“Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.”
In early 1993, seats in a small theatre in western Tulsa filled as a war-era play was performed. An eight-year-old girl with large brown eyes and an American flag wrapped around her shoulders pattered quickly across the stage as her wild blonde tresses flew behind her. The child collapsed into her mother’s arms in a dramatic “death,” and the woman held her daughter, weeping uncontrollably before the audience as she carried her child offstage.
Just over a decade later, the tiny actress with the beautiful curls would be found dead in her apartment only eight miles away. This time, her mother would not be able to catch her as she fell, nor hold her as her life was cruelly ripped away.
For almost fourteen years, Dr. Maggie Zingman has been forced to grieve the brutal loss of her only daughter, Brittany Phillips – a daughter who is forever trapped in time as an eighteen-year-old college student who wanted to dedicate her life to cancer research. Maggie recalls the morning the news was broken to her as if it was a scene from one of the plays she and her daughter enjoyed partaking in together years before: a scenario she’s undoubtedly recited many times for news reporters, family, and friends.
Maggie last spoke with her daughter the evening of Monday, September 27, 2004, around 9:00 p.m. Brittany suffered from terrible allergies and had tried to get in to a clinic, but was unable to do so. She called her mother, who agreed to call and get an appointment scheduled for Friday. Brittany thanked her mother, informed her she would drop off her friend who had accompanied her to the clinic, and then go back to her apartment to go to sleep.
Their phone call ended with the words “I love you.”
For the next three days, Maggie would try calling her daughter – to no avail. She knew Brittany had a heavy work load at school, so she wasn’t surprised when her daughter didn’t return her calls Tuesday and Wednesday.
Thursday, however, Maggie began to grow concerned.
“Brit, just give me a call. You know I worry when you don’t call back. Just let me know you are okay. Love you, little girl,” Maggie left on the answering machine.
Unbeknownst to Maggie, Brittany hadn’t shown up to her classes. A concerned friend called the police, who did a welfare checkup and discovered the horrifying scene: the raped and strangled body of the beautiful teen, found on the floor beside her bed in her second story apartment. She’d been laying there for three days.
“All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.”
It was just after midnight on Friday, the first of October in 2004. Maggie was employed at the Mable-Bassett Correctional Facility and was residing in Chandler, Oklahoma, while her daughter attended Tulsa Community College an hour away.
Maggie describes the unforgettable moment she was informed of her daughter’s murder. “There was a knock at about one in the morning and the rain slapped me in the face once I opened the door – it was classic horror-movie style,” she remembers. “A young, little sheriff was standing there.”
The police officer stared down at a piece of paper and asked if she was Maggie Zingman. When she answered in the affirmative, he briskly said, “You need to call the Tulsa police. Your daughter’s been murdered.”
He then turned and walked away.
“For the first half hour, I didn’t know what to do,” Maggie remembers. “I was in total shock. It had to be the wrong person. As a parent, you always think, ‘This could never happen to me.’”
Maggie began the torrential task of calling family and friends, and began the drive to her daughter’s Tulsa apartment. By the time she arrived, her daughter’s body had already been taken to the Medical Examiner’s office. Crime scene investigators and police officers scoured the scene. An autopsy report would later find that Brittany had been raped and asphyxiated to death.
“I was never allowed to see her,” Maggie recollects. She remembered the funeral director in charge of her daughter’s services trying to be protective, explaining she couldn’t see her daughter’s body in the condition it was in – murdered and then autopsied. Because the family is Jewish, Brittany was not embalmed. Maggie was only allowed to be in a room with her daughter’s body covered from head to toe with a blanket.
“I ran my hand down her face and her little nose and said, ‘I’m sorry, little girl.’”
Brittany’s funeral service was held on what would have been her nineteenth birthday: October 4, 2004. A pink casket was carried from Tulsa’s Temple Israel as Maggie clutched a teddy bear, tears streaming down her face. Brittany was interred at Rose Hill Memorial Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma; a jet black headstone with a crying angel lying across the top sits in the green grass near the entrance. A similarly built black bench with Brittany’s name carved into its stone lies just a few feet from it.
Who would do this to her precious daughter?
DNA was found at the scene, and after six months the police had a DNA profile. Over the past decade, it has been tested against thousands of local suspects, along with approximately one million suspects in CODIS – the national database for DNA profiles.
“Every male friend she had, ex-boyfriends, people in Florida, males in the area, janitors at the high school, anyone she knew or knew of her friends…everyone was tested.”
There was never a match.
There were several points of entry into the apartment, which faced a storage unit. The cluster of eight apartments shared a common attic space, which made each apartment accessible to the other. The window screens in Brittany’s apartment had been taken off, although it is unknown if that was done by Brittany or her perpetrator. It was also possible that the killer had climbed onto her balcony and gone in through those doors.
“It didn’t look like someone broke in,” Maggie describes, “but there was some disruption.”
“Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.”
Brittany Evonna Sara Phillips was born October 4, 1985 in Florida, and lived in Kentucky with her mother and brother before moving to Tulsa in 1991. The death of her grandmother to cancer inspired her to study stem cell research, first attending her mother’s alma mater for a year in Florida before receiving a full ride chemistry scholarship to Tulsa Community College.
She had been attending classes, living in what was then called Gleneagles Apartments located off of E. 65th and S. Mingo Road, for only three months before she was raped and murdered.
Brittany was a vibrant and creative child who quickly grew into an intelligent and independent young lady. She danced and acted alongside her mother at local theatres as a young girl, and her dazzling beauty earned her a few modeling jobs in Kentucky.
“She had this angelic round face surrounded by long, cascading blonde curls,” Maggie remembers. Her daughter’s picture was used in an advertisement at the Louisville airport, and Brittany would light up when she’d see her own face.
As she grew older, she began running track, swimming, and began experimenting with shot put. She remained very active as a gymnast and wanted to get back into modeling – despite her insecurities that were beginning to slowly emerge in her teenage years. (“Your genes made me short,” she would tease her mother.)
“I miss everything about her,” her mother expresses sadly. “Her laughter, her silliness, her beauty, her compassion. She told me everything. If something was going on, she would have told me.” She lists off the milestones her daughter will never get to accomplish.
“There are so many unanswered questions. It is a never-ending echo of loss.”
“Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.”
Pictures and memories are all Maggie have left of her daughter. Two years passed, and with no leads in sight– and no national media attention on the case – Maggie knew she had to come up with something.
“Brittany’s murder was considered ‘normal,’” Maggie scoffs. “There were no witnesses; there was no twist. Over eight hundred samples of DNA had been compared, and nothing matched. I thought, how can I get this story national? How do I get a hook?”
And thus, Caravan to Catch a Killer was born.
The pictures of the photogenic teen, along with details of the case and suspect, were wrapped around Maggie’s Rav-4 in a collage of pink and purple butterflies. Living below her means in order to save money for her cross-country trips (“The caravan was more important,” Maggie states), the first excursion took the grieving mother to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Ohio, and New York City.
Instead of vacations, Maggie drove her pink and purple car across the United States. Over the next ten years, she would go through three vehicles (the vibrant vehicle designs were graciously donated by Midwest Wraps in Tulsa) and drive almost 200,000 miles to spread her daughter’s story. Knowing the murderer could be anywhere, she has visited 48 of the 50 states – only leaving out Alaska and Hawaii. Tips poured in with each city she passed through, along with inexplicable acts of kindness from strangers across the nation.
“One woman walked up to me at a truck stop and handed me $200,” Maggie recalls. “I’ve been prayed over in about fifty different religions.”
While the caravan began as a means to bring in tips for the case, Maggie explains that her mission has slowly evolved over the past thirteen and a half years to connect with other families who are victims of homicide, as well as educate communities about DNA processes.
“Part of me has to accept that we may never find him,” Maggie admits.
However, a break in the case brings the police one step closer to capturing Brittany’s killer. This past January, a company named Parabon Snapshot released a DNA phenotype composite image of the person who raped and murdered Brittany that September night so long ago. Using new technology, the company is able to take a DNA sample and create an image that will highly resemble the person, whether it be a suspect or unidentified remains. Their website offers examples of these images, including comparisons between suspect composites and the arrested individual. According to the site, “Parabon – with funding support from the US Department of Defense (DoD) — developed the Snapshot Forensic DNA Phenotyping System, which accurately predicts genetic ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape in individuals from any ethnic background, even individuals with mixed ancestry.”
The phenotype composite of Brittany’s murderer is a white male with blue or green eyes and light brown or blonde hair. His ancestry is of Northern European descent, and it’s likely he has freckles. The composite is designed to look like a person in their twenties, although it is unknown what age the killer was in 2004, or what age he is now.
After the composite was released to the media, forty more tips came in within two days.
Although Maggie didn’t recognize the man in the photo, she did say, “He looks like someone Brittany would have been attracted to.”
Brittany’s mother is determined now more than ever to spread the information of her daughter’s crime to the nation – so much that she had the perpetrator’s face wrapped on the hood of her car alongside the details of the crime. Along with distributing the horrific details of her daughter’s death through her caravans, she also is an advocate for DNA upon arrest, and has been a trauma therapist since 1984, working for the past eight years with veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
When asked what has helped her get through the last thirteen years, she simply said, “People.” She describes how passionate people are, how advocating for others has helped her, and how the caravans were a “gift amidst the loss” – something Brittany definitely would have done had the roles been reversed.
Maggie would take her daughter back in a second if she could, but since she can’t, she does everything in her power to keep the case moving forward, and to educate the public about DNA. She brushes off compliments of courage and resilience, replying modestly, “I’m not brave; I’m a mother.”
Until the day the killer is caught or she is no longer physically able, Maggie will continue these treks across the country, stopping at every single rest stop and handing strangers neatly folded pamphlets with her daughter’s smiling face on them. She hopes that if other parents who have lost a child can see that she is surviving, it will give them hope that they can, too.
“Always tell everyone you love them,” Maggie advises before we conclude our conversation. “Brittany’s story is about the girl next door. This can happen to anyone.”
“Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.”
– ‘REQUIESCAT’ BY OSCAR WILDE
The evening of October 4th, 2019 was a breezy day with highs in the sixties. The sun was setting slowly through the trees in southern Tulsa as four people trudged up a slight hill in Memorial Park Cemetery. Directly to the right of the entrance in the Jewish section was a jet black headstone with the name BRITTANY PHILLIPS, a silver angel draped in agony across the front.
THO MY TEARS ECHO THE ENDLESS PAIN OF YOUR PASSING,
IN PRIDE I WATCH YOUR SILENCED VOICE FILL FIELDS OF CHANGE
SAVING OTHER DAUGHTERS.
These words were etched into the darkness of the marker, hovering over the grave of an eighteen-year-old girl. She’d been resting there peacefully for the past fifteen years.
Flowers were ceremoniously placed around the grave. Pink roses and daisies were put on a matching black bench at the foot of the grave, and red roses were laid down in front of the headstone along with bright yellow sunflowers. A small woman in a long brown skirt and cowboy boots crouched over the grave, and a bearded man in glasses and a blue button-down knelt beside her, holding her shoulder. They took turns touching the angel and comforting each other in the quiet of the cemetery. The man blinked tears away, rubbing his eyes underneath his glasses.
This autumn day was also Brittany’s birthday. She should be turning thirty-four, had her life not been atrociously ripped away by an unknown killer.
Now, fifteen years later, people from across the country would come together to remember the life of the young lady whose dream was to cure cancer, whose long blonde curls framed her beautiful face, who left behind family and friends alike with hearts split in two.
While all of Brittany’s angelversaries are difficult, this year’s was particularly heartbreaking for her family. Only a few months prior, Tulsa detectives had released to the public the shocking fact that the DNA found at the crime scene was NOT the killer’s.
“Fifteen years in one direction, now back to ground zero,” Brittany’s mother, Dr. Maggie Zingman, says inauspiciously. “Can I survive another fifteen years?”
The DNA left in Brittany Phillips’ apartment after she was raped and murdered was seemingly the only evidence to the crime. She had been attacked in the middle of the night in the hours between September 27th and 28th of 2004. There were no witnesses, and it wasn’t known whether the killer had broken in after Brittany returned home that night or if he had been lying in wait.
The DNA found on the bed sheets had been tested and entered into CODIS, the nationwide FBI database for DNA. It has been tested against countless entries without a match. In January of 2018, a phenotype composite was released by Parabon Snapshot of what the person behind the DNA looks like. The picture – a blank-faced man with blue eyes and blonde hair – was plastered across the news, on billboards, and on the hood of Maggie’s car. Her 2016 Nissan Rogue was wrapped by Midwest Wraps, who lovingly donated the design on her car for her to spread awareness on her daughter’s murder. She has driven over 200,000 miles cross-country, visiting forty-eight states and handing out pamphlets to passersby across the nation.
Now, the face of the DNA profile is worthless.
According to Maggie, her daughter would sometimes allow friends to spend the night in her bed while she slept on the couch. They were young and didn’t have many places to be intimate, so she let them stay over and gave them privacy. The DNA left behind was from one of these friends, who the police say has a rock-solid alibi from that September night.
“This information made me feel almost as intense as when I was told she was murdered,” Maggie describes in an interview with Fox 23 News.
Tips are needed now more than ever as the police are back to square one.
To honor both Brittany’s birthday and the fifteenth year of the cold case, Maggie organized a day called the 1st Annual Cold Case Day of Caring. Her goals with this project are to create a network among families of cold case victims, as well as start a support group with the OSBI.
People from all over gathered at LaFortune Park in Tulsa underneath a pavilion on the afternoon of the 5th. Pink rubber bracelets were strewn across the picnic table for people to take – “What if she was your daughter?” they read – along with purple ribbons and stapled papers listing off all of Tulsa’s cold cases. Approximately 270 names are on the list, including Brittany’s. Maggie’s artwork and the quote “The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them” hung on a banner. Attendees mingled as Maggie interviewed for three different news stations.
“This wasn’t just for Brittany,” Maggie says.
The grieving mother hopes to connect with other families whose loved ones are victims of cold case homicides. While all homicides are traumatic and horrific, there needs to be a place for those whose cases have gone unsolved for years to come together.
Along with Maggie was Brittany’s older brother by fifteen months – her “Irish twin,” Josh. Their close proximity in age allowed them to have the same social circles, although their personalities were complete opposites.
“She was more brains and I was more artistic, but we shared interests in each other’s hobbies,” Josh remembers. “We fought probably as much as we didn’t; however, we truly loved each other and always did our best to be there for the other.”
October is always a difficult month for Josh as is with Maggie as the celebration of Brittany’s life is juxtaposed with the tragedy of her death. He marks each year by doing something positive in his sister’s memory such as planting a tree, and plans to open up an animal rescue with his significant other, Lacy, in the near future.
“I hope the Annual Cold Case Day of Caring can become a support network for families and others affected by the major number of cold case files in Tulsa; such support systems are absolutely necessary to help allow people to cope with their emotions and move forward,” he says.
Living in Florida, Josh hasn’t been able to visit his sister’s grave as much as he’d like. As painful as it is, he says being there helps him feel closer to Brittany.
When asked what he would say to his baby sister if he could, Josh replies, “I would just want to tell her that I love her. I hope she is proud of me.”
“Life is but a momentary touch found when taking a chance,” Maggie adds. “It is the back and forth dance of both gift and loss, joy and sorrow. But because of those met in the ebb and flow, I dance stronger and awhile longer.”
If you have any information regarding Brittany Phillips’ rape and murder, please call the Tulsa homicide hotline at 918-798-8477.