The question of who raped and strangled a college student inside her Tulsa apartment has haunted investigators and her loved ones since the brutal slaying in 2004. DNA tests proved fruitless. Tips from the public yielded nothing.
Inspired by the unorthodox approach to capture a notorious serial killer in California, a Tulsa cold case detective hopes a genealogy website will help solve the killing of 18-year-old Brittany Phillips.
The largest hurdle Eddie Majors has faced since taking on the case about four years ago is the lack of people willing to give information that he’s convinced exists.
“That is the biggest thing I have a hard time with,” said Majors, who investigates cold cases for the Tulsa Police Department’s homicide unit. “Like, you know someone committed an evil act against another person. They killed somebody, and you say nothing.
“But if it was your loved one, you’d demand people talk.”
Majors formed a close relationship with Phillips’ mother, who took an active role in trying to get the killer locked up. Maggie Zingman’s relentless pursuit of justice included renting billboards in Tulsa, creating a website and driving across the country in an SUV outfitted with pictures and details of her daughter’s murder.
Zingman logged hundreds of thousands of miles during 15 trips that spanned across 48 states. A trauma psychologist who works with combat veterans in Lawton, Zingman is now on her third vehicle for what she calls the Caravan to Catch a Killer tours.
The tours sparked nationwide interest in the Phillips case and produced numerous tips. None were found to be credible.
Seeing Zingman’s passion year after year has become emotionally challenging for the detectives who have been unable to solve the case.
“It really bothers me to the core that this woman is trying to find something, and we are not able to give her the information that she needs, like who did it,” Majors said. “To see what she’s going through, to see how her life has changed forever. She will not be able to see her daughter. She will not be able to see grandkids. You just take that away from her, and people think it’s OK.”
How it works
The biggest development in the investigation came early this year, after Majors submitted DNA samples of Phillips’ assailant to Parabon NanoLabs. The Virginia-based DNA technology company used the samples to create a composite sketch of the killer.
Parabon’s accompanying report revealed the DNA belonged to a white male with a fair complexion, green or blue eyes and either brown or blond hair. The composites, by default, always show the subject to be 25 years old with a generic hairstyle.
Released in January, the image resulted in a large number of tips. Many are still being tested.
News spread in April of a public genealogy website being used to identify and arrest the suspected Golden State Killer, who raped and killed dozens of California women during the ’80s and ’90s.
Majors saw an opportunity to replicate the technique here.
The cold case detective submitted a request to his superiors in July to go forward with the plan. Once approved, he sent an email to Parabon authorizing the company to run a genealogy test on the killer’s DNA.
Genealogists upload the forensic samples to GEDMatch, an online database that connects other genealogy websites and permits law enforcement access to its records.
GEDMatch compares the samples with the DNA of more than 1 million people who use the website. It then reports back how much genetic code the samples share with certain users.
“And from that we can infer how the unknown person is related to those people,” said Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at Parabon.
The process then involves scouring newspapers, obituaries, social media and any other information so geneticists can map out the killer’s relatives, ultimately leading to his identity.
Names of close matches are handed over to law enforcement for investigation.
“We’re essentially giving them leads,” Greytak said. “What we’ve seen in most of these cases that we’ve worked on is we give them a lead, and if it’s a strong lead of an individual, then they’re able to go out and get abandoned data from that person and test whether it matches. If we’re giving them a family, then they need to investigate and figure out who this could be, who was in the right place at the right time and all of that.”
Long wait for justice
The standard turnaround time for a case is 45 business days, but Greytak acknowledged there is a “very large” waiting list.
Following the massive breakthrough in the Golden State Killer case, law-enforcement agencies across the country began expressing interest in using genealogy to solve their own unsolved murders.
Parabon has looked at about 150 cases since it began taking on police clientele for genetic genealogy testing in May. Of those, about half have been deemed workable, Greytak said.
Five of the cases, most of them decades old, have been solved after Parabon identified the suspects. The most recent was the 1988 murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley in northern Indiana.
“The general feeling was these would not have been solved without genealogy,” Greytak said.
She confirmed the Phillips case already has been evaluated, and her team believes it can generate useful information.
The recent success in much older cases has restored some hope to Phillips’ mother, who is planning another road trip this month.
Zingman has never given up on the killer being found. But years of cold leads and bitter disappointment have taken their toll. Even with proven genealogists examining her daughter’s case, she still tries to temper her expectations.
“I’ve learned that basically I couldn’t let myself think, ‘If we just solved the case, it would be better’ or anything like that,” she said. “I had to learn to live with it beyond that because otherwise I would be making myself sick by waiting and thinking I could just feel better.”
Despite the pain and heartache of reliving her worst memories, Zingman believes the efforts to raise awareness of Phillips’ murder won’t be in vain if the case is never solved.
For one, the trips also let her talk about the good memories of her daughter.
“She was very empathetic,” Zingman said. “She would get overwhelmed and saddened by anything that anybody struggled with. She was a little girl still.”
While attending Tulsa Community College, Phillips moved into an apartment complex near Union High School.
She was found strangled in her apartment a few months later. The unit showed signs of a break-in, according to police, and evidence indicated a sexual assault occurred. Her mother buried her on her 19th birthday.
Zingman also believes her resiliency has made a difference in the lives of other families experiencing similar loss. Additionally, she successfully advocated for the passage of a state law in 2016 that requires DNA be collected from suspects of certain crimes after arrest, not just conviction. Two years later, however, no funding has been secured for the DNA collection.
Over the years, Zingman’s primary motive for finding the killer has shifted from vengeance to prevention. She often wonders whether the killer attacked anyone else.
“I don’t want to die not knowing,” she said. “No, I don’t want to die not having him off the streets. Knowing is not going to do anything for me anymore. He’s taken her life. I’m never going to fill that hole.
“But as long as we don’t know he’s dead, that he’s out there doing this again, that’s what bothers me.”