‘Who Killed Garrett Phillips?’ on HBO Max features the mysterious death of a 12-year-old, Garrett Phillips, inside his Potsdam, New York apartment in late October 2011. The two-part show features interviews with residents, members of the victim’s family, and the prime accused as it paints a disturbing but critical picture of racial bias and police incompetence while trying to find answers after so many years. It leaves the viewers wondering with the question about how exactly Garrett died and his killer’s identity among the various suspects mentioned.
How Did Garrett Phillips Die?
Garrett John Phillips was born to Robert J. Phillips and Tandy Cyrus in Potsdam in St. Lawrence County, New York, on August 13, 1999. He had a deep passion for nature and outdoor activities. Whether camping, riding his four-wheeler, or engaging in hunting and fishing, he relished every moment spent in the great outdoors. In addition to his love for nature, Garrett was actively involved in various Potsdam sports. He dedicated himself to various athletic pursuits — from football and soccer to hockey, basketball, and lacrosse.
In October 2011, the 12-year-old was a sixth-grade student at the A.A. Kingston Middle School in Potsdam. Tandy described her son as “always happy and always willing to help other kids and people.” Garrett resided on the second floor of a century-old apartment at 100 Market St. with his mother and his younger brother, Aaron. On October 24, Garrett rode his RipStik back home and was alone inside his residence when his neighbor, Shannon Harris, heard strange noises from the Phillips family apartment in the afternoon.
On the show, Shannon claimed she was confident it was a kid screaming for help and voicing “no” to someone. Concerned, Shannon and a few others knocked on the door and allegedly heard footsteps inside the flat. They immediately dialed 911 and contacted the building manager while waiting for the police to arrive. News reports state the emergency responders arrived around 5:00 pm and found Garrett unconscious and alone inside. The 12-year-old was rushed to a local hospital, where he was declared deceased later that night.
According to the show, Tandy was at Aaron’s basketball practice when she heard about the incident and was immediately rushed to the hospital. She had initially thought that her first-born child had fallen while playing as she was not told about the cause or the seriousness of his injury. But she recalled how she was in “complete shock” after finding Garrett in cardiac arrest. She stated, “He had bruises on his face … marks on his neck.” The doctors soon conveyed to the distressed mother that “there was nothing else that they could do.”
The Rensselaer County medical examiner, Dr. Michael Sikirica, ruled the death as a homicide after observing the victim had deep rug burns, scratches on his face, a black eye, and cauliflower ears. The official cause of death was determined as strangulation and suffocation amidst a struggle between the boy and his killer. Dr. Sikirica indicated that the injuries on Garrett’s face, head, and neck were “consistent with fingernails,” suggesting they could be attributed to either the killer covering his mouth or Garrett’s nails during the struggle.
Who Killed Garrett Phillips?
Interim Police Chief in Potsdam, New York, Mark Murray, recalled, “Nothing in the living room area was out of place. You could see that Garrett had neatly set his sneakers by the closet. His rip stick was neatly propped up against the wall. His backpack was taken off. The only real signs of struggle were his sweatshirt lying in the hallway and his physical body.” Initially dismissing the idea of homicide, the officers speculated scenarios like a fall or accident. However, they soon noticed a distorted screen in a window, while the others seemed intact.
Mark explained, “It became obvious that the only place to get in or out, other than the front door that hadn’t been utilized, was this window.” Upon closer inspection, the police observed the window screen forced out just enough for a body to pass through. The window, situated about 20 feet above the ground, led them to suspect the killer jumped after strangling Garrett. Despite the estimated time of the murder at 5:00 pm, no witnesses saw anyone flee the building, and those living downstairs heard or witnessed nobody — adding to the mystery.
As the homicide investigation unfolded, the police, community, and the victim’s family all had different theories, though they could be vastly classified into three. A majority of the people involved in the case deemed Oral “Nick” Hillary — Tandy’s ex-boyfriend and the head coach of the men’s soccer team at Clarkson — the prime suspect. However, Nick professed his innocence and claimed he was with the assistant head coach at the time of the murder. He also chalked down the allegations as racial bias (being one of the few African-Americans in the city).
But the authorities’ unwavering confidence about Nick being guilty centered on surveillance footage that caught him leaving the school just moments after Garrett departed on his RipStik, implying he was pursuing the child. They also highlighted a minor ankle wound, speculating it resulted from jumping out of the boy’s apartment window after the alleged murder. As for the motive, the prosecution claimed he blamed Garrett for sabotaging his relationship with Tandy, who corroborated leaving him due to her son’s disapproval.
Despite being charged with second-degree murder in 2014, a bench trial acquitted Nick in 2016. The judge ruled that the prosecution had not made its circumstantial case beyond a reasonable doubt. Other theories emerged, including the possibility of Garrett having conflicts with other kids, playing a risky game, or someone else being involved, like Sheriff’s Deputy John Jones, who also dated Garrett’s mother. An interview with Gregory Brown, an inmate, identified John as the killer but was allegedly suppressed by the prosecution.
John’s alibi, including walking his dog during the alleged time of the murder, and the absence of DNA matching under the victim’s fingernails raised doubts about his involvement. During a late September 2016 interview with ABC News, Tandy maintained Nick killed her son even though she emphasized that she had never seen him lose his temper or abuse a child before. The crying mother added, “He took my son. He took a big brother, a grandson, a cousin, and a nephew. ” Garrett’s murder remains unsolved, with multiple theories and uncertainties lingering.