SEARCH FOR A KILLER
Four years after Donnie Farrell’s murder, will a cold case heat up?
By Damian Biniek
The Donnie Farrell Project
GLASSBORO – It is Homecoming 2011, and Rowan University’s campus is gearing up for a busy Saturday night.
The Profs football team beat Buffalo State University, 36-29. As evening falls, a cluster of cars is parked near Wilson Hall, where the annual step show is being held. A few police cars and a single ambulance sit idling outside the building’s main entrance.
Closer to Route 322, traffic lights illuminate the few people moving along the main road cutting through the campus. Students walk along in groups, headed for apartments and townhouses in the distance.
The campus is very much like it was when sophomore Donald J. Farrell III was fatally attacked here four years before.
“It didn’t seem any more crowded or busy than a normal night on a college campus,” said Jacklin Hordes, who was part of the group of friends that Farrell, 19, was with that night.
But that carefree fall night ended in a burst of violence, with a sudden death that changed lives forever. A wound opened on Oct. 27, 2007, one that won’t heal until a killer is brought to justice.
Since September, The Donnie Farrell Project has worked to recreate the details of the unsolved murder and trace the investigation of the case. Through dozens of interviews with Farrell’s friends and family, Rowan administrators, criminal investigators and witnesses – including one previously unknown to detectives – the Donnie Project will tell the story of the crime that took Farrell’s life, talk about the family and friends still waiting for answers, and describe a campus forever changed.
Gone In An Instant
It was the weekend before Halloween, and Farrell and his friends were headed to a party. Some in the group were students, others friends from Farrell’s hometown of Boonton, Morris County.
One of the group stopped to buy cups at the XPress Food Mart, a convenience store along 322 near Old Heston Road. While Farrell and the rest of the group waited, they encountered a group of five men.
There was an encounter and some talk of parties. It wasn’t confrontational, just brief.
But as Farrell and his friends walked away, one of the men came up behind him and threw a punch. Farrell fell to the ground. There was a brief shoving match as one of Farrell’s male friends tried to push away the assailant, who was grabbing at Farrell’s pockets, looking for valuables.
According to police, three members of the group then ran to the right, across the intersection and toward Beau Rivage townhouses. The other two men ran to the left, toward the XPress Mart parking lot. A witness later said she’d seen one of the men talking to people in a car.
At first, Farrell’s friends didn’t realize that he wasn’t moving. One of the girls, hysterical, dialed 911 at 9:13 p.m.
“We received a call that someone had been assaulted by possibly three or four black males,” said Det. Kevin Fennal of the Rowan University Department of Public Safety. At the time, Fennal was newly promoted and not scheduled to start working as a detective until the following Monday.
He responded to scene minutes after Glassboro police and Rowan security, plunged into his new job by circumstance, and has worked the case since.
Police got there quickly, but not soon enough. The location of the crime offered a half-dozen routes of escape, and the red-light cameras that now monitor the intersection weren’t yet in place.
There were leads: A witness reported seeing one of the men earlier, standing outside of what appeared to be a dark four-door Honda Accord, talking to the occupants as they were parked outside of the XPress Mart. Farrell’s wallet, containing his identification, was later be found by another student across Bowe Boulevard, near Beau Rivage townhouses.
From the XPress Mart, the suspects could have headed west on Route 322, and had easy access to Route 55, a highway that offers speedy connections to the rest of the state. In any other direction from the XPress Mart, they could have been hindered by local traffic and the more residential streets of Glassboro.
‘Smoke,’ and a Jacket
Few physical clues were found at the scene, but witnesses provided enough detail to build a solid lead. First, there was the jacket, a limited-production item that wasn’t widely sold.
“This was the one thing that stood out, that was consistent,” says Detective Lt. Langdon Sills, the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s lead investigator on the Farrell murder. “That was the jacket he had on, red and grey.”
It’s an eye-catching design, described in press releases as “a Coogi Heritage hoody with a gray body and red arms, decorated with a number of logos including a British flag on the left chest area and the number 69 on the arm.”
The prosecutor’s office sent reporters a sketch of the jacket and a still photo taken from security camera footage inside the XPress Mart. The store turned out to be a key place of interest for them following the events of that night.
Glassboro police issued a county-wide alert to local police departments to be on the lookout for the alleged assailant and the vehicle which had been seen in the area. Photos of the man in the Coogi jacket, who remains a person of interest, flickered across television and computer screens and appeared in newspapers.
“We were able to determine what brand of jacket and located the different stores that sold that actual color combination,” said Sills. “In all there were 23 stores that sold it, and only 50 jackets actually put out. They were all in North Jersey and the New York area.”
Unfortunately, no credit card records existed for these purchases.
The jacket was featured heavily in the early coverage of the case and in investigations and remains the strongest visual symbol of the case. From the surveillance video, investigators identified another witness, a Glassboro woman the man in the Coogi jacket tried to flirt with, detectives said.
Police were unable to obtain suitable fingerprints from the counter area or on the exit doors at the busy XPress Mart.
Four years later, the motive for the attack remains unclear. Police say they doubt robbery was the main intent.
“Donnie had a cell phone on him. He had a gold chain. He was with other friends who weren’t robbed,” Sills said.
Officers interviewed the witnesses who had remained, including the two friends who had been standing closest to Farrell when he was struck.
Jacklin Hordes was there, as well, but said officers didn’t take a statement from her at the time. She recently spoke to Sills about the events of that night.
Investigators have also probed what may have brought the assailant and their group to campus – the earlier football game, where Rowan had played Montclair State, the Halloween parties around campus, the step show, or just the usual Saturday night scene.
The step show had begun at 7 p.m., but there was a fence between the activity there and the crime scene. If the show had drawn the attacker and his group to Glassboro, it’s possible they would have parked close to Wilson Hall during the show. They could have parked in the lots near Wackar Stadium, but would have had a long way to run to their vehicles.
In the last four years, investigators have followed up on a number of leads and interviewed numerous individuals who they felt might have information on the case. Some of them were even administered a polygraph in order to test their reliability.
“We’ve done six or seven polygraphs,” said Sills.
Investigators use the results to corroborate what these projects revealed or claimed. He could not comment on the results of these tests, but admitted that at least one of their subjects failed when they were asked about information in this case.
“He’s still on our radar,” said Sills.
Keeping the Case Alive
As the fourth anniversary of Farrell’s murder passed, the case sat in a sort of limbo, awaiting the discovery of anything that will lead to an arrest. The reward remains unclaimed, a killer walks free.
The Farrells – parents Don and Kathy, and Donnie’s brother and sisters – spoke to The Donnie Project in October in their first extensive interviews since the crime. They keep him alive through charity events and gatherings in his name, and in bittersweet remembrances of the engaging young man whose absence bored a hole in their close-knit Irish Catholic family.
As the years pass, the detectives are still looking for additional tips and information, hoping it may coincide with a press release timed with an anniversary, or with the occasional release of new details. They revisit old leads and clues, assessing what they might have missed or overlooked along the way.
“Sometimes we revisit people that we’ve already talked to,” said Sills. “People that we even polygraphed in the past, we might go back just to talk to them, just to keep it out there. Just to breathe life back into it.”
Initially, both Farrell’s family and police investigators thought that they would find a suspect quickly. With so much publicity and media attention, which extended to New York media through the Farrells’ connection to North Jersey, it was surprising to many involved with the case that it led to a dead end.
“It was on TV,” said Don Farrell. “The police really felt that they would have it solved [quickly].”
The murder and information about the person of interest was even spotlighted on America’s Most Wanted. Investigators considered the idea that the assailant may not have realized Farrell died and say they don’t think it was an intentional murder.
“All indications in our investigation is that it was a random act,” says Sills. “That makes it really hard for law enforcement.”
Looking for help
James Gannon is a retired homicide detective from Boonton and an acquaintance of the Farrell family whom they asked to look into the case in 2009. Gannon now works in corporate security, but continues to work as a consultant and educator in the field of investigations. The Farrells wanted an independent assessment of what investigators had researched or discovered.
Gannon brought in another former homicide detective, Tim Braun, to assist. Braun is a retired detective and task force commander from Essex and Somerset counties, who now does consulting and private investigation.
The Farrells traveled down to Gloucester County and brought the two sets of investigators together. Sills said they remain in touch on the case to this day, united in a desire to close the case.
“I asked them very hard questions,” said Gannon. “They were very forthcoming.”
The retired detectives didn’t interview witnesses, but reviewed Sills’ files on the case. Ultimately, they reported to the Farrells that the authorities had done everything they thought possible.
“They are in charge of the investigation, we are responsible to the family. We’re making sure things are done,” Gannon said. He remains convinced the case will break.
“You have multiple people involved. Time becomes your friend,” he said. “The thing we have on our side is that relationships change. Someone’s going to pick up the phone.”
Newer social media technologies might disseminate news about the case to more audiences outside of the local area – some who may have never seen the initial reports of Donnie Farrell’s death. Anonymous tips can be submitted to the Gloucester County Prosecutors Office or at any of the links on the “How You Can Help” page.
“With so many people involved, they may not stay friends forever,” says Lt. Sills.
The $100,000 reward in the case still stands.
The search for Donnie’s attacker was broad, reaching north to Essex and Morris counties and to Atlantic County where investigators followed up on a lead from a witness at the XPress Mart.
Sills now works in internal affairs, but keeps an extensive file on the case, containing every lead or rumor that has arisen. He worked with gang enforcement, drug task forces, and homicide divisions in other counties throughout the state, looking for a connection.
He still works on the case, sitting down periodically with Fennal to review their evidence to date, but he communicates with the Farrells less frequently than he used to.
“I may not call all the time, because I don’t want to give them false hope,” said Sills. “You’ve got to walk that fine line in terms of what you can tell them and staying in contact with them. A lot of times, they just want to hear your voice. That somebody cares about their son.”
To his family, Donnie Farrell was a gift.
“He was my shining star,” said Kathy Farrell. She described her son as a lively, outgoing kid, the kind you have a tough time tabs keeping on. As a toddler, he’d be the one saying hello, striking up new friendships with strangers.
“We used to get very concerned that we were going to lose him when he was a little kid,” said his dad, Don Farrell. “He was an old soul. It was amazing. We used to worry about it to the point that two weeks before his death, we said we’re finally finished worrying about it.”
The Farrells were beginning to realize that Donnie was growing up and they began to let him do so on his own – to write his own story.
They agreed to participate in this project as we try to tell Donnie’s story. We are all searching for where it will end.
Damian Biniek is a senior at Rowan University studying online journalism, audio production and multimedia. He’s looking forward to attending The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring — if he can figure out how to pay for it — before graduating from Rowan in May of 2012.