On September 30th, 2004, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma were called to the apartment of an 18-year-old college student. Brittany Phillips had not been showing up for class, and her absence had become noted by both friends and family. Inside her apartment, police would discover what had happened to Brittany… but in more than a decade, have yet to figure out who was responsible…
In the summer of 2004, an 18-year-old moved back to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She had actually grown up in Tulsa and gone to high school there, but had moved away the year prior to attend college.
Having become homesick, the following Spring she made the decision to move back to Oklahoma and attend school there, in order to be closer to her friends and family. It was a decision that her friends and family welcomed at the time, as it meant that she would be a constant presence in their lives once again.
Unfortunately, it was this decision - to move back home - which put this young woman in the sights of a killer. Close to fifteen years after her violent death, her loved ones - primarily her mother - continue to fight for justice, as her killer has never been identified, and her case remains as unsolved today as it was back in the Fall of 2004.
Brittany Evonna Sara Phillips was born on October 4th, 1985, in St. Petersburg, Florida. As you'll soon hear, she was the second child of her mother - Dr. Maggie Zingman - following her brother, who was just one year older than her.
Brittany's father was not really an active presence in her life outside of her early childhood, which is when her parents divorced. Both Brittany and her brother, Josh, would be raised by their mother, Maggie, who first moved them from Florida to Kentucky for a very brief period of time. Then, in 1991, this small family moved out to Oklahoma - which would prove to be their permanent home.
Brittany and her brother, Josh, were close. Although, as Maggie would explain, the two had a contentious sibling rivalry; which, I guess, can be expected for any set of siblings so close in age. After all, he was only 15 months older than her, so the two were just a grade or so apart for the entirety of their childhoods.
In her childhood, Brittany began to express an interest in acting and modeling. Even though she was unnaturally short for her age - a defect she constantly blamed on her mother's genetics - she quickly became a natural when it came to posing for the camera.
Brittany's intelligence began to earn her accolades at school; especially as she progressed through Union High School (in Tulsa). It eventually earned her a full-ride scholarship to her mother's alma mater - Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Florida - but according to Maggie, Brittany never considered herself that bright. She always seemed to credit the grades on her good study habits, and instead tried to convince others that they were much smarter than she was.
Despite being incredibly smart, beautiful, and accomplished, Brittany wasn't one of the "cool kids" in high school. In fact, it seemed to many of her classmates that Brittany didn't really seem to have many close friends. Rather, she was just friendly to everyone.
A Reddit user named /u/Alliekat1282, who was a former-classmate of Brittany, wrote about her:
"While Brittany Phillips wasn't a close friend of mine, I did know her throughout high school, and she was a really nice girl. We all knew someone like her in high school, the type that you didn't know well, but who always knew who you were and would acknowledge you in the halls."
This reputation wasn't really known by Brittany's mom until years later, at which point, it was too late to ask Brittany about it.
Brittany graduated from Union High School in May of 2003, at the age of 17. She was younger than many of her peers, but already well on her way to figuring out what she wanted to do with her life. Following the death of a grandmother due to cancer, Brittany had decided to dedicate her life to chemistry; in particular, she wanted to study cancer, and - hopefully - help figure out a possible cure.
Later that summer - in August of 2003 - Brittany set off for St. Petersburg, Florida, to attend her mother's alma mater, Eckerd College. She had received a full-ride chemistry scholarship, but would only last a single year at the Florida-based institute. While away, she began to grow incredibly homesick, eventually decided to attend classes closer to home the following Spring.
In May of 2004 - approaching the end of her freshman year of college - Brittany decided to pack up her belongings and move back to Tulsa, Oklahoma. As you heard, her mother was living about an hour away - in Chandler, where she worked as a counselor for a female Correctional Facility - but Brittany still had several friends and family members in the Tulsa area, including her brother, Josh (with whom she would become incredibly close with over the next couple of months).
At the age of 18, Brittany Phillips already had one year of college under her belt.
Now, as the Summer of 2003 came to a close, she was living in a quiet apartment complex named Gleneagles Apartments (now known as Somerset Park at Union Apartments). This was a quiet area of town not known for any violent crime, which was quite literally just a stone's throw away from her high school, Union High. Here, she lived in a second story apartment all by herself, which was a big step for an 18-year-old.
Brittany began taking classes at Tulsa Community College, where she had several friends. She was still planning to enter the medical field and focus on cancer research, but had decided to earn her associates degree before making any more major life decisions.
That September, Brittany began settling into her routine of attending class; oftentimes driving with her friends to and from school. However, on Monday, September 27th, 2004, Brittany contacted her mom and told her that she was starting to suffer from seasonal allergies. She had tried scheduling a doctor's appointment, but had some issues doing so; so that evening - at around 9:00 PM - Brittany called her mom and asked for some help.
Over the phone, Maggie told her daughter that she would schedule her an appointment for that Friday, and would get everything figured out. Brittany said that she was getting ready to drop off a friend of her's - a classmate that lived about 2 miles away from her apartment, along E. 51st St. and S. Memorial Dr. - then head back home and go to bed. That night, the final words spoken by both mother and daughter were "I love you."
Over the next few days, Brittany Phillips was a no-show for any of her classes; an absence that was quickly noticed by her friends, who began to grow concerned.
During that same span of time, Maggie - Brittany's mother, who lived an hour away - was unable to get in-touch with her. She left numerous voicemails on Brittany's answering machine, but did not hear back.
In the early morning hours of Friday, October 1st, 2004, Dr. Maggie Zingman responded to a knock at her front door. As she recalls , it was almost like a scene out of a movie, with rain pouring outside of her house in Chandler, Oklahoma.
When she opened up the door, she saw a young sheriff's deputy standing there, who promptly asked her for her name; and then gave her the news that no parent should ever have to hear. According to Maggie, he told her:
"You need to call Tulsa (police). Your daughter's been murdered."
In those early morning hours, Dr. Maggie Zingman would learn that her daughter - 18-year-old Brittany Phillips - had been found in her apartment, having been raped and murdered. Her body had apparently been laying in her apartment for several days, having only been discovered after a wellness check was called in by some worried friends of Brittany's.
Maggie immediately set off for Brittany's apartment in Tulsa (which was about an hour away). By the time she got there, Brittany's body had already been taken away from the scene by the medical examiner - and she would, unfortunately, never get the chance to see her daughter again.
Brittany's funeral was held just a few days after the discovery of her body - on October 4th, 2004 - which, coincidentally, would have also been her 19th birthday.
A funeral procession would lead to the Rose Hill Memorial Park in Tulsa, where Brittany's body would be interred.
Through the entire proceeding, Brittany was remembered by her friends, family members, and other loved ones - who all recalled her as the smart, funny, beautiful, intelligent, and kind soul they had come to know. However, through the entire proceeding, all that Brittany's mother could think about was what her daughter's final moments had been like. Over the next several years, she would wrestle with the unsettling fact that her daughter had been killed just hours after she had last spoken to her.
The body of Brittany Phillips had been discovered just hours prior to her loved ones learning about her death, on the evening of Thursday, September 30th, 2004. A worried friend had tried to check in on Brittany earlier that evening, after not seeing her in class or hearing from her for several days. This friend had then called police, and asked them to perform a wellness check on her.
At around 9:00 PM that Thursday, police had entered Brittany's second-story apartment, along 65th Street. Inside of her apartment bedroom, police found her body lying on the floor next to her bed, in the opposite direction of how her pillows and blankets were aligned. There appeared to have been an altercation before her death, with her apartment appearing to have been ransacked (although there has been no information on what - if anything - had been stolen).
Investigators believe that Brittany had fought back against her attacker, due to details about her remains that have not been released to the public. However, in conversations with her mother, I learned that police found proof of Brittany having been pushed up against a wall across the room from where her body was eventually found - implying that a struggle had undoubtedly taken place.
It appeared that - prior to her death - Brittany had been raped. The cause-of-death was later determined to be strangulation, but it was unknown if her killer had used an object to do so; or if he had simply used his strength and body weight to strangle her.
Brittany's remains were identified by police at the crime scene, who compared her remains to pictures from a driver's license recovered at the scene. Within a few hours of the discovery, Brittany's remains had been sent off to the medical examiner for an autopsy, and that - in addition to the several days of decomposition - meant that Brittany's loved ones were never able to see her body (not even during the funeral or memorial service).
DNA was discovered at the crime scene, which is believed to be that of the culprit. This DNA was found in two separate samples, which came from the same individual - who did not appear to be anyone previously associated with Brittany. Due to technological limits at the time, there was only so much that police could do after submitting the DNA to local and national databases (where it ultimately failed to match up with any known records). Not much would be written about this DNA for the first decade or so of this case; but in recent years, that DNA sample has come up quite a bit, so I'll go into some more detail about that later in this episode.
Out of all of the details that investigators would grapple with in this case, the most perplexing one was how Brittany's killer had gotten into her apartment. After all, she did live on the second floor - meaning that the access points were rather limited - but as police learned more about the crime scene, they continued to create more questions for themselves.
The doors into Brittany's apartment showed no sign of forced entry: neither the front door, nor the back door, which led to a private second-story balcony. This implied that neither door had served as an entrance for the killer, but police did not rule them out. It was possible - however unlikely - that either door had been left unlocked, and the killer might have contorted or climbed onto the back porch.
Then, there were the windows to the apartment. Like the doors, there was no sign of forced entry: no clues that any of the windows had been forced open. However, investigators would discover that at least one window had had its screen removed, which provided investigators with a possible answer. Like the back porch, this would have been quite the physical feat, but wasn't impossible. However, police would later state that the removal of the window's screen might have been a tactic meant to "stage a crime scene," so it doesn't seem like a theory that they are comfortable with.
Perhaps the most realistic (and terrifying) option was the possibility that Brittany's killer had accessed her apartment through the attic, which she shared with seven other apartments. All eight apartments in her building shared an attic space, which had access points in each closet. Feasibly, this meant that anybody from these apartments had access to the neighboring units through this shared attic space.
It is not known if this is how the culprit had gained access to Brittany's apartment, but police believe there is a strong possibility that it was. A detective that stood six-foot-three-inches-tall was easily able to fit through the opening in Brittany's closet, meaning that a man of good stature would have been able to do so - for any of the apartments in Brittany's building. As someone who's lived in an apartment complex with a shared attic, I can't even imagine how terrifying that might be (and I encourage all of you that live in a similar unit to contact your landlords to get a lock, or simply do so yourself).
Over the years, police have speculated that Brittany Phillip's killer had gained entry to her apartment before she got home on the evening of Monday, September 27th, 2004. It's possible that - after speaking to her mother and then dropping off her friend - she returned to her apartment and was immediately attacked.
The exact time of the assault is unknown, with police later speculating that the attack happened some time between 9:00 PM that night and 8:00 AM the following morning (September 28th, 2004). Other than that, there is not much that is known about Brittany's death - at least, not until the discovery of her body roughly three days after she was killed.
Tulsa Police would later release a profile for this killer, which I have paraphrased into the following:
A.) He may be someone who is up and/or alone at night
B.) He may have sexual problems, which he struggles to deal with on a regular basis
C.) He may be into high risk behaviors that are dangerous to himself or others (or may cause pain, such as painful sex acts)
D.) He may be someone with anger issues, who constantly deals with issues of self-worth
E.) He may or may not have been previously arrest for rape; however, if he was, he was likely charged with crimes such as "Endangering" or "Public Indecency" (crimes that won't put him on investigators' radar and/or won't force him to register as a sex offender)
F.) He may live outside of the Tulsa area. He also may or may not have traveled in September or October of 2004, and upon his return, starting acting different (anxious, angry, depressed, engaging in heavy drug/alcohol abuse, etc.)
G.) He may have been outgoing, but possibly became more withdrawn following the murder
H.) He may have attempted to hurt or kill himself in the past (he may have succeeded in the years since)
I.) He may drive along I-35, I-44, or I-40 because of work (or traveled through the Tulsa region semi-regularly for other reasons)
J.) He may have had a public service job that gave him access to customer addresses (jobs such as utilities worker, cell phone provider, etc.)
This information gave police a foundation on which to base their search for the culprit, but it would prove unsuccessful in the weeks, months, and years after Brittany's murder.
In the aftermath of this tragic incident, Dr. Maggie Zingman - Brittany's mother - struggled with a direction in which to take her life. Following her daughter's death, Maggie was left adrift without any kind of resolution, and got tired of simply following an investigation that had quickly reached a dead end.
At this point, Maggie decided to cover her vehicle in photos of Brittany, as well as images and information pertinent to the crime (this would later take the form of a suspect sketch created by the DNA profile, as well as phone numbers for a tip-line and an associated website). Her car was painted bright purple and pink, giving it a design that has evolved over multiple incarnations. Maggie is now on her third such vehicle, having racked up hundreds of thousands of miles by traveling the nation and speaking to news agencies, journalists, organizations... basically, anyone that would listen.
Maggie admits that this venture of hers has been daunting and draining. Not only on the soul - as she has to recount her darkest days - but on the wallet, as she has really drained her savings in this endeavor. However, despite this, she hopes to keep at it; if not to help solve Brittany's case, then to keep her story alive for as long as possible.
In addition to spreading the word about Brittany's unsolved murder, Dr. Zingman has also been pushing for wholesale DNA reform; not only in Oklahoma, but throughout the nation. She has been encouraging lawmakers and police agencies to initiate DNA collection at the time of arrest, a law currently on the books in more than half of the nation - but not everywhere.
With her drive, Maggie was able to successfully help pass a law in Oklahoma in 2016, but the state has been dragging its heels on allocating any funding for DNA collection in the years since. That just means that Maggie is going to keep at it, preaching her daughter's story and the potentials of DNA collection.
In 2007 - after more than three years of inactivity in this case - police decided to release some information about the crime scene in the hopes of inspiring some new leads. They announced that a light purple pillowcase had been found at the crime scene, which did not match any of Brittany's linens. Investigators believed it had been left behind by the culprit, who had brought it to the scene for some unknown reason (perhaps, having brought it to abscond with some of Brittany's belongings but forgetting about it at the scene).
Detective Jeff Felton stated at the time:
"We believe that the perpetrator may have brought the pillowcase with him and left it behind."
Police had initially refrained from releasing this information, believing that it might encourage Brittany's killer to discard other similar linens. But now, roughly three years later, they no longer believed that this was a risk, and wanted to know if anyone knew of someone that had similar linens, but might have been missing a pillowcase or two.
Several years would continue to pass, and in 2013 - as the ten year mark of the crime quickly approached - police announced that they were continuing to investigate the case. Despite it being handled by the cold case unit, police were still continuing to receive tips from the public, and were actively investigating the case. By this point, Maggie had begun her "Caravan to Catch a Killer," and that had drawn some interest to the case from all across the country; attracting the attention of regional news stations.
The next year - 2014 - the ten year anniversary of Brittany's death officially came-and-went, and it was reported that police had begun to investigate a new person-of-interest, who they believe may have played some part in the crime. This POI fit the profile originally released by investigators, but had no known connection to Brittany (not through friends or family, class, etc.).
Police seemed pretty optimistic about this lead, and stated to be looking for this individual to collect a DNA sample. However, this lead seems to have led nowhere, as police have not spoken about this person-of-interest again in the years since.
It wasn't until just recently that the DNA recovered from the crime scene became relevant to the story once again. For years, police had been testing the DNA against local and national databases; running the sample against millions of names in CODIS - the Combined DNA Index System - as well as thousands of POI's from the region (all of whom had failed to come back with a positive hit).
Well, in 2018 it was announced that the DNA sample found at the crime scene had been submitted to Parabon NanoLabs, the DNA analysis service that has recently made international headlines for helping bring some cold cases to resolution. You may know this name from recently-solved cases such as the Bear Brook Murders, or from the Original Night Stalker (aka the East Area Rapist and Golden State Killer). Parabon is the lab that tested these decades-old samples, and helped lead investigators to answers.
While Parabon continues to test the samples - in the hopes of identifying the culprit in this decade-plus cold case - their services were able to create a "Snapshot." Using the DNA samples found at the crime scene, these analysts were able to create a likely portrait of the killer - which would use the DNA to figure out his heritage, his genetics, and even his likely physical appearance.
According to this Snapshot created by Parabon NanoLabs, the killer of Brittany Phillips is likely a white male of Northern European descent, with hair that is either dark blond or brown, and eyes that are either blue or green. The age of this killer is still unknown, but the Snapshot created a realistic-looking sketch of what the killer would have looked like at the age of 25 (which is typical for such composites).
This individual did not appear to be anyone that Brittany's loved ones knew - not really looking like any of her friends or classmates - but according to Brittany's mother, Maggie, this was the kind of young man that Brittany would have found attractive. Her "type," if you will. This has led to some in the year or so since the release of this "Snapshot" to speculate that this young man might have been someone known by Brittany, whom she had not told anyone about; a secret boyfriend or something like that.
However, police insist that virtually every young man tentatively connected to Brittany has submitted a DNA sample, and has had said sample compared against the suspect's DNA profile. This includes all of Brittany's ex-boyfriends, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, classmates, etc. Investigators ran more than 3,000 individual tests, and none came back as a match; implying that this individual, whoever he was, was someone that Brittany either did not know, or did not tell anyone about.
Despite the lack of any definitive answers, this Snapshot allowed investigators much more wiggle-room to conduct their investigation. It gave them a solid profile of a killer to pursue, and allowed Brittany's case to gain media coverage once again. It also provided Brittany's mother, Maggie, with a new set of allies to assist in her quest for justice.
Before I begin to wrap up this episode, there is one major sticking point that I would like to address.
For more than a decade now, Dr. Maggie Zingman has traveled around the nation, speaking to numerous reporters, organizations, lawmakers, and police agencies about the importance of DNA collection. Most of the time, she has been addressing regional laws regarding DNA acquisition at the time of arrest, but has always given her opinion on:
A.) how this should be implemented by Oklahoma state, and
B.) how this might help catch her daughter's killer
Well, unfortunately, Oklahoma has been reticent to accept Dr. Zingman's demands. Despite passing a law requiring DNA be taken at the point of arrest, the state has not really allocated any funding for these programs; meaning that many of the changes proposed by Maggie have not even been partially implemented, let alone fully adopted by police agencies.
In addition, a more serious issue facing Oklahomans has presented itself over the past couple of years, and that is the prevailing issue that is Oklahoma's failure to test rape kits.
Throughout Oklahoma, literally thousands of rape kits have gone untested for decades. These were kits taken from sexual assault survivors and victims - following harrowing ordeals that no human should ever have to go through - where DNA was collected, but ultimately never tested. These rape kits sat around for years - decades, even - and had been doing nothing but collecting dust. That is, of course, if they were even kept; because, as it turns out, Oklahoma has no law requiring law enforcement agencies test or even keep these rape kits for posterity's sake, and an untold number of these kits had been discarded or destroyed in the years since.
The Tulsa Police Department - the same agency handling the unsolved murder of Brittany Phillips - had around 3,000 of these untested rape kits dating back to the early 1990's. These kits were only discovered in 2017, following an extensive state audit, which was aimed at trying to figure out how deep-seeded this issue was. Turns out, the answer was "very," as this was just one police agency out of hundreds.
A $1.5 million federal grant allocated funding to test these kits the following year - in 2018 - but due to Oklahoma's statute of limitations on rape and forced sodomy (which only lasts 12 years, believe it or not), these rape kits are being prioritized based on age and the likelihood of prosecution. Meaning, of course, that many cases older than 12 years at the point of testing - a.k.a. sexual assault cases close in time and proximity to Brittany Phillips' rape and murder - were not high in terms of priority.
And for the record, this is not an issue that is isolated to Oklahoma. Many states struggle with funding forensic testing labs, and tend to have trouble when it comes to investigating sexual crimes. Oklahoma is just one state of several in which this killer and rapist might have been active in, but has been allowed to slip under the radar in the years since.
It is possible, if not likely, that the person who attacked Brittany Phillips in September of 2004 has been involved in other similar incidents; either before or after, and possibly even nearby the crime scene. But due to apathy and/or simple lack of funding, this culprit have been allowed to live out their life unabated in the years since.
For all we know, Brittany's murder was just an escalation in terms of violence. Based on the severity of the crime, it is possible that her killer had hurt women before, and might have moved onto other victims in the years since.
More than a year after Parabon NanoLabs created the Snapshot of Brittany Phillip's killer, police remain hopeful that they'll be able to find this culprit in the same way that other killers have been identified: through DNA testing sites, such as GEDmatch, FamilyTreeDNA, and a handful of others that have proven invaluable to law enforcement. These services have helped identify criminals such as the Golden State Killer, the Bear Brook Killer (and his victims), the killer of April Tinsley, and literally dozens of others over the past year or so.
Due to the massive influx of law enforcement agencies hoping to use these services to close case files - as well as the natural limitations of this technology - answers in Brittany's case have not become evident... yet. But investigators and loved ones remain hopeful that the identity of Brittany's killer is close at-hand.
The murder is still being investigated by Tulsa Police; primarily, by Homicide Detective Eddie Majors, who works on Cold Cases for the department. He is the second detective to oversee the investigation, following the retirement of his predecessor a few years back (Detective Jeff Felton). Detective Majors has been handling the case for about five years now, and is trusted by Brittany's mother - Dr. Maggie Zingman - who continues to be the main driving force being the story.
In addition to her continuous tours with the "Caravan to Catch a Killer," Dr. Zingman runs a website dedicated to Brittany's still-unsolved murder: www.brittanyphillipsmurder.net. She continues to do whatever she can to bring attention to the case, traveling across the nation in her bright purple-and-pink SUV and speaking to regional reporters. She has traveled to 48 states so far (all but Alaska and Hawaii), and admits that - while the Caravan is a daunting project - it's a necessary one for her.
Maggie struggles to balance her own life with this unending passion project, as she continues to work as a psychologist with an emphasis on trauma and grief therapy (fields she has, tragically, become all-too-familiar with over her life). She has dedicated her life to helping others move past their own issues, including combat veterans; and while speaking to a Tulsa-area class earlier this year, she told them her trick for dealing with her daughter's loss:
"Walking through it instead of away from it is how you heal. Trying not to feel is what can kill you."
Brittany's older brother, Josh, struggled heavily for the first few years after Brittany's death. His sister and he had grown close during her final months in Tulsa, and he was the first person notified by police that fateful evening. Thankfully, according to Maggie, he is now doing well and has a family of his own.
Maggie, meanwhile, continues to speak out about Brittany every chance she gets. In fact, when I spoke to her earlier this week, she told me that she was preparing another round of press conferences and public events as we spoke. She has become a bit of a hero of mine, for her perseverance in the face of such adversity; but she refuses to accept any of these labels, saying that she is simply a mother doing what any parent would.
Brittany Phillips is remembered by those that knew and loved her; including her mother, brother, father, friends, and other surviving loved ones. She was an incredibly beautiful, kind, compassionate, intelligent, and wise 18-year-old at the time of her death, and that is how everyone remembers her today.
Today, she is featured in the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation unsolved murder playing cards, which are distributed to inmates all over the state. The DNA sample retrieved at the crime scene may hold the key to finding her killer - and Brittany's family believe that time is drawing close - but police want to keep public attention on the case. They believe that it only takes one person to see her photo - or the Snapshot image or her supposed killer - to start talking. If you know anything, you are encouraged to make contact with the Tulsa Police Department, who continue to oversee her case.
They - like all of us - hope that Brittany's case will be solved in the near-future. But until then, her story - as well as the stories of her loved ones - remain unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Producers: Maggyjames, Ben Krokum, Roberta Janson, Quil Carter, Peggy Belarde, Matthew Brock, Laura Hannan, Astrid Kneier, Evan White, Katherine Vatalaro, Damion Moore, Amy Hampton Miller, Timothy Stratton, Scott Meesey, Steven Wilson, Sara Willemsen, Scott Patzold, Kathy Marie, and Marie Vanglund
Published on June 16th, 2019
Noisyfilter - "Repose"
Helicalin - "630"
Jasnazima - "Exodus Glacier"
This Cold Normandy - "Fur Eve"
Ilya Martin - "Oblivion"
Murkok - "Sacred Significance"
Moscillate - "Sens"
Tanya - "Voyager"
Max Sergeev - "Before the Battle"
Winter Foe - "Escape the World"
Other music created and composed by Ailsa Traves