered the apartment shortly after. What they found was chilling.

“I ran to the threshold of the bedroom and looked in,” Dumas said in a statement to the police. He saw Garrett on his back, clothed in a T-shirt and a pair of checkered shorts, with his head and shoulder against the wall. “He looked like he was sleeping,” Dumas said. But “His face looked dark.”

Wentworth and Dumas began to administer CPR.

“I kept telling him, ‘Come on, buddy, wake up!’” Dumas said.

Garrett was taken to Canton-Potsdam Hospital, which he had skated past just hours before. Doctors tried to resuscitate him, and relatives began to gather.

“I went over to Garrett, and I bent down and I hugged him and told him to come on for Grandma,” said his grandmother Patricia Phillips, a retired janitor. “And he coded.” Garrett was pronounced dead at 7:18 p.m.

Combing the apartment for evidence, investigators found a possible clue: The screen of the bedroom window, about 20 feet off the ground, was “bent outward,” according to the incident report. A tile seemed to be broken on the roof of a lower section of the building, about 10 feet below, and there was a gash in the grass.

The police did not know how the attacker had gained access to the apartment, but they thought they knew how he had gotten out.

A few hours later, they were at Nick Hillary’s door.

Feeling Cultural Boundaries

Since arriving in the United States in 1990, Nick Hillary had steadily built a reputation as a soccer player, a coach and a charmer, equally popular with male friends and female fans.

His personal and professional résumé was impressive: One of a family of 15, he had done a tour in the Army — stationed in Kansas — and had been a leader on the undefeated 1999 men’s soccer team at St. Lawrence University in nearby Canton, winning a national championship. Shortly after that magical season, Hillary translated his success to the sidelines, eventually landing the head coaching job at Clarkson University in 2009.

His appeal, as both a coach and a person, is evident: His energy is intense, but his smile is unencumbered. He said he had always loved the North Country region’s rural mountains and summertime greenery — when it was warm it reminded him of Jamaica — though he was aware of the cultural boundaries beyond campus.

“You’re a black person,” he said in an interview. “You were viewed as such.”

A year after being hired by Clarkson, Hillary found that his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Stacia Lee, the mother of his three children, was struggling. At a bar called Ton’s, he became acquainted with a bartender, Tandy Cyrus.

Raised in the neighboring town of Parishville, Cyrus was regarded in town as a smart, vivacious woman who bore a passing resemblance to the actress Robin Wright.

In her 20s, Cyrus had married a local man, Casey Collins, and had a second child, Aaron, with him. The couple separated in 2006 and later divorced, and Cyrus began a relationship with a sheriff’s deputy, John Jones, though Collins remained close with Garrett.

Cyrus shared Jones’ interest in law enforcement — doing field training with a local police department and the county sheriff — and the two also ran a coffee shop together. But the cafe closed, and the relationship ended in August 2010. Shortly after that, Cyrus came home from a bartending shift — the two were still living together — and Jones pushed her.

“That was the last straw for me,” Cyrus said, according to a draft of a deposition she gave to the police after Garrett was killed. Hillary and Cyrus began seeing each other shortly after that fight, in September 2010.

Jones was not pleased. In late September, he allegedly followed Hillary home at 6 a.m. — Hillary was still living with Lee at the time — and confronted him about “having an affair” with Cyrus. Jones threatened to kick Hillary’s door in, according to a formal complaint Hillary filed with the St. Lawrence County attorney’s office 13 months before Garrett’s death.

In an interview with Grantland, Jones acknowledged confronting Hillary but denied threatening him, saying he was just trying to “have him man up.”

“I go, ‘Listen. Help me understand. Are you and Tandy together?’” Jones said.

Cyrus, 37, declined to be interviewed for this article, but Hillary said he had been harassed because of his relationship with her. “It’s not a community with a lot of interracial relationships,” he said, adding that he had “to be mindful” when he was out. “I would go to the local restaurant,” he said, and Jones’ “friends would come up to me and like, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be dating John’s girl.’”

A few months after they met, Hillary and Cyrus moved in together, forming a household of five, including his teenage daughter, Shanna-Kay, and Cyrus’ two sons.

The couple had different approaches to parenting, with Cyrus telling the police that Hillary was controlling and judgmental.

“Nick would sit me down almost on a weekly basis, and he would tell me everything that was wrong with my kids,” Cyrus said in the draft deposition she gave to the police, adding that Hillary had an undue need for structure and planning. And, she said, her children — particularly Garrett — “did not like Nick.”

Patricia Phillips, Garrett’s grandmother, shared this view. “My grandson would be here at night and get ready to have to go back down there and cry because he didn’t want to go home,” she said, sitting in her home in Parishville, surrounded by smiling pictures and portraits of Garrett and her son Robert.

Hillary insisted that he and Garrett got along: He said he helped Garrett with homework and had attended his basketball games, treating the boy the same way he treated his own son, Lashaka-mani, who was two years younger.


interacted with him as much as I could interact with him in the same manner as I would interact with my son,” Hillary said. “It’s not like we had a hostile relationship.”

Hillary said he deferred to Collins as Garrett’s father figure. He added, “The guidelines for Tandy’s kids were set by Tandy; the guidelines for my kids were definitely set by me,” saying, for example, that his children were not allowed to watch television on school nights.

At the end of summer 2011, Cyrus and her two sons moved out — “to be on our own,” she recalled — relocating to 100 Market Street. Hillary said the move was designed to spare Garrett from being teased about his mother’s interracial relationship and to give his daughter more space for herself.

“I decided, ‘OK, I’ll get my own place, she will have her own place,’ but we were still a couple,” he said.

What started as a separation, however, soon became a split. Cyrus began dating another man, according to her draft deposition, and reconnected with Jones as well. She said that Hillary harassed her with text messages after the breakup. She also accused him of showing up at 100 Market Street unannounced — letting himself in, once in the middle of the night, she told the police — and warning her about being disrespectful to him by dancing with other men.

Hillary strongly denied this, calling such accounts “totally fabricated” and noting that no police record of such harassment exists. Cyrus told the police that “Nick always blamed Garrett for our breakup,” but Hillary said the decision to end the relationship had not been acrimonious. After they did call it quits, near the end of September 2011, he said, he returned a key he had for her apartment at 100 Market Street and never entered the unit again.

The police think differently.

Focusing on an Ex-Boyfriend

Garrett Phillips had not been dead long when Lt. Mark Murray showed up at Nick Hillary’s door.

In a deposition, Murray said that Edward F. Tischler, the Potsdam police chief then, told him to inform Hillary of the death and “ask him if he had any information that would help us.” (Tischler is the brother of Mayor Ron Tischler of Potsdam.)

Murray said the visit was not investigative in nature, but police records and statements show the police quickly homed in on Hillary. The morning after the murder — even before the coroner had deemed Garrett’s death a homicide — Murray told a local prosecutor that authorities were focusing on a boyfriend and cutting “off the heads of any accusations” that other children might have attacked Garrett, an early rumor, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by The New York Times.

A search-warrant application indicates that several family members had already spoken to the police, including Brian Phillips, Garrett’s uncle, who said he had seen Hillary’s sport utility vehicle near the apartment before the crime.

Security videos taken that day, described in a police timeline, show Garrett gliding alongside a high school parking lot at about 4:52 p.m. as a light-blue Honda CR-V — driven by Hillary — sits near a row of trees on the north side of the small lot. Seconds after Garrett skates past, Hillary’s SUV pulls out of its parking spot and heads in the same general direction as Garrett: south, and away from Hillary’s home, authorities note.

Another video, taken by a camera at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, across from the school, then shows Garrett passing a small gray house where a black pickup truck has just parked. A police timeline identifies the driver as Deputy John Jones arriving at his home, where he once lived with Tandy Cyrus. According to the timeline, the video shows Jones leaving the house and walking his dog about 20 minutes after Garrett has passed by.

Hillary said he was at the Potsdam public schools complex at the time to scout high school soccer players. He said he left because it was halftime and there was a “torrential downpour” so severe he had to remain in his vehicle.

Hillary said he initially turned south to go to his office but decided instead to go home to discuss dinner plans with Shanna-Kay, then visited his assistant coach, Ian Fairlie, who lived around the corner from 100 Market Street.

Hillary said he wanted to tell Fairlie about a meeting he planned to hold with an injured player, Jacob Duff, before a practice scheduled for 6 p.m. that day.

Fairlie said Hillary had visited him at 5:21 p.m. He was certain of the time, he said, because he had just made a cellphone call when Hillary arrived. Nothing about Hillary’s behavior struck him as unusual.

“He just walked in, the same friendly guy I’ve ever met,” he said. Hillary left after only a minute or two, and the two men soon reconvened in Hillary’s office for the meeting with Duff, who never showed up.

Duff told the police he had good reason to miss the meeting: It was a fabrication.

On the evening of the murder, after he was approached by the police, Duff wrote a Facebook post suggesting that he and the coach had never had a meeting scheduled.

“I have the chat log,” Duff wrote. “So you should probably just start telling the truth now.”

Duff, who graduated from Clarkson last year and is expected to testify at Hillary’s trial, declined to comment on the case.

Murray saw Duff as deeply credible.

“I just can’t bring myself to fathom why a collegiate person playing on a Division III soccer team with his entire future ahead of him would lie and perjure himself on a sworn statement for no reason,” he said.

On the evening after the murder, Murray went to watch Clarkson’s men’s soccer squad and videotaped Hillary coaching the penultimate game of a rough season. (The 2011 Clarkson squad had more losses than goals.)

According to a search-warrant application, as Hillary strode along the sideline, he seemed stiff and sedate and had a “significant limp in his right leg,” something the detective inferred would have been caused by jumping from a second-story window. Last year, though, The Watertown Daily Times posted a clip from Murray’s video: In it, Hillary appears to walk unhindered along the sidelines.

An Absence of Hard Evidence

A little more than 36 hours after Garrett Phillips died, the police brought Nick Hillary and Ian Fairlie in for interrogations.

Fairlie said he told detectives the same story he has repeated to this day: Hillary arrived at his apartment at 5:21 p.m., briefed him about the upcoming meeting with Jacob Duff and left. (The case has seemed to follow Fairlie: After leaving Potsdam in 2012, he was surprised to find that someone had posted “Justice for Garrett” signs near a new job in Buffalo and, later, near his home in Owego, New York. “They were absolutely following me,” he said of the signs.)

As the men were being questioned, detectives searched for damning evidence. They seized Hillary’s phone and examined the contents of his pockets and his socks. Nude photographs, fingerprints and palm prints were taken. Hillary’s car was searched. (The timing of the seizures, and of the subsequent search warrants, has been a focus of Hillary’s civil suit.) The police also obtained his DNA from a coffee cup and the butt of a cigarette.

That night, the police obtained a search warrant for Hillary’s home. It detailed what they were hunting for: soiled clothing, muddy sneakers, first-aid kits, used ice packs, receipts or “any physical or trace evidence that connects Oral N. Hillary with the victim.”

The police thought they recovered solid physical evidence at the crime scene: latent fingerprints from the exit window, markings on the windowsill and hair and tissue samples on the lower roof. But the police would find that the fingerprints did not match Hillary’s — or those of anyone who lived at 100 Market Street — and the DNA taken from the scene was “neither inclusive nor exclusive” of Hillary, according to Murray. The tissue and hair samples did not pan out either, nor did the search for any witnesses.

“The results we got back have not placed him at that crime scene,” Edward R. Tischler, the former police chief, said in a sworn deposition.

As for John Jones, a sheriff’s deputy, it seemed clear that authorities had quickly removed him from suspicion.

On the morning after the murder, for instance, as Tandy Cyrus arrived at the police station to get an update, Jones was with her and allowed to sit in on the meeting with Lt. Mark Murray.

Jones was also friendly with both Edward Tischler and Murray: In depositions taken in 2014, the chief said he had seen Jones and Cyrus together at local bars, while the lieutenant and the deputy played on the same adult hockey team.

Jones would stay close to the investigation, even offering leads to pursue. At one point, a police document shows, he delivered a key to Cyrus’ apartment to compare with any found at Hillary’s home.

In an interview with North Country Public Radio, Mary Rain acknowledged that Jones, who is white, was briefly a suspect. But she told The Watertown Daily Times that video footage from that day shows him walking his dog in the neighborhood around the time of the murder, clearing him of suspicion.

Jones has denied any involvement in the crime and declined to be interviewed by The Times. But he left a voice mail message stating his confidence in the circumstantial evidence of the case and said that Hillary was “playing every card he can for sympathy.”

“Regardless of what color skin he is,” he said, “this man murdered a young 12-year-old boy.”

A Prosecutor’s ‘Top Priority’

Five days before Garrett Phillips died, Mary Rain resigned as the St. Lawrence County public defender, saying she could not keep up with the overwhelming workload. “I’ve been treading water,” Rain told The Watertown Daily Times. But she was already in professional peril; months before, county legislators had relieved her of her administrative duties.

She was not down for long. In September 2013, Rain was standing on the steps of the county courthouse as a candidate for district attorney. And Tandy Cyrus was standing beside her.

Rain, a Republican, sharply criticized her opponent, Nicole Duve, a popular incumbent Democrat, for not doing more to solve Garrett’s case, in which Duve had declined to make an arrest because of what she considered a lack of evidence. “What I told them was,” Rain said in an interview in her office in Canton, “it was going to be my top priority.” Cyrus was apparently grateful: A few days before the 2013 election, she wrote an unflattering and widely publicized post about Duve on Facebook.

Once elected, Rain wasted no time, attending a January 2014 meeting of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, where William Fitzpatrick led a committee that helped district attorneys in underserved counties. Rain said her fellow prosecutors were bullish on the Phillips case.

“Everyone said, ‘You’ve got a totally good case,’” Rain said.

Sure enough, in May 2014, Nick Hillary — whose only criminal record to that point involved a misdemeanor marijuana conviction — was in handcuffs, charged with second-degree murder.

That fall, however, Justice Jerome J. Richards of St. Lawrence County State Supreme Court dismissed the case and chastised Rain for her behavior in front of the grand jury, noting “improper questions, direct and indirect expressions of opinion and use of numerous exhibits without proper foundation.”

Nonetheless, the judge left open the possibility that Rain could revive the case. And in January 2015, a grand jury returned a new indictment.

Rain credited the “Justice for Garrett” movement — Brian Phillips, Garrett’s uncle, sold and distributed thousands of posters bearing the slogan and raised $40,000 for a reward fund — with keeping “this case alive.”

Brian Phillips, a genial father of two, has indeed been central to the case, through his steady, if soft-spoken, advocacy for the prosecution and his statement to the police that he had seen Hillary near the scene of the crime on the day of the murder. He expects to testify at Hillary’s trial.

The Phillipses all believe Hillary is guilty, and the pain of losing Garrett — and his father a decade before — is still immediate. But the expression of it can sometimes be ugly. In conversation, Phillips — whose Facebook page is peppered with positive affirmations, remembrances of Garrett and occasionally crude comments — referred to Hillary with a racial slur. Asked about this in an interview, he said he generally did not use the term, but offered this explanation: “He’s not human. He’s not normal.”

He added, “Anybody who can do that doesn’t deserve the respect to be even called…,” he trailed off, before saying, “I’m not racist.”

Awaiting His Day in Court

Mary Rain acknowledged that race might play a role in Nick Hillary’s trial, particularly in jury selection, but said it had not affected the prosecution. “I’m colorblind when it comes to justice,” she said.

Over the past year, however, Rain and her office have faced a series of other challenges: In September, she was summoned to an appellate court in Albany to fend off charges of contempt and to apologize for lagging on cases; in November, judges threw out a conviction in a rape case because of prejudicial closing remarks by Rain. As for Hillary’s trial, it has been delayed twice and is now scheduled for August.

Yet, in an interview, Rain suggested that there was more physical evidence than it seemed, but that a gag order prevented the prosecution from being more forthcoming. She said she did not believe the case would be hard to prove, and supporters of the prosecution believe Hillary’s statements in his civil suit may be useful against him.

For his part, Hillary became an American citizen in 2011 and has been awaiting trial in Potsdam, living with Stacia Lee and their children, who now number five. No matter how the trial ends, he said, he had already been punished, having lost his job, his life savings and his place in the community.

“It has been total destruction of everything I’ve worked to build over the years,” he said.

He said he was ready for any questions he might face at trial. Why, for instance, did Duff say there had been no meeting?

“It’s not the first meeting that he ever missed,” Hillary said. “And he’s not the first player to have ever missed a meeting.”

Why was he described as so strict with children?

“What they’re calling strict is more a structure for success,” he said.

And finally, a more direct query.

“Did you kill Garrett?”

Hillary answered immediately.

“No,” he said, “I did not.”

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