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Cold Case, Hot Tip: Will Weird New Lead Solve Deadly 1990 Hit-and-Run?

Mysterious Stranger May Help Solve 25-Year-Old Cold Case 1:59

A chance encounter at a gas station between the son of a man killed in a hit-and-run and a mystery woman who claimed she knows who did it has led police to open a case that was cold for nearly a quarter of a century.

New York State Police said they were "inundated" with tips after they put out a call for new information about the death of Phillip Zerrillo, a 22-year-old laborer and new father who was struck by a car on a dark country road and left to die in 1990.

So far, though, they have not been able to find the woman who approached Zerrillo's now-grown son out of the blue last February and blurted out that she was a passenger in the vehicle that fateful night.

"We want to know why they didn't stop," the son, who is also named Phillip Zerrillo, told NBC News. "In my heart, I believe if they had stopped and gotten help, my father would still be alive today."

The younger Zerrillo was just a year old when his father was killed May 25, 1990, while walking home from his parents' log cabin in Cortland, an hour south of Syracuse, to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend and baby.

It was a five-mile hike, but Zerillo didn't have a driver's license and he liked long walks, his family said.

He was on a curved stretch of Kinsey Gulf Road when he was hit. When a passing motorist later found him in the middle of the road, he was still alive but died of internal injuries on the way to the hospital.

The family was crushed by the young man's death and tormented when the investigation didn't result in an arrest. The victim's mother, Gloria, suffered a series of strokes that they blamed on the heartache.

"It absolutely killed her. She was destroyed. She lost her soul," said her ex-husband Stephen Joseph, who was the dead man's stepfather.

"I talked to her about letting it go and she said, 'I can't forgive whoever killed my son. They took my life away from me," Joseph said.

Phillip Zerrillo
Phillip Zerrillo with his son family photo

The 1-year-old grew up without any memory of his father, just stories about an easy-going guy who worked hard, loved the outdoors and partying with friends, and doted on his baby.

As an adult, he got used to strangers approaching him — his last name is emblazoned on the side of his construction company's trucks — and reminiscing about his dad.

So he wasn't surprised when a middle-aged woman approached him 11 months ago at a filling station in Lansing, N.Y., where he and his uncle had just stopped to buy coffee and scratch-off lottery tickets.

"She said, 'Are you a relation to Phil Zerrillo?' and I said that was my father and he had passed away. She said, 'I knew of your father...I didn't know him personally but I was in the vehicle the night that he was killed," the son said.

The woman gave him the name of the supposed driver — though he was in such a state of shock he only remembered the last name — and told him the car had been buried in a spot where a garage was later built, he said.

"I said, 'Why didn't you come forward at the time?' And she said, 'I was scared.' I was so shocked I don't remember if she ever told me what her name was. And then she took off in a blue minivan."

The tip, he said, jibed with rumors the family had heard about what might have happened in 1990. They enlisted a friend who is a private investigator to do some digging, but he came up empty.

Then they called the police investigator originally assigned to the case, who was long since retired. He eventually passed on the information to the state police in September.

Trooper Nathan R. Riegal, a spokesman for Troop C, said that while the woman did provide some specific information, investigators want to find and question her before they act on it.

Earlier this month, they announced they were reopening the case and asked for information from the public. "They were inundated," Riegal said. "Now they are going through those leads."

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The younger Zerrillo said he has no idea if the woman was telling the truth, and he is worried that bringing her information to police has dredged up bad memories for his family.

"Some days I wonder if I should have let it fly over," he said. "I mean, it has been 25 years.

"Some days I wish they'd find out who did it and I could just choke them. Other days, I feel like if they found them and they were sentenced to jail, it would ruin another family, and I don't want that."

Joseph, though, said someone needs to pay for a life cut short and a family forever changed.

"Someone ruined our lives in many ways and they’ve gotten away with it for 25 years," he said.

Anyone with information is asked to call state police at 607-347-4440.