SIGNS OF SMOKE
‘Smoke from A.C.’: Profiling a Killer
By Damian Biniek
The Donnie Project
After a punch felled him and his frantic friends crowded around, Donnie Farrell’s assailant and a group of men with him scattered into the night. Four years later, no one has been directly identified as a suspect in this case.
A blow from behind took Farrell down and ruptured the right lateral artery in his neck, cutting off blood flow to his brain. He died early the next day, on Oct. 28, 2007, turning the initial probe of an assault into a homicide.
Early in the investigation, authorities had determined a person of interest, a slightly-built African-American man with a thin mustache and braids, wearing a distinctive red, black and grey Coogi Heritage hoodie. He identified himself as “Smoke” to at least two people in and around the XPress Food Mart before the attack on Farrell took place minutes later.
“He was an actor. He was involved in the assault,” said Detective Lt. Langdon Sills, the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office investigator who has worked the case since the first night.
Investigators gained most of the initial information they had from witnesses at the scene where Farrell was attacked. It was only after reviewing footage from the XPress Mart and interviewing witnesses that detectives moved the investigation ahead.
In October of 2009, hoping to shake some fresh information or leads out of the public, the prosecutor’s office revealed that an employee of the XPress Mart heard the assailant’s nickname: “Smoke.”
The employee had seen him outside of a late-model sedan parked outside of the XPress Mart. “Smoke” was not sitting in the vehicle, which appeared to be a Honda Accord, but was standing outside of it, talking to the passengers. As many as three women were seated in the backseat during the exchange.
In reviewing security video from the XPress Mart before the attack, investigators were also able to identify a female Glassboro resident who flirted with “Smoke.” The woman told investigators that she had been speaking to him in and around the XPress Mart that evening, that he had bought Black and Mild cigars, and that he’d asked her for her phone number.
The woman declined, but asked for his number instead. According to investigators, she got it.
In a video which appears on YouTube, he can be seen returning to the store counter and writing something down after buying the cigars.
For the first time, Sills elaborated on the details of the encounter, revealing previously unknown information about what the suspect said to the witness: “They go back into the store, he jots down the number, he gives it to her, and they go outside.
“He starts to smoke his cigar and she says, ‘You know you really shouldn’t smoke, it’s not good for you.’ And he says, ‘Well, that’s what I do. I’m Smoke from A.C.’ He makes that comment.”
In searching for that slip of paper with his phone number on it, investigators arrived at the witnesses’ home unannounced. She consented to a search of her car, home, trash and the jacket she was wearing that night, but the paper never turned up.
Authorities also looked into cell phone data records, but that led to another dead end.
“We couldn’t locate the number,” Sills said. “It obviously would have been very helpful with the investigation.”
Investigators used social media websites and the web to get information out about the case and to circulate information about the $100,000 reward still being offered. They scoured the Internet for clues, including data about users who posted comments on YouTube and MySpace pages discussing the case.
Each video clip received its own series of unique comments and discussions, which detectives working the case eyed closely. In a comment on one of the YouTube videos, user “sleek112” implies that the individual wearing the “Coogi Heritage” jacket may live in Bridgeton.
“He lives in the bridg,” sleek112 wrote four years ago.
Contacted for this story, sleek112 declined to be identified by name. But he distanced himself from the suspect video, and said police “barraged” him with questions following the comment.
“What the investigators did was take a piece of my conversation that I had with someone else about a whole different topic and put it with that,” the user wrote in an email. “It was either them or a hack.”
At this time, investigators have not ruled out any other regional areas as part of the investigation.
They have worked extensively with other counties who lent their resources along the way.
Sills and Fennal took the basic information in the case and outlined it for a listing in MAGLOCLEN, a magazine network for law enforcement. It is circulated in Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC and also reaches regional prisons. Sills sought contacts that would help him circulate the listing among prison populations.
“People are transferred, people get out. There are people in there who don’t even know about this,” he said.
If a member of the assailant’s group was clued in on the search for Donnie’s murderer, they might turn him in, especially if facing criminal charges of their own in an unrelated offense.
“There’s not a prosecutor I know that wouldn’t consider minor charges or even mid-level charges compared to solving a murder,” said Sills.
Jim Gannon was one of the private investigators hired by the Farrell family. When they came into the case, Gannon was on assignment with the FBI’s joint terrorism task force. But the case didn’t meet criteria that would have allowed federal authorities to prepare a detailed profile of the suspect, he said.
Instead, S.T.A.L.K., Inc. offered their services to the investigators in creating a profile of “Smoke.” The organization has psychologists and law enforcement agents on staff that have primarily developed profiles on serial killers.
S.T.A.L.K. made an exception for the Farrell case, compiling a detailed profile of the person of interest in the case.
Gannon notes that it’s important to keep in mind that these profiles are meant to be a tool for law enforcement in generating ideas about the case. They are meant to “open up their minds to possibilities and theories,” but not every detail is going to be accurate.
For example, it’s likely that the assailant was right-handed based on the video footage where he can be seen writing his number down, but the profile is less specific about where the suspect came from:
He probably comes from a large, inner-city area that is in close proximity to Rowan University (such as Philadelphia or Camden or perhaps even Atlantic City). Although these cities are our primary focus, this person of interest could also be located (or from) anywhere in New Jersey.
According to Lt. Sills, although the suspect referred to himself as “Smoke from A.C.” — possibly indicating Atlantic City — even that shouldn’t be assumed true.
“He could have just been running off at the mouth. He’s trying to impress a girl,” said Sills.
The profile prepared by S.T.A.L.K. goes on to detail “Smoke’s” clothing.
From the video that they link to on YouTube, they reference the Coogi Heritage sweatshirt, and identify his baseball cap as an unfitted Yankees hat, secured with Velcro. By now, it’s a safe bet the clothes are gone, along with the braids or dreadlocks, and facial hair he sports in the surveillance video.
But they think he’s close, and Sills said he still believes this is a case waiting to crack.
The profile is a significant contribution to the investigation as it provides a working model for the person of interest in the case for law enforcement.
Information in this case can be provided anonymously to the Gloucester County Prosecutors Office at (856) 307-7180 or at our “How You Can Help” page.
Contact Damian Biniek at firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 513-4151.