10 years after Rowan student's brutal killing, $100K reward remains unclaimed
"Donnie Farrell was a random victim of a brutal assault," Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton said.
It was a busy homecoming weekend at Rowan University's Glassboro campus on Oct. 27, 2007. The atmosphere crackled with energy. Hundreds of students milled around or searched for parties as their football team played Montclair University's.
But what should have been an exciting night turned into a nightmare and an unsolved tragedy for the family and friends of a 19-year-old sophomore from Mountain Lakes, N.J., Donald Farrell III, an avid lacrosse player and "social connector with a big smile."
As he walked with friends around 9 p.m., four or five men approached Farrell near a campus apartment complex and asked for directions to a party. Suddenly, one or two of the men began attacking Farrell. They fled with his wallet and cellphone.
"Donnie Farrell was a random victim of a brutal assault," Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton said last week.
The magnitude of Farrell's injuries was not immediately clear to those at the scene.
Within 90 seconds, police arrived and Farrell was taken to the Cooper University Hospital trauma center in Camden. Put on life support, he died the next day from a ruptured artery in the neck.
Ten years later, investigators are redoubling efforts to catch the killers.
In June, digital billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor posted 38 billboards in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware showing the phone number to submit a tip. For years, authorities have offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in connection with the death.
"They're doing it free of charge. … After 10 years, we're still trying to think of creative ways to solve this case," said Lt. Langdon Sills of the Prosecutor's Office.
Investigators still receive tips, Dalton said. As time passes, he hopes those involved would want to clear their consciences.
"Any of those five individuals could have told others about what happened that night," Dalton said. "You just never know."
At the time, police released the description of a "person of interest": A 20- to 24-year-old African American man with braids and a goatee wearing a hoodie. The other four were also described as black males. Investigators believe they could have come to Glassboro that day from anywhere in the state.
Tensions spiked on campus in the following days, recalled university spokesman Jose Cardona.
Two days later, then-Rowan president Donald Farish held an assembly attended by 2,000 students and dozens of reporters.
A squabble broke out in the bleachers between a white and an African American student, who said he believed the suspects' descriptions sparked racial profiling.
"The tension in the room just kept rising," Cardona said. "African American students were questioning, 'Why are you looking at me strange?'"
Anxiety on campus eventually subsided, even as the Prosecutor's Office continued pursuing the case.
The most promising leads came from convenience store Xpress Food Mart's security footage and interviews with customers that police conducted in the days following Farrell's death. The store is less than 100 feet from where Farrell was attacked.
Camera footage, posted online and viewed thousands of times, shows a person of interest buying cigars in the store. He's wearing a Yankees cap and a red and gray Coogi Heritage hoodie. Only 50 of those trial color scheme hoodies were produced and sold in 23 regional shops. Investigators contacted the company to track sales and even got a tip from Bloomfield, N.J., police of a sighting of the hoodie, but nothing panned out.
Authorities released two new pieces of information in 2009: The man's nickname and possible location.
Outside, the man flirted with a Glassboro woman. He re-entered the store and wrote his phone number on a lottery ticket for the woman. He told her his name was "Smoke" from Atlantic City.
After arriving at her home unannounced and searching it, police concluded the woman likely chucked the paper.
"We don't know exactly what she did with it, but it would have been helpful," Sills said. "We would have had our suspects."
The assault occurred in an area deemed safe by students. With phones "ringing off the hook," Cardona said, the school began reexamining its safety procedures.
More shuttles, patrolmen, and escorts were introduced to the 200-acre campus, Cardona said.
Rowan's emergency alert system had been introduced a few weeks before the attack, but only a few hundred had signed up. Today, all 14,000 undergraduates are automatically enrolled.
"The attack made us take a comprehensive look at security," Cardona said. "We thought about the family who lost a son at homecoming going through a life cycle of emotions."
Farrell's name was kept alive on campus for some years.
Friends held vigils for the slain student. But eventually, classmates graduated and the memorials stopped.
Then, in 2011, journalism professors Kathryn Quigley and Amy Z. Quinn gave students an unusual assignment: Write about the Donnie Farrell case from all angles. In what was called "The Donnie Project," nine students recounted the deadly night and its aftermath by interviewing Farrell's family, friends, and investigators.
Three years later, the Rowan Lacrosse Club pushed Farrell's name into the limelight again.
Members Rob Zybrick and Brian Mahoney, who graduated last year, organized a tournament in Farrell's name called "Lax for Donnie." This year, the fourth annual event is scheduled for March 25.
The two didn't know Farrell, but felt a connection because he co-founded the club.
"We thought, this is basically our brother, we have to do something for him," Zybrick said.
They learned that Donnie Farrell's mother, Kathy, still visited Rowan yearly on the anniversary of her son's death. Zybrick and Mahoney wanted to organize something special.
During her visit in 2016, Kathy Farrell gave the team her son's jersey, and the team framed it. The team also raised $4,800 for a Donnie Farrell scholarship. Attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.
"We thought about what we would want people to do for our own moms. Within milliseconds, we knew what we had to do," Zybrick said. "She was extremely grateful. She immediately started crying."
Anyone with information can leave a tip with the Prosecutor's Office by calling 856-307-7180. Anonymous tips can be sent through the MyPD app.