At just 12, Garrett Phillips was strangled in his own home. Who did it is a mystery.

Garrett Phillips was an outgoing 12-year-old boy with blond hair, bright eyes and a fondness for ball sports. In 2011, he was strangled to death in his home.

His murder shook the small town where he lived, Potsdam, New York, and set off an all-consuming hunt for his killer. His face is still all over town, plastered across posters, signs and a giant black-and-white billboard on the edge of town, next to the words “Unsolved Murder”.

On an October afternoon in 2011, Garrett was playing basketball with friends at the local middle school but headed home a little before 5pm, according to the New York Times.

Around ten minutes later a neighbour called 911 after hearing screams for help coming from his apartment down the hall (she was watching Dexter at the time and had initially thought the sounds were coming from her television).

When the police arrived, the building’s maintenance manager Richard Dumas was called to bring the key – he wasn’t prepared for what they’d find once he’d opened the door.

“I ran to the threshold of the bedroom and looked in,” Mr Dumas said in a statement to the police.

He was confronted by a limp Garrett, lying on his back in a T-shirt and a pair of checked shorts, his head and shoulders against the wall.

Advertisement

“He looked like he was sleeping” except, Dumas said, “his face looked dark.”

The boy was pronounced dead in hospital that evening and the town became obsessed, after all, who would want to hurt Garrett Phillips?

potsdam 1200x630
The residents of Potsdam, New York are divided over Garrett’s murder. Image: Wikipedia

An ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus, quickly became the lead suspect in the case – Oral “Nick” Hillary, a university soccer coach.

Cyrus described 41-year-old Hillary as “controlling”, and the prosecution would argue he was saw the child as a wedge between them.

Police claim Hillary followed the boy home, strangled him and climbed out the window; his car was spotted nearby on the day of the attack, case closed.

Video by Time Warner Cable News

The only problem to this neat solution? A staggering lack of evidence linking Hillary to the crime and a couple of alibis placing him elsewhere.

There is no DNA evidence, despite a number of fingerprints and tissue samples taken from the scene.

There aren also no witnesses.

He has no history of violent behaviour and almost no motivation to murder a child.

None of this stopped him being charged with second degree murder in 2014.

The town’s residents are divided by the accusations against Hillary and a support page called Truth for Nick Hillary has been set up

On the one hand, they want justice for Garrett Phillips. On the other, many fear that an innocent man could lose his freedom.

“It was like a meteor hitting,” Mayor Ron Tischler said.

Several theories have circulated over Hillary’s arrest, not least,that the accusations again him may be racially motivated (Hillary is Jamaican).

The defence believes that another of Cyrus’ ex-boyfriends, a sheriff’s deputy who once allegedly pushed her during an argument, was ruled out too fast.

The ex, John Jones, was one of many who attacked Hillary over his “interacial relationship” with Cyrus – once threatening to knock down his door.

Hillary denies killing the boy, but says that has not stopped him being punished.

He’s 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.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION