ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - With Mother’s Day coming up at the end of this week, people everywhere are trying to find the best way to adequately measure a mother’s love.
Over the past few days in the Bay Area, a physical representation of that love may have passed you on the highway. Or perhaps you saw it parked in downtown St. Pete, Clearwater, or Tampa.
It’s hard to miss: a pink and purple SUV, emblazoned on the sides and back with the words “Caravan To Catch A Killer” in large, purple letters. Below those words, a phone number and a web address. Above them, the angelic face and commanding brown eyes of a girl.
“She had these eyes that you just couldn’t say ‘no’ to,” said Maggie Zingman. “That’s why a lot of people tell me they contact me: because they saw her eyes and just had to reach out.”
Zingman is the woman behind the wheel of this rolling plea. She’s the mother of the girl with the compelling stare. Her name was Brittany Phillips. Her mom called her – still calls her – Britty. Her birth date, 10-4-85, and her burial date, 10-4-04, adorn the front fenders of the Nissan Rogue. Exactly 19 years apart.
About a week before her birthday, in late September 2004, a man raped and suffocated Brittany inside her apartment in Tulsa, OK. He left DNA - semen and blood, according to Zingman - at the scene.
“When the detective told me they have his DNA, I thought, ‘Well, at least we’ll solve her murder,” Zingman said Tuesday evening as she drove slowly through downtown St. Petersburg, hoping every head on the street will turn to stare at her vehicle.
“I often say I’ve learned life is not like CSI,” she explained.
That DNA has been compared to samples from more than 3,000 men convicted of violent crimes in Oklahoma and surrounding states. No match.
A STRATEGY IS SET IN MOTION
“After a couple of years of getting no hits on the DNA, the detectives told me the guy had probably moved out of the region,” said Zingman.
So she decided to move. In 2007, she came up with her rolling billboard idea. Her first step was to create a name that would grab attention.
“'Caravan To Catch A Killer' just came to me,” said Zingman. “Although one car isn’t technically a caravan, I knew it would get people to look.”
Her next step was creating a website where people could learn the background on the case and submit tips. Then she had some car magnets printed with the name of her campaign, the website address, and the phone number for tips. She slapped those on her car and hit the road in October 2007, visiting states in the Midwest.
Her primary goal, of course, was to jar people’s memories in case they had actually been in Tulsa in September 2004 near Brittany’s apartment or knew a man who had and get them to call or email a tip. Her secondary goal was to get as many media interviews as possible, to spread Brittany’s story beyond the Tulsa region. It worked.
“I did interviews with TV stations in four states during that first caravan,” said Zingman. “And tips started coming in.”
None of them panned out. Which only motivated Zingman to keep trucking. Now, she’s in the midst of her 15th caravan, as she calls it. She graduated from magnets to a full, bumper-to-bumper wrap adorned with multiple pictures of Brittany on a background of butterflies. From her home base in Oklahoma, Maggie has driven approximately 165,000 miles over the past ten years, traveling through parts of all 48 contiguous states.
“I killed my first car,” said Zingman. “No pun intended. You’ve gotta have a sense of humor.”
She funds all of her trips herself. And when her car stops moving, her advocacy doesn’t end. In every town and at every rest stop, Maggie hands out pamphlets about Brittany’s case and meets with local law enforcement. She also meets with lawmakers, when she can.
CHANGING DNA COLLECTION LAWS
“A few years ago, I realized this had to be about more than just telling people about Brittany’s murder,” said Zingman. “I realized I could use my pain and frustration to advocate for change in DNA laws.”
She wanted states to change their laws regarding when DNA samples are collected from suspects. Many states don’t collect DNA from people until after they are convicted of a violent crime. But Zingman and other advocates argue that waiting until conviction could leave a predator free to pursue other victims for years since many violent criminals are repeat offenders who after their first arrest may get out on bond and may not get convicted.
So when Zingman visits a city on her caravan tour, she speaks to lawmakers and law enforcement about the need to push for this change.
Though Zingman won’t take any credit for it, 30 states now collect DNA upon arrest for some crime. 15 collect it for all felony arrests. 15, including Florida, collect it for some felonies. Eight, including Florida, extend the law to juveniles.
“Maybe we can save a mother or father from having to go through what I’ve gone through if we can get a violent predator locked up before they hurt another woman or a child,” said Zingman.
Her next stop on this tour is Atlanta. Georgia does not collect DNA upon arrest for any crime.
ST. PETE HOMECOMING
This is Zingman’s second swing through the Tampa Bay area since starting her campaign. She came through in May 2008. But it’s really more of a homecoming.
Zingman attended Eckerd College from 1976-79 and lived in St. Petersburg for the subsequent 10 years. Brittany spent the first five years of her life in St. Pete before the family moved to Oklahoma.
Zingman was bowled over by nostalgia and memories of Brittany when she drove into town on Saturday.
“I remember holding her hand while we walked down this sidewalk,” she said while standing on Central Avenue, choking back tears. “I can so vividly remember taking her down to the pier; she would look over the edge at her reflection in the water.”
Brittany returned to St. Pete in 2003 to attend her mom’s alma mater. She wanted a degree in chemistry.
“She wanted to research cancer,” said Zingman. “She was very certain of that. She had lost her grandmother to cancer and wanted to help find a cure.”
But Brittany, who was only 17 when she started at Eckerd, grew homesick and moved back to Oklahoma at the end of her freshman year. She was attending a community college in Tulsa at the time of her murder.
MISSION OF LOVE
Mother’s Day is coming up. Zingman says it’s never easy.
“I cry, of course I do,” she said. “It’s a never-ending loss. But doing something in honor of her on Mother’s Day is a way that I’ve learned to carry it.”
In every state she visits, she makes it a point to reach out to other parents of murder victims and try to help them. Few are better equipped to do so. Zingman is a licensed psychologist specializing in trauma.
“I call this a mission of love for all daughters,” said Zingman, as she packed up her pamphlets and prepared to hit the road again.
She’s 62. When asked how long she will continue these tours, she replied, “Until I can’t drive.”
A mother’s love. It’s difficult to measure. But for Maggie Zingman, you can start with the odometer.