GONE IN AN INSTANT
The Donnie Project
In a case with so many unanswered questions, investigators say two things are fairly clear about the incident that took Donnie Farrell’s life: That he didn’t deserve to die, and that his attacker likely didn’t intend to kill him.
It was over quickly, one of those seemingly random assaults that happen every weekend on college campuses where youth and alcohol meet. Had the single punch that knocked Farrell down landed in a different place, the whole thing might have ended there.
Based on interviews with several witnesses, and investigators who were on the scene that night, it happened like this:
On the way from a party near Donnie’s apartment in Beau Rivage to another party on the Rowan University campus, Farrell and his group of friends stopped at the XPress Food Mart. One of the girls went into the store, and as the rest of the group waited along the Old Heston Road next to the Triad Apartments, a group of five men approached.
One of the men asked where the parties were, and offered to sell them “Skittles” – drugs, investigators say.
Wary of the strangers, Farrell and his friends tossed out a bunch of different locations at random, including Beau Rivage, the townhouse complex just across the street from where they all stood. The man asked where that was, suggesting he wasn’t a Rowan student, or from the immediate area.
There were other words exchanged, which investigators won’t talk about in detail. One witness said she thought Farrell and the assailant shook hands before the groups parted.
As the group of students, some in Halloween costumes, turned to walk away and up Old Heston Road toward their cars, one of the men came up from behind and struck Farrell, who likely never saw the punch coming.
But that initial blow ruptured the right lateral artery in his neck, causing bleeding that would starve his brain of oxygen and lead to his death early the next day.
Longtime friend Jacklin Hordes was walking in front of Farrell, next to his longtime girlfriend, when he was struck.
“I was walking, and I turned around, and Donnie was on the ground,” Hordes said.
In the shock of those chaotic minutes, Hordes said, the group didn’t grasp what was happening as Farrell lay fatally injured on the pavement. Farrell’s friends couldn’t get close enough to stop his assailant from stealing his wallet.
“Speaking for me, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of us would have guessed that he was gone already,” said Hordes.
Farrell’s girlfriend got in the ambulance with him, bound for Cooper University Medical Center in Camden. He died twice in the ambulance and was resuscitated both times. The brain damage was irreparable, and Farrell never regained consciousness. He was taken off life support and pronounced dead early Oct. 28.
After the ambulance left, the scene was chaos. Students who walked through the crime tape likely didn’t even know what happened.
Corianne Egan, now a journalist working in Kentucky, was a Rowan student at the time and lived near the attack site.
“We saw the paramedics working on Donnie, but all we saw was his sneakers and pants and didn’t really know what was going on,” she said. “There were three of four police cars, two near the XPress Mart.”
Rowan Police Det. Kevin Fennal described the confusion immediately after the blow to Farrell’s neck as both groups stood over Farrell’s body. With their attention focused on their injured friend, it would have been easy to lose sight of the assailants.
“A lot of people are moving a lot faster and running in different directions, so you’re not really going to see a lot,” he said.
The night of the attack, the area around the site was secured like a traditional crime scene.
“Yes, it was an assault, but you still tape it off, just as if it were a homicide from the beginning,” Fennal said. “Forensics came out, took photos, collected evidence, potential evidence. It’s pretty much the same way you respond to something major.”
The next day on campus began as usual. Word had gone out across campus the night before about the assault, but it took some time for the awful news of Farrell’s death to sink in. Farrell’s friends who were not present at the crime scene went about their normal business.
Max Levine, who transferred from William and Patterson College to Rowan in 2006, lived in an apartment behind Farrell in Beau Rivage. They met while taking the same path to school every morning and became good friends in a short time.
“He was a fun guy,” said Levine. “He was really outgoing, we saw 311 (Farrell’s favorite band) together, he played lacrosse, we went running together. Just a really nice guy.” Levine recalled the sudden shock of the news, and the disbelief that followed.
“I went to work that day not expecting anything out of the ordinary,” said Levine. “I finally got a call on my cell phone telling me that Donnie had died the night before.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but as recently as 2007, social media hadn’t yet integrated itself completely into our lives and it took hours for word to spread across the campus community.
There was shock and grief, but also anger and questioning: How could this happen on a quiet suburban campus like Rowan? Was the killer on campus, walking among the students? Could it happen again?
“I remember everyone being pissed,” said Egan. “I thought that Rowan was blowing smoke when they called the press conference to talk about Donnie’s death. But there was a lot of support for Donnie.”
A small memorial in honor of Donnie Farrell sits along the access road to the Triad apartments. It’s unofficial, easy to miss, the kind of thing you can forget to notice after a while – just a tree wrapped in ribbons with some flowers at its base, with tokens left by those who loved him; a homemade reminder of someone lost.
This fall, members of his family visited the site for the first time together, pausing to remember Donnie at the place where he was taken from them on Oct. 28, 2007.
Cameron Meiswinkel is a junior journalism major. Sean Randazzo is a senior journalism major.
Damian Biniek contributed to this report.