Cortland, N.Y. — Phillip Zerrillo II had just turned 1 year old in 1990 when his father was hit by a car and killed while walking home. The driver fled the scene and was never found.
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Twenty-four years later, his father’s death still a mystery, Zerillo II was approached by a stranger at a gas station in Tompkins County. Zerrillo II hadn’t seen the woman before — and hasn’t since — but she knew the Zerrillo name.
“She went on to tell me that she had been in the vehicle that night,” Zerrillo II says in an interview this weekend, “and that she knew who the driver was.”
But the woman didn’t just say that she knew who killed Zerrillo II’s father. She actually told him the name of the driver who fled. “I was in shock,” Zerrillo II said.
The woman told Zerrillo II that she wanted to clear her conscience.
“She really didn’t show much emotion about it,” Zerrillo II said. “I asked why she didn’t come forward, and she said she was scared.”
Without giving her name, the woman abruptly ended the conversation. Then she sped off in her blue minivan.
She hadn’t apologized.
State police reopen case
Zerrillo II said he was too stunned by what had happened to get the tipster’s name or license plate. After the chance encounter, which occurred at the Xtra-Mart gas station on Peruville Road in Lansing in February 2014, he hired a private investigator to look into the case.
The investigator didn’t get very far, according to Zerrillo II. But the private investigator was able to confirm that the person named by the tipster was still living locally, he said.
Zerrillo II said he has no memory of his father, Philip Edward Zerrillo, who died at 22.
Of course, he’s heard stories of his dad — of the joker who kept a snake named “Jones;” of the lover who inscribed the name of Zerrillo’s mother on Cortland construction sites; of the doting father who made the fateful decision to walk home in the early morning hours to see his infant son.
And, over the years, Zerrillo II has heard scattered rumors about the killer.
But the woman who approached him at the gas station offered something else. Here was the first person with direct knowledge about the crime that had spoken to anyone in the Zerrillo family in more than two decades.
Coupled with new information about a second possible witness, the woman’s tip proved enough to prompt state police to reopen the case several months ago, according to the family.
On Friday, state police announced that they are looking for the public’s help in finding the female tipster — or anyone else who knows about the cold case.
“Anyone who may have any information on the identity of this woman or details of the fatal motor vehicle/pedestrian accident are requested to call the New York State Police at (607) 347-4440,” the statement said.
Throughout the years, Zerrillo’s family has heard as rumors the name of one person — a man — as being responsible for the accident.
But Zerrillo II says the tipster at the gas station gave him the name of a woman. Both the man long rumored as the driver and the woman are from the same family.
State police are looking into the female suspect, according to Zerrillo II, but need more information.
“They need a witness to come forward, or someone other than myself,” Zerrillo II said. “They need this other lady to come forward or the driver of the vehicle to come forward.”
A possible second witness in Florida?
Zerrillo’s family is hoping that even if police can’t track down the female tipster, they will be able to find a man who worked in garage repairs with a friend of Stephen Joseph, the victim’s step-father.
“The individual said that he knew who did it and he knew where the vehicle was,” Stephen Joseph says. “He was there the night when it happened and (knows) where they took the vehicle.”
A few years ago, the possible witness moved to Florida. But Joseph says he knows who the man is.
With the identification of at least two people who appear to have direct knowledge of the case, the Zerrillo family is pleading that someone come forward.
It’s time, they say, for whoever killed their loved one to take responsibility (even if the statute of limitations for vehicular manslaughter has expired).
“I hope they really can find out who did this,” says Sherry Zerrillo Holcomb, the victim’s sister. “This family has been tormented for 25 years.”
‘A void that was never filled’
It’s impossible to quickly summarize the extent of damage done over the years by whoever it was that crashed into Zerrillo.
But consider the following:
— Mother never recovers
Zerrillo’s mother, Gloria Joseph, was the hardest hit by her son’s death, according to the family.
“It didn’t kill my mother but it killed her spirit,” said Sherry Zerrillo Holcomb, the sister. “My mother never had another day of joy in her life.”
Stephen Joseph, who was with Zerrillo’s mother for 23 years, agrees: Gloria Joseph was never the same again.
“As a Christian person you’re supposed to forgive,” Joseph says. “I talked to her many times about moving on with her life … but she said, ‘Steve I can’t forgive the man that did it.’”
Gloria Joseph died of a stroke at 67. “She wanted to die in the end,” Joseph says.
When she was visited in the hospital by her grandson, she mistook him for her son, then dead for almost two decades.
— Growing up without a dad
Although Zerrillo II had just had his first birthday when the accident occurred, he was already close with his dad, according to Jennifer Hogan, Zerrillo II’s mother.
“He would sit in the window waiting for his dad to come home,” Hogan says.
“Phillip was that man’s life … once he became a father that kid was his life.”
Hogan and her son lived alone together for about seven years after the death. Within a year of the crash, they’d moved out of Cortland County to the Moravia area. “It was just the two of us,” she says.
Zerrillo II, soft-spoken, with an air of quiet confidence, turned out to be a successful business owner in construction. He said he has been motivated to discover the person who ended his father’s life not so much for himself, but to bring closure to his loved ones.
“It hurts me to think I didn’t know him,” he says, “but it hurts these guys more because they did know him.”
— 3 year old killed by drunk driver
On Sept. 19, 1999, Zerrillo II’s 3-year-old brother was killed by a drunken driver in Massachusetts. The 3-year-old was on a trucking trip with his dad when hit by a female driver.
“This woman stopped,” Jennifer Hogan said.
Zerrillo II, then only 9, says he remembers the death of his little brother distinctly. The little brother’s father was badly injured in the crash, went into a coma and never fully recovered.
“So me and Phil have been through hell together a few times,” Hogan said.
— Siblings crushed
Phillip Zerrillo had two siblings: Sherry Zerrillo Holcomb and Shane Joseph. Shane Joseph dropped out of high school after the crash.
Sherry Holcomb keeps a heart-shaped tin with vanilla-scented wax by her bed. The last thing she looks at before she goes to sleep at night, the tin was the last present she got from her brother.
She also remember the moment state police came to her door with news of her brother’s death.
“I just lay in my bed in a fetal position and just cried and cried and cried,” she says.
‘Knocked out of his sneakers’
At around 2 a.m. on May 26, 1990, Phillip Edward Zerrillo was found in the middle of Kinney Gulf Road in the city of Cortland. The impact from the vehicle knocked him “out of his sneakers,” according to his step-father.
Nobody knows how long Zerrillo was left in the road, or if he could have been saved had the driver called 911 instead of fleeing. The woman who found him on the road stayed until the end, which came a few hours later at the hospital, Zerrillo’s family says.
State police Investigator Angelo Mastronardi took the case. He told a newspaper reporter in 1991 that he was “confident that the case will eventually be solved.”
“We’ll crack it,” Mastronardi told the paper, according to one of several dozen newspaper clippings the Zerrillo family keeps stored in a ziploc bag.
Police asked for the public’s input. Zerrillo’s mother and step-father hung a sign on a heavily-trafficked local road asking for help.
“Because of the location where the accident occurred, Mastronardi said he believes the driver of the car was a local person,” the 1991 newspaper story says.
Another year passed, and then another. Investigator Mastronardi continued to work the case. He did so until he retired a few years ago.
“(Mastronardi) was very upset he couldn’t close the case; he said this was one of the few cases that really bothered him over the years,” Joseph said.
For close to two decades, the state police investigator called every few months with updates, according to Joseph.
Jennifer Hogan, the mother, also says the investigator used to call regularly. He also used to bring toys over for baby Zerrillo II, according to Hogan.
A life cut short
There was a bit of an argument when Zerrillo II was being named.
None of the women in the family could agree on what the baby boy should be called. Jennifer Hogan, the mother, wanted one name. The grandmothers wanted something else.
But everyone opposed the name preferred by Phillip Edward Zerrillo. Zerrillo wanted to name his son “Angus,” after the lead guitarist of AC/DC. The women decided to go with Phillip instead.
“He was a goofball — always joking, laughing,” Jennifer Hogan says. “He was the teenager on the motorcycle.”
The two fell in love. Zerrillo worked on rising steel structures in south Cortland, walking fearlessly across metal beams in the sky. He was once reprimanded by his bosses, according to Hogan, for inscribing her name on a rising building.
Zerrillo, a Cortland native, went to school in Homer. When he was 3, Zerrillo was chased by a dog on to James Street, hit by a car and hospitalized. His foot was scarred. “He almost lost his life,” says Sherry Holcomb, the sister.
But Zerrillo went on to be a beloved teen and, later, young man. He kept a snake he named “Jones,” because “you don’t trust a snake and you don’t trust a person ‘Jonesing’ you,” according to Hogan.
Zerrillo had hundreds of friends — the funeral was standing room only, according to Holcomb. To this day, Zerrillo II says, he is stopped around Central New York by those who remember his dad fondly.
“He didn’t say a lot, but what he said meant something,” Holcomb said.
Hours before the crash, Zerrillo and Hogan were at a barbecue, drinking beers and talking with friends. It was Memorial Day Weekend.
Zerrillo, who never got a driver’s license because he disliked driving, decided he wanted to see his infant son, who was being watched by Hogan’s parents.
The walk was a little over 5 miles. Zerrillo set off alone.
“(Zerrillo) had it in his head that he wanted to see his son and go home,” Hogan said. “He wanted to go see his son.”