The investigation into the murder of Garrett Phillips, the 12-year-old boy found dead in 2011 in Potsdam, is a story the north country has followed for years.
Now a new HBO documentary, titled simply “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?,” will share events of the investigation with the rest of the country.
Filmmaker Liz Garbus, an Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner, said she heard about the story for the first time when she read about it in the New York Times in 2016 and was drawn to the “sheer mystery of it.”
“I was interested in mysteries, I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Then-St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain charged Garrett’s mother’s ex-boyfriend, Oral “Nick” Hillary, a soccer coach at Clarkson University, with the crime. Mr. Hillary was found not guilty at trial, but Ms. Rain insisted on Mr. Hillary’s guilt.
The documentary follows the investigation through late 2018, and explores the intertwined criminal investigation and legal drama, and the broader implications of prosecuting Mr. Hillary, who is black, as the sole suspect in a predominantly white community.
“We talked to almost all the key players, and they talked to us pretty extensively,” Ms. Garbus said.
The documentary was finished before the election of current St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua, who said this spring that some new leads had come to light in the case. Even for north country residents who followed the case from the beginning, though, Ms. Garbus thinks people will enjoy seeing the whole story laid out. She also said the documentary challenges some of the incorrect rumors that become accepted as fact in the community.
“I think there’s certain things that have become gospel,” Ms. Garbus said. “We really looked at everything.”
Among the interview subjects is William T. Eckert, the St. Lawrence County court reporter for Northern New York Newspapers who reported the case closely.
“He was someone who was really helpful,” Ms. Garbus said. “He was terrific.”
Mr. Eckert started reporting on the case in 2013, but his coverage really kicked off when Ms. Rain ran for office.
“She kind of brought this back into the public sphere,” he said. “Suddenly you get a new DA and an indictment, the question is what new evidence do you have here?”
Mr. Eckert most recently reported on the case when Mr. Hillary’s defense attorney said new evidence was being investigated in March of this year.
“I don’t think I’ve reported on anything as thoroughly and frequently as this case,” Mr. Eckert said. “This is still probably the most important thing I’ve reported on in my career.”
He said that he hopes the documentary will get information about the case out, and maybe elicit more information from people who could shed light on it.
“That family’s suffered, and while it’s become somewhat of a spectacle ... there’s a family that has no closure,” Mr. Eckert said. The documentary will “hopefully get some truth out there.”
The documentary will be part two of a three-part HBO series of true-crime documentaries — a mark of the interest the genre has drawn recently. Ms. Garbus, however, has been making documentaries about crime and justice for decades.
“I’ve been making films in the criminal justice system for over 20 years,” she said.
She has no plans of stopping. Her next project — a film about a string of murders in Long Island — is already underway. As for “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?,” she is looking forward to the reaction from people not only in Northern New York, but across the county — many of whom will have never heard of the case before.
“I’m really excited to share it with the world,” Ms. Garbus said. “I think it’ll be really interesting to see if it starts a new dialogue.”
Part One of “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” will air at 8 p.m. July 23 and Part Two will air at 8 p.m. July 24 exclusively on HBO.