Donnie Farrell’s parents always knew that their son had a special gift. From an early age, they recognized that their boy could light up a room or make anyone’s day a bit brighter.
When Donnie was in the first grade, his father took him to school one morning. As both were walking up a hill towards the schoolyard, a horde of children came running up to them. They were excited and couldn’t wait to greet Donnie.
Donnie’s father remembers standing on the side of the yard watching his son talk to a girl in his class. It was at this moment that the girl’s mom approached Donnie’s dad. The mom thanked him for raising such a kind child and said that her daughter couldn’t wait to go to school every morning, because she wanted to see Donnie.
Donnie’s father, known among his friends and family as a great Donnie storyteller, considers this one of his favorite memories to share. It’s a story that gives people a glimpse at Donnie’s infectious personality, which touched so many.
“He was just a very nice kid,” said Donald Farrell II, Donnie’s father. “I always told him, ‘Donnie you have a gift. So, don’t change, because you could either make someone’s day or ruin it.’ He was a friend to everybody.”
On the evening of Oct. 27, 2007, the Farrell family was robbed of their shining light. According to the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, Farrell, a sophomore business major, and a group of friends were walking outside of a convenience store near the Triad Apartments, when they were approached by a group of men. The five men asked Farrell if he knew of any Homecoming parties around campus.
The group of men proceeded to follow Farrell, until they both exchanged heated words. Eventually, two of the men jumped Farrell, punched him a couple times and kicked him once he fell to the ground. The attackers emptied Farrell’s pockets, stole his wallet and fled the scene in separate directions.
After police and paramedics arrived on the scene, the 19-year-old was taken to Cooper Hospital in Camden. He died the following day due to blunt trauma to the neck with a laceration to the right vertebral artery. Farrell’s killers still haven’t been identified.
“I think the motive was whatever dialogue that had happened between Donnie and that group,” said Lt. Langdon Sills of the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office. Sills has worked on the case along with Rowan University detective Kevin Fennal.
“Someone got pissed off, didn’t like what he said and then hit him,” Sills said.
As for Farrell’s killers, little is known about them. Although the investigators have been able to put together several pieces of evidence, each clue has eventually led them towards a stalemate.
The two biggest public pieces of information that the prosecutors know is a nickname, “Smoke” and a very specific Coogi Heritage jacket.
While the nickname “Smoke” is quite uncommon, the suspect’s jacket is believed to be extremely rare. According to Sills, Coogi only released 50 jackets in that red-and-gray color scheme, which were available in just 23 stores across New York and North Jersey. However, despite the significant piece of evidence, they were not able to track down a suspect.
“We went to all of those stores looking for some type of information, such as credit card receipts or maybe even the store owner remembered selling those jackets, but nothing really panned out,” Sills said.
Over the summer, the prosecutor’s office expanded their search for Farrell’s killers by partnering with Clear Channel Outdoor. The company agreed to post a message on 38 billboards across the Tri-State area regarding the $100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
In addition, Clear Channel recently agreed to expand the message across the North Jersey Turnpike. Sills hopes that these billboards will help generate phone calls and reach out to anyone who might have information regarding Farrell’s death.
“If [Farrell’s killers] were from this area, I think that someone would have come out and turned someone in for the reward money,” Sills said. “It’s hard for five people to keep something like that quiet, especially with the way we put information out through the local media. If you’re not from this area, then all you know is that you beat some kid up and then got in your car and left.“
One of the prosecutors’ biggest challenges has been the lack of a clear motive. Although Sills and his office have been able to piece together some of the events that might have led to Farrell’s death, there is still a level of unknown information that complicates the investigation. Of the office’s 18 unsolved homicides, Sills believes that Farrell’s case is one of the most complex.
“When you deal with shootings and stabbings, you know that their intent was to kill that person,” Sills said. “The unsolved cases that we have aren’t random. This is a random unsolved homicide and I don’t believe that the suspects thought that Donnie was dead.”
A decade removed from Farrell’s murder, the case remains a top priority for the prosecutor’s office. Sills works on the case weekly and holds monthly meetings regarding the investigation. He wants the public to know that it isn’t sitting in a box on someone’s shelf.
“I really feel bad for Donnie’s parents,” Sills said. “That’s the driving force that we have in our office, because no one deserves to die like that and it’s our job to bring closure to the family.”
At Farrell’s funeral, his family received an outpouring of support. The ceremony was attended by over 2,000 people from across the country and the procession was so long that state troopers closed Rt. 80. The funeral director told Farrell’s father that it was the biggest funeral he had ever seen.
“I don’t want to say we felt good, but we were proud of our son,” Donald Farrell II said. “We were proud that so many people would go out of their way and sit in traffic to come and see him. It confirmed that we had a great son.”
Farrell’s family and friends remember him as a kind-hearted soul. His mother describes him as smart, caring, innovative, handsome and ‘very much a joker.’
Farrell was famous for making people laugh. In high school, he was notorious for his humor, especially his spot-on impersonation of SpongeBob SquarePants. However, Donnie was most known for his friendliness. No matter who you were, Donnie was your friend.
“He was friends with every kind of student,” said Kathy Farrell, Donnie’s mother. “He was friends with the nerdy kids. He was friends with the sporty kids. He was friends with the outsiders. He just always went out of his way to make everyone feel included.”
During his time at Rowan, Farrell was beloved by his classmates. Anytime his mother would bring Donnie to campus, everyone seemed to know him. Donnie would open the car door and people would scream out his various nicknames: “‘Hey, Don!’ ‘Hey, Donnie!’ ‘Hey, Don Juan!’ ‘Hey, Don King!’,” his mother recalled.
“He was only a freshman at that time,” she said. “He made so many friends during his freshman year, it was amazing.”
Farrell loved Rowan and left his mark on the university. However, there are still many students on Glassboro’s campus who have never heard Donnie’s story.
Since Farrell’s death, some members within the Rowan community have worked to keep Donnie’s legacy alive. In 2011, Rowan journalism professors Amy Quinn and Kathryn Quigley had the idea to create a website dedicated to Farrell’s unresolved murder.
Students in Quinn’s investigative journalism class spent the semester researching the case and creating content for “The Donnie Farrell Project” blog. Although no one in the class had ever met Farrell, Quinn describes the classes’ response to the project as a “total buy-in.” Everyone was eager to contribute to the website and tell Farrell’s story.
“If I knew Donnie, I would have liked him,” said Quinn, who is reminded of Farrell every time she drives to Glassboro’s campus. “And if I taught him, I would have loved teaching him.”
The Rowan Lacrosse team, which was co-founded by Farrell, has been the campus’ strongest champion of Donnie’s legacy.
In 2015, Brian Mahoney and Rob Zybrick started “LAX for Donnie,” an annual lacrosse tournament to honor the club’s co-founder. Although neither of the men knew Farrell, they felt it was essential to pay tribute to him in a special way.
This spring, on March 25, 2018, the tournament will enter its fourth year. While the event is still in its early stages of planning, there is already a waiting list of teams who want to participate. It’s considered one of the biggest tournaments in the National College Lacrosse League.
Every year, the lax club considers “LAX for Donnie” its highest priority. In the club’s constitution, it is stated that e-board members must make a serious effort to carry-on the tournament every year.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” said Eric Johnson, the club’s vice president and tournament director. “Since I’ve been here since the beginning of the tournament, it feels special that we can use this tournament to remember him. There’s people outside of lacrosse who didn’t know about Donnie, but once we began to put up the flyers and tell people about Donnie, they became more interested and involved.”
During the most recent “LAX for Donnie,” Rowan won the tournament for the first time. At the end of the finals, the entire lacrosse team raised their sticks in the air and chanted ‘Donnie! Donnie! Donnie!’. It was a special moment for the club and Farrell’s family.
“You just couldn’t take the smile off my face,” Kathy Farrell said. “These kids must think I’m a lunatic. I hugged them all and was crying.”
For the lacrosse club, that victory was more than a win. It was a way for them to celebrate Farrell’s legacy and help his family heal.
“At the end of the day, it was special that we could hold that trophy high for Donnie,” Johnson said. “That whole day was for Donnie. Bringing that trophy home for Donnie was just more than we could ask for, because we know how much it means for Donnie’s parents.”
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