Potsdam trustees say lead investigator on Garrett Phillips murder was ‘first choice’ for chief of police
By ANDY GARDNER
and CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM -- The Village Board of Trustees quietly appointed Mark Murray as Potsdam’s permanent police chief last January, but criticisms over his part in the Garrett Phillips murder case were not a part of the considerations in their final discussion the night the appointment was made.
Murray was seriously criticized by Oral “Nick” Hillary’s defense team and the prosecution during his trial for the murder of Garrett Phillips last September.He was Potsdam police’s lead investigator into the murder, and Hillary’s lawyers alleged police held him illegally and conducted an inappropriate strip search, allowed another possible suspect to sit in on interviews, and made other errors during their investigation.
Lawmakers’ First Choice
“As far as we were concerned, we didn’t take that into account at all,” said Mayor Ron Tischler last week, referring to the executive session held by him and trustees Jan. 23 before they came back into regular session to officially make the appointment.
“Mark was our first choice,” Mayor Tischler said. “We had a second choice.”
Minutes of the Jan. 23 village board meeting indicate that after the routine business of the regular session was concluded, the mayor and trustees Steve Warr, Eleanor Hopke and Nick Sheehan went into executive session, closed to the public, at 7:45 p.m. “for the discussion of the employment history of particular persons.”
Generally when an executive session is called toward the end of a meeting, members of the public attending the meeting will leave, not knowing how long the private session will last.
The board resumed the open session at 8:38 p.m. after they finished the personnel discussion, and then voted 4-0 on Jan. 23 to name Murray, of Hannawa Falls, to the post as permanent chief.
Murray is being paid an annual salary of $84,500, not to increase until June 2019.
The board also appointed Michael Ames as police lieutenant, Clinton Perrigo as police sergeant, and Mark Maroney as police dispatcher.
The vote is recorded in the minutes as 4-0 for each appointment.
There was no indication in the agenda issued prior to the meeting that the police chief appointment was to be made that night and no announcement of the appointments was made after the fact.
In August 2016, after the resignation of Chief Kevin Bates, Murray was appointed as interim chief.
“We thought we would try him as interim chief. If it didn’t work, we could appoint another interim chief,” Tischler said. “But he worked out.”
Trustee Warr said that there was a wide-ranging discussion during an hour-long interview with Murray, Ames and Perrigo. That was probably in October, he said, as the interim appointments of Murray as chief, Ames as lieutenant and Perrigo as sergeant were being considered.
“We discussed the whole gamut at great length in a long interview, over an hour,” Warr said. “All sorts of things were discussed, concerning their positives and their weaknesses.”
Murray ‘Earned the Right’
And there was another consideration in the appointment of Murray, Warr said.
When Chief Edward Tischler retired in 2012, Murray, then the department’s lieutenant, was passed over for promotion to chief because of a lack of experience, Warr said. Kevin Bates, with 17 years on the job and the department’s sergeant, was appointed to the position.
But this time, Warr said, “we felt it was his turn, that he had earned the right.”
He said there would be 60-day and 90-day assessments of the interim appointments.
“We figured we would know in 90 days if this was a match made in heaven,” he said.
When January came around, “we felt it had worked” so there was no reason to delay the appointments. And “we were thinking about the budget” and there was a desire to get pay and benefits set before the final budget work was to be done.
“So the mayor and Greg (Village Administrator Thompson) put it on the agenda,” with one final discussion in executive session before they approved the appointments to conclude the Jan. 23 meeting.
“We were comfortable with the hierarchy of Murray, Ames and Perrigo and decided to go ahead,” Warr said. “They were doing the job without complaint.”
Trustee Eleanor Hopke said that this was a personnel issue, and particularly in light of the ongoing litigation, “I’m inclined not to say anything for fear of jeopardizing the issue.” However, she agreed there was little discussion of the criticisms raised during the trial when trustees appointed Murray in January.
Murray Responds to Criticisms
Shortly before the January appointment, the village was notified that Hillary would sue the municipality, the police department, Murray as lead investigator, and two former chiefs.
Hillary, who was cleared of second-degree murder in September, is alleging “false arrest, investigation, malicious prosecution, fabrication of evidence, falsification of evidence, concealment of exculpatory evidence,” according to court documents. He was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in 2014, accused of the Oct. 24, 2011 killing of 12-year-old Phillips, but was acquitted after a bench trial.
The new chief is also a subject in a lawsuit filed before the trial where Hillary claims his constitutional rights were violated during the investigation. He alleges he was unfairly singled out as a suspect and denied basic rights of the accused during questioning.
The defense said Hillary was questioned in the days after the murder and was illegally detained without an attorney and strip-searched. Hillary’s attorneys, Norman Siegel and Earl Ward, on two different occasions during press conferences, said Potsdam police treated Hillary “like an animal” and likened what they saw on security videos to “the slave trade.”
“He was strip-searched and treated like an animal … paraded in front of five cops,” Ward said following court on Sept. 21.
The prosecution was also critical of the Hillary investigation, saying the police work may have been shoddy.
However, Murray says that Hillary did have an attorney present when he was questioned on Oct. 26, 2011.
“I can say Mr. Hillary was provided an attorney at his request. He contacted his family court attorney Jane Garland, who was at the station at that time,” Murray said during a May 12 interview.
“I look forward to this being part of discovery on the federal level,” he said, referring to the lawsuit Hillary filed before the trial began.
Murray said Garland was in the room while Hillary was strip-searched on Oct. 26, 2011, which was done under a search warrant issued by a judge.
“It is standard police procedure, when executing a lawful search warrant issued by a judge to photograph and look for specific injuries of a person, to do so,” Murray said, adding that police were “looking for any injuries indicative of a struggle, a jump from a height, or from having been in an altercation or struggle.” It came out in testimony during trial that investigators believed the person who killed Phillips jumped from a second story window, onto a shed and onto the ground.
“Mr. Hillary’s attorney was provided a copy of the search warrant prior to its execution and was present throughout,” Murray said during the interview.
Police did document an injury to Hillary’s ankle, which was shown at trial.
In addition to the strip search, Hillary’s lawsuit claims he was maliciously singled out as a suspect. Murray counters that police were able to quickly eliminate other potential suspects, and Hillary was the only one whose story didn’t add up.
“Vetted All Suspects”
“We vetted all suspects and all possibilities. Many were quickly eliminated via having an alibi. The only person we were not able to eliminate was Mr. Hillary. All we gained by talking to him or investigating was more questions for him,” Murray said during the interview. “Many persons were eliminated via video surveillance, multiple alibis and other means.”
He said they looked at Phillips’s mother, Tandy Collins, and other people “directly connected to the case,” including her other son’s father, Casey Collins, and St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s deputy John Jones, who prosecutors said was exonerated by video evidence that shows him walking his dog at the time of the killing.
“I went in thinking ‘who would hurt a kid number one, and why would it be this guy? (Hillary),’” Murray said.
He said Hillary began to emerge as a suspect as a result of “his unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation and his lies.”
During the murder trial, the prosecution showed a previously videotaped deposition from the pre-acquittal lawsuit they believed was proof of Hillary’s guilt. During one portion, Hillary doubles back on an earlier claim about the ankle injury, saying he hurt it just before Phillips’s death and not while moving furniture weeks before, as he testified earlier.
Murray also allowed Jones to sit in during questioning of Tandy Collins after her son’s death. Collins and Jones are former lovers. Jones testified at trial that they had participated in social activities with Murray in the past. Collins had also been involved in a romantic relationship with Hillary after breaking up with Jones, which ended prior to her son’s death.
Murray, a lieutenant at the time, said during a May 12 interview with North Country This Week that the decision to allow Jones to sit in was not his, but he declined to say who made the call, citing the pending lawsuit.
“The decision was made … it was arranged for Tandy to come to our station,” Murray said, adding at this point they did not have a coroner’s report citing homicide as the manner of death. “With the pending litigation, I defer comment on who made the decision.
“Given the totality of the situation and the lack of information, and the fact that our victim’s mother was highly distraught, that was the decision that was made in order to talk to her and gather more information.”
He said at that point Jones had voluntarily submitted DNA samples and fingerprints, and allowed investigators to photograph his bare extremities.
The prosecution at trial was also critical of the Hillary investigation, saying the police work may have been shoddy.
Prosecutors said they believe Potsdam police did not properly handle the investigation prior to state police stepping in.
Special prosecutor William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, said errors were made almost as soon as Phillips was found lying on the floor of 100 Market St. Apt. 4, near death.
“The bad news is that errors are made at that point. Despite obvious indications this is a homicide, police don’t treat it as such,” Fitzpatrick said, pointing to marks on the boy’s face and body, the “condition of apartment” and rug burn on Phillips’s legs.
However, Murray said he feels they acted appropriately, based on the evidence they had at the time.
“Hindsight being what it is, there are some things we would have changed, but looking at how the case unfolded, we had an unknown injury to a child. He was declared dead at the hospital subsequent to his transport. At that time, the scene had already been secured. I believe we were allowed every opportunity to process that scene in a secure manner,” Murray said. “We didn’t have a preliminary autopsy report for a day and a half. We had suspicious injuries that were documented that night and the next morning, and an unknown cause of injury and/or death.”
At the end of the day, Murray said the part that bothers him the most is someone got away with killing a child, and that his family and friends still grieve today.
“Keep in mind the people who suffered the most are the family of Garrett Phillips, who lost their son, nephew, grandson, he would have been a senior this year. He would have been about to become a man, with an endless future in front of him,” Murray said May 12.