Many Rowan students might not know who Donnie Farrell was, how he died or what's been done to catch the men who punched and kicked him outside a convenience store near the Glassboro campus. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:50 a.m., however, 10 students and one instructor meet, dedicating a semester to change that.
"It's just such a big story. . it really interested me a lot," said student Kristen Stenerson. "We're just trying to tell Donnie's story."
Stenerson is one of the 10 students enrolled in Amy Z. Quinn's investigative-journalism class this semester. The small classroom where they plan to discuss and write stories about Farrell is about a 10-minute walk from the strip of pavement where he collapsed after being attacked and robbed on the night of Oct. 27, 2007.
Quinn, a freelance journalist who's been writing for PlanPhilly.com, said that the class is a big step for the school, its students and the journalism program. It's also worth noting that Rowan administrators, though wary of a class focused on one of its biggest tragedies, allowed it to go on.
"The story has always been there, but we had to push," Quinn said. "This is a journalism department that is serious about being journalists."
Quinn said the class focuses more on telling Farrell's story than on cracking the case. When the Daily News visited the class earlier this month, students had dozens of questions for this reporter about the evidence, the difficulties of reporting on tragedies and whether investigators will close the case and file it away as unsolved.
"If they got caught, would they all be charged?" one student asked about the unnamed suspects.
Investigators gathered a key piece of video surveillance after Farrell's death, the kind of evidence that causes perpetrators to run or call an attorney. It was footage of a suspect, standing at the counter of the Xpress Food Mart.
The suspect was described as a black or Hispanic male with a medium complexion and rounded facial features. He had braided hair that dangled below a dark, New York Yankees cap with a thin mustache and a light goatee. Investigators said that he stood about 5 feet 7 and was anywhere from 20 to 24 years old.
His hooded, Coogi Heritage sweatshirt was rare. The company produced only 50 of them and they were sold in only 20 stores in the New York-New Jersey metro area. His nickname may have been "Smoke," and he may have been traveling in a dark Honda Accord, investigators said.
"Smoke" and other men accosted Farrell that night near the food mart. Smoke's group asked where the parties were, and by all accounts Farrell gave them directions to one. Then he was attacked from behind.
The evidence, the witnesses, and an unprecedented $100,000 reward didn't yield an arrest. In the surveillance footage, Smoke never looks up and never fully reveals his face to the camera despite milling around for over 30 seconds. The reward, enough money to pit friends against one another, perhaps to convince a distant cousin to pick up the phone and dial the police, hasn't been collected.
"It's a huge reward . . . the biggest I've ever seen," said Lt. Langdon Sills, the lead investigator on the case for the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.
One theory that Sills and others have is the possibility that the killers aren't from the area and didn't see the initial, extensive media coverage that Farrell's death prompted. Rowan had played a football game against Montclair State earlier that day and the school was also hosting a popular step show that night.
The killers may not know that Farrell died, or they've been unusually good at keeping their secret for nearly four years.
Sills and officials from Rowan plan to address Quinn's class. Farrell's parents may also come and speak with the class, she said. Quinn also wants her students to get out of the classroom, to visit the site where Farrell was killed, to walk the campus during this year's Homecoming and to learn as much as they can about Farrell.
"The only way to do it is to be out there doing it," she said.
Student Noreen Kohl said she had looked into a previous incident in which Farrell was beaten up at an off-campus party and suffered a broken jaw. His mom, Kathy Farrell, said she wanted her son to come home after the fight, but he was adamant.
"He wanted to go back; he loved it there," she said.
The students want to talk with friends who were around Farrell that night, those who were with him in the moments before the fight occurred, and those who knew him best. They'll learn that he liked to have fun and that his death has left gaping holes in the lives of the people who loved him.
"I'm just very proud that they're going to learn about Donnie," Kathy Farrell said. "I feel very honored that he was my son. He touched a lot of people, even though he was just 19."
When the students sit down and talk with those who knew and loved Farrell, and feel the raw emotion in their words, Quinn believes, they'll learn valuable lessons about journalism and life.
"You're going to find that people want to talk," she told the class. "People want to tell their stories. You just have to be there and listen."