With a suspect arrested after 2 1/2 years, a look back at Potsdam's Garrett Phillips murder case
Friday, May 16, 2014 - 5:40 pm


POTSDAM -- Pleas of “Justice for Garrett” might have taken a significant step forward with the arrest of a suspect in the murder in 2011 of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips of Potsdam.

College soccer coach Oral Nicholas “Nick” Hillary is awaiting court action after he was indicted and arrested last week, accused of murder in the strangulation death of the middle school student two-and-a-half years ago.

Since the murder, there was little news about the investigation, which involved New York State Police and other agencies and two successive county district attorneys.

But on Thursday, a grand jury agreed on an indictment, the county court judge signed an arrest warrant, and the suspect was arrested for the Oct. 24, 2011 murder.

Hillary, 39, of Potsdam, a soccer coach at Clarkson University, was arrested at his Leroy Street residence Thursday by officers from the Potsdam Police Department after he failed to show up at the police station at an agreed-upon time.

Police Chief Kevin Bates said an arrest warrant arrived from Canton at the police station Thursday at 1:45 p.m., after the grand jury indictment was issued.

“The DA called one of his attorneys to contact him to report here by 2:30,” said Potsdam Police Chief Kevin Bates. “We actually gave him until a little after 3,” and when Hillary had not shown up, “we decided to go get him.” There was no report of resistance or any other incident in the arrest.

Hillary was processed at the police station before being taken to Canton for a first appearance in county court.

Without an attorney present, a not-guilty plea was entered for him by St. Lawrence County Court Judge Jerome Richards, according to investigators.

He was held overnight in the county correctional facility without bail until a 10 a.m. arraignment on Friday, where he was represented by attorney Christopher Renfroe of Renfroe, Driscoll & Foster, LLP, of Forest Hills, Queens.

Hillary is charged with one count of murder in the second degree. He was sent to St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility in Canton on $75,000 cash bail or $150,000 bail bond.

Garrett Phillips, a well-liked student at A.A. Kingston Middle School, was found unconscious in the Market Street apartment he and his mother lived in. He was found by police, who were called after neighbors heard a loud noise and moaning coming from the apartment.

Garrett was taken by the Potsdam Volunteer Rescue Squad to Canton-Potsdam Hospital, but efforts there to save him were unsuccessful. An autopsy showed he had been suffocated and strangled.

The following night, more than 200 students, teachers, administrators and parents gathered outside the school for a candlelight vigil, where people spoke about him and his fun-loving nature.

There has been little news about the investigation since then. Investigators tried to find any possible witnesses with a door-to-door canvas for several blocks around the murder scene, and a week after the murder at about the same hour, police were out on Market Street passing out flyers in a continued effort to find witnesses.

Meanwhile police had collected potential evidence which was sent to the State Police lab, but any results were not made public.

The case seemed to be stalled as family and friends called for justice. From Potsdam to Parishville and beyond, lawn signs began popping up with the boy’s picture and saying “Justice for Garrett.” A scholarship fund was set up in his name. Not long ago, his mother, Tandy, said she was “taking it day by day.”

Not long after the investigation began, Hillary was identified by some local media as one of several people who were questioned by investigators. That revelation to the press is the basis of a civil lawsuit being pursued by Hillary against the police and the village for defamation.

Asked what had changed recently in the investigation that led District Attorney Mary Rain to go to a grand jury for an indictment, Chief Bates said, “That would be a good question for the DA.” He did say there had been “more information related to the case.

“This has obviously been a difficult case for the department, the state police and the DA,” said Chief Bates, who became chief since the murder.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome of the grand jury and the indictment. There is more work to do to prepare for trial. We’re not done working,” he said.

Bates made special mention of Potsdam Police Lt. Mark Murray and New York State Police Major Crimes Inv. Ted Levison. “They and the rest of the department and state police have worked side by side since the beginning. Their hard work and determination brought the case to where it is now,” Bates said.

Lt. Murray, Potsdam’s lead investigator in the case, said he was “proud of my community for supporting the entire investigation. I look forward to closure for the family and the community, including the schools. We won’t stop working on this until we get a just outcome.”