Special to the AmNews
In Potsdam, N.Y., a small town approximately 350 miles from Manhattan, a Black man has been accused of killing a 12-year-old white boy. It has all the drama and intrigue of a “CSI” episode, but it’s all too real for Oral “Nick” Hillary, a former soccer star and coach, who faces second-degree murder charges in the death of Garrett Phillips, the son of Hillary’s ex-girlfriend Tandy Cyrus.
“It has been like a nightmare,” Hillary said in a recent interview. “I am innocent of the charges, and I feel like I’m being railroaded.”
Hillary’s nightmare began Oct. 24, 2011, when Phillips was discovered near death in his home. A neighbor claims to have heard screams from the apartment and called the police.
When an officer and the building maintenance manager entered the apartment, they found the boy unconscious and attempted to revive him before rushing him to a nearby hospital. He later died.
Mani Tafari, Hillary’s civil lawyer and former teammate, provided a summary of the situation: “What is happening to Mr. Hillary is a textbook frame-up job. He is being legally lynched by the St. Lawrence County court system. When a man has been exonerated by DNA evidence and has two alibi witnesses who will not bend despite threats from the police, he should not be charged with murder in the United States. According to ESPN Grantland, the young boy was found unconscious, at approximately 5:30 p.m., taken to the hospital and died at 7:18 p.m. At approximately 8:30, the police showed up at Hillary’s house and informed him of the boy’s death.”
A day later, on Oct. 25, the police recorded a video of a soccer game in which Hillary coached the Clarkson University team. The police used that videotape of the game to show that Hillary had a “significant limp.” Viewing the video, which was posted online on truthfornickhillary.com, Hillary has no visible limp, thereby eliminating the possibility of an injury incurred in a leap from the second-story window of the apartment where Phillips lived.
Oct. 26, Hillary was summoned by the police. At the station he was read his Miranda rights then strip searched and booked. “I was completely naked,” Hillary stated. “It was the most embarrassing moment of my life.” There were also photos taken showing Hillary’s genitals fully exposed, no doubt to the voyeuristic pleasure of the officers. Meanwhile, the victim’s family was in another room signing affidavits about the incident with the videotape of the game attached to them. With this done, the police then searched his house without a warrant. Many of Hillary’s personal items were also confiscated without a warrant, including his wallet and the keys to his house and his car, according to ESPN.
When Hillary, 41, was finally released from custody, he left the station wearing a hazmat suit with no underwear. During the search of his home, the police took many of Hillary’s personal belongings to see if they could find DNA evidence. The DNA evidence they had from the victim’s collar and fingernails was tested against Hillary’s DNA “and there was no match,” Hillary’s criminal attorney Ed Narrow said during an interview with NPR.
His unlawful detainment and procedures prompted Hillary to file a lawsuit against the city and the police, charging that his civil rights had been violated. As part of the depositions taken in the lawsuit, lead investigator Lt. Mark Murray and former police chief Edward Tischler both admitted under oath that there was no eye witness or physical evidence connecting Hillary to the crime scene.
In the weeks and months that went by without any arrests or any indictment from then-District Attorney Nicole Duve, Hillary had time to mull over the circumstances that had led him to the nightmare. It was an uncommon situation for the Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-raised Army veteran. Back in 1999, when he was a student at St. Lawrence University, he was a big man on campus, having captained his soccer team to an undefeated season and a Division III national championship. It was in the fall of 2010 that Hillary, then the soccer coach at Clarkson, began seeing Cyrus, mainly spending long hours with her at the bar where she worked part-time.
Cyrus had recently ended a relationship with John Jones, a county deputy sheriff. A graduate of the police academy, she decided not to pursue a career in law enforcement but took a job at a local credit union. Her relationship with Hillary evolved and they began living together. She had two children and Hillary had three then.
One day in September 2010, Jones happened to see Hillary and Cyrus drive by in a car. After Hillary dropped Cyrus off at her home, Jones followed Hillary to his house and confronted him. He asked Hillary if he was having an affair with Cyrus. Words were exchanged and Hillary filed a formal complaint against Jones with the St. Lawrence County attorney’s office.
Later, Cyrus also wrote a letter to the attorney’s office complaining about Jones’ belligerence. She wrote she feared “for the safety of myself and my sons.” But Jones continued to badger them and even pushed Cyrus on one occasion.
Because of his affiliation with law enforcement, Jones was not viewed as a suspect, though he was questioned about where he was when Phillips was killed. He said he had arrived home at that time, walked his dog and worked on his taxes.
Hillary’s whereabouts have been substantiated by two alibi witnesses, who said Hillary was with them when Phillips was attacked. “I absolutely stand by what I have said,” Ian Fairlie said in a telephone interview Tuesday regarding being with Hillary at the time of the crime.
Two years after Phillips’ death, the case became pivotal in the political race for district attorney between incumbent Duve and Republican rival Mary Rain. Rain’s bid for office was aided by the appearance of Cyrus by her side during the campaign. It was reported that Rain had promised to bring charges against Hillary if Cyrus supported her.
With her victory, as promised, Rain brought Hillary’s case before a grand jury.
When he was indicted May 15, 2014, Hillary again declared his innocence. “This was a very challenging situation for me and my family,” he said. He was able to raise the money for the excessive bail, but he was fired from his job at Clarkson. His bail was set at $75,000 cash over $150,000, which his lawyers disputed. The bail bondsman from Empire Bail Bonds was called in for questioning, even though the court had used the company in St. Lawrence County Judge Jerome Richards’ court many times.
The chief assistant for the district attorney claimed that Hillary was a “significant flight risk” and might flee to Jamaica. He recommended that his passport be confiscated.
There was some relief in October when St. Lawrence County Judge Jerome Richards dismissed the case. He concluded that the case was overburdened with “circumstantial evidence.” Moreover, the video presented by district attorney lacked “adequate foundation.” He also accused Rain of bullying Hillary’s daughter, Shanna-Kay, who said her father was with her at the time of Phillips’ death. The judge chastised Rain for badgering ShannaKay during her interrogation about the alibi she provided for her father.
Still, despite the dismissal, Rain was not through.
Her next move was to bring the case before another grand jury rather than seeking an appeal. That trial is set for Nov. 30. Rain has stated there is no new evidence provided in this second round. “It’s the same evidence as before,” said Rain. That is, the same evidence that Richards cited in his previous dismissal. Because of a gag order from the judge, attorneys involved in the criminal case cannot discuss the criminal elements of the case. The district attorney must also abide by the order, though there are indications that her office is violating it.
Rain returned a call Wednesday and confirmed the gag order, referring any questions about the case to WV documents.
“It’s only by the grace of God that I’m holding up,” Hillary said when asked about the impact the nightmare is having on his wellbeing. “All of this is affecting my children, but they are very strong and resilient.
“No, I have no employment at the moment,” he said, “but I have many friends and relatives who have come to my aid, so I’m able to get by without too much difficulty. My hope is that this will soon be over and I can get back to my normal life.” Even so, Hillary’s nightmare continues, and there’s no guarantee it will be over in November.