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One year after murder, boy’s mother waits for answers

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POTSDAM — One year after a 12-year-old boy was strangled by an unknown assailant in his village apartment, a killer has not been found, a community demands justice, and a mother waits for answers.

Garrett J. Phillips lies buried in Chapel Hill Road Cemetery, where his mother, Tandy L. Cyrus, said she visits him nearly every day. He would have turned 13 on Aug. 13.

“I think about him every minute that I’m awake,” Ms. Cyrus said, holding back tears while sitting behind her desk at Seacomm Federal Credit Union in Canton.

Garrett’s mother has not spoken publicly since his death on Oct. 24, 2011, but now that a year has passed, she said, she feels it is time her voice is heard. But the task isn’t one that comes easily.

She started to cry while trying to form the words to describe her son.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she said.

She dried her eyes, and after a long pause, continued.

“Garrett was always happy. He loved everyone,” she said, calling him a popular, energetic boy who pursued anything fun or fast-paced.

Ms. Cyrus has moved from the apartment at 100 Market St., where her son was killed. She is living with her parents in Parishville. In August, she bought a house nearby and plans to move in soon.

She does her best to live a normal life amid constant reminders of tragedy. Garrett’s old clothes and schoolwork hold memories both powerful and painful, and her son’s face smiles out at her from the thousands of “Justice for Garrett” signs displayed on lawns throughout St. Lawrence County.

She runs, goes to work, spends time with friends and family, and raises her 8-year-old son, Aaron Collins.

“I’m trying to continue as normal as possible, because I do have another son,” she said.

Aaron lives with his mother and grandparents. He and Garrett used to play together often, and Ms. Cyrus said she has noticed Aaron taking on some of Garrett’s mannerisms and telling some of the same jokes his brother used to tell.

“It makes me smile,” she said. “I think it’s his way of staying connected.”

Ms. Cyrus won’t talk about the killing or the police investigation that has yielded little since the crime. Like other family members, she is wary that talking about it might hamper the investigation that appears stalled a year later. Police are remaining tight-lipped about the status of the murder investigation.

“I have no comment, other than to say it continues to be a multiagency investigation that is still ongoing,” Potsdam Police Chief Kevin A. Bates said.

Police have interviewed several people in their search for a killer since Garrett’s death. They’ve talked with people in the neighborhood at the building where Garrett was strangled, a couple who heard shouts coming from the apartment, and passersby who might have seen something unusual while walking by in the early evening of that sunny autumn day.

When police arrived at the apartment at 5:45 p.m. they found the door locked and Garrett unconscious. Police suspect the killer jumped from the apartment’s second-story window to avoid detection. Garrett died at Canton-Potsdam Hospital at 7:15 p.m.

Investigators interviewed several of Ms. Cyrus’s ex-boyfriends — one of whom, Clarkson University men’s soccer coach Oral “Nick” Hillary, has since sued the police and village for what his attorney said was defamation by naming him as someone who was questioned and making him a “de facto suspect.”

A lot of evidence was sent to the state police crime labs in Albany with the hope of finding DNA or other evidence that would lead to the killer. But no suspect has ever been named.

Ms. Cyrus said she still meets with police regularly, although as time passes, these meetings become less frequent.

“Mostly it’s just waiting,” she said.

The pain of losing Garrett has shaken both the family and the community.

“It isn’t getting any better. It’s like it happened yesterday,” said Robert Phillips, Garrett’s paternal grandfather. “He hunted with me. I went to every one of his soccer games and his lacrosse games.”

Without a suspect or an arrest, the community began to champion Garrett’s cause. Garret’s uncle Brian A. Phillips has spearheaded the Justice for Garrett campaign, which has raised about $40,000 for a reward fund since May. The money will be awarded to anyone with information that can lead to the arrest and conviction of Garrett’s killer.

The words “Justice for Garrett” have become both a mantra and a rallying cry in the north country. More than 2,100 signs bearing the phrase have been sold, with proceeds bolstering the reward fund.

“Someone’s still walking free who’s done this, and he can wake up every morning and live with what he’s done,” Brian Phillips said.

Despite his frustration that no arrests have been made, Mr. Phillips said he thinks the police are doing their job. He worries that a premature arrest could cause the case to fall to pieces.

“A year for us seems like forever, but in a murder investigation, a year is still the early stages,” he said.

Mr. Phillips is the brother of Robert J. Phillips, Garret’s late father, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2002.

Brian Phillips has spent the last year keeping Garrett in the public eye wherever and however possible. Soon, he said, billboards bearing the “Justice for Garrett” message will appear on St. Lawrence County roads, including Route 11 in Potsdam.

Ms. Cyrus rarely speaks to Mr. Phillips, and she is not actively involved in the Justice for Garrett campaign. The investigation has caused tension between the paternal and maternal sides of Garrett’s family, although neither group will comment on its nature.

Ms. Cyrus said she prefers to shy away from the limelight.

“I’m a very private person,” she said. “I have a close-knit group of friends, and that’s where I stay.”

Despite her aversion to the public eye, she did help organize a kickball tournament with Potsdam Central School to establish the Garrett Phillips Memorial Fund, which will be used to build a small memorial park on school grounds. In the future, the fund will be used to help students in need.

“The community has done more than anyone could imagine or think possible,” Ms. Cyrus said.

Even those who didn’t know Garrett are working to support the cause of finding his killer.

“This is one big family here, and it really sounds like they’re behind us,” said Joseph Paul, Garrett’s maternal grandfather.

Troy M. O’Brien, a senior at Potsdam High School — one who didn’t know Garrett but was touched by his death — organized a memorial concert to remember Garrett and raise donations for the Garrett Phillips Memorial Fund. The free concert, which will feature student performers, will be at 6:30 p.m. today at the Potsdam High School auditorium.

“It hits home, and you want to do something,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I wanted to put on a one-year anniversary memorial to celebrate his life. Not his death, his life.”

A candlelight vigil will be held after the concert.

School officials are also commemorating the anniversary, remembering Garrett during the school’s Make a Difference Day events during the day.

“We recognize this will be a very difficult time for Garrett’s family, as well as the students, staff and faculty,” Potsdam Central Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said. “Our message that day will be one of hope and helping those around us.”

Efforts to remember and celebrate Garrett’s life remain dampened by the knowledge that his killer still walks free.

“It’s rough every day. It doesn’t get any better,” Brian Phillips said, adding that no one will be able to fully heal until justice is served. “Until we get that, there’s no closure.”

Ms. Cyrus also wants her son’s killer found and punished, but she said no level of retribution will atone for the loss of her son.

“There’s not really any type of punishment that seems good enough,” she said.

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