Police were working late Thursday night to sort through the murky details of a street robbery in which a Washington & Jefferson College football player was bludgeoned to death near the Washington, Pa., campus.
With only one witness, no suspects and no weapon, investigators said they are piecing together what happened in the hour-and-a-half that elapsed between the time Tim McNerney, 21, and his friend were robbed while walking home from a bar and when friends spotted him lying unconscious in an area that had already been searched.
"This isn't exactly your norm," Washington police Chief Robert Lemons said during a media briefing. "Usually, you know right away what the cause is. This time, we had to wait for everything to evolve."
Zach DeCicco, a 22-year-old Washington & Jefferson student from Jefferson Hills, told police he and Mr. McNerney were walking home from the Brew House bar on Main Street about 2:30 a.m. when a group of men he did not recognize tried to rob him and Mr. McNerney. They tried to take Mr. DeCicco's phone and some of them began beating on him. He grabbed his phone and "fled as fast as he could," Washington Lt. Dan Stanek said.
Through no fault of his own, investigators said, Mr. DeCicco lost track of his friend while he retreated to his dormitory, where he and his friends decided to call the campus security workers, who contacted Washington city police at 2:54 a.m.
Investigators combed the area near Lombardi's Auto Service near the corner of College and Maiden streets because Mr. DeCicco told them the robbery had occurred on a sidewalk near the back of the building. They spotted no signs of him.
Friends returned later to search and spotted Mr. McNerney lying unconscious in front of the auto repair shop shortly before 4 a.m.
"We don't know if he ran and was hiding," Lt. Stanek said. "He had a head injury. It's going to affect how you react."
Medics performed CPR and took Mr. McNerney to the Washington Hospital emergency room, where he was pronounced dead at 4:42 a.m., sending friends and family members into mourning.
At Knoch High School in Butler, Mr. McNerney's alma mater, the football coach asked for a moment of silence at the start of a football game there.
Hundreds of people gathered on the lawn of the Burnett Center on the Washington & Jefferson campus Thursday night for a somber candlelight vigil remembering the popular running back and rapper.
DeAndre Simmons, captain of the football team, said, "Words cannot describe what went through our heads" when the football players learned about 5 a.m. that one of their own had died. "Tim meant the world to me as I'm sure he meant to you," he told Mr. McNerney's family.
One by one, teary-eyed young men told of how Mr. McNerney watched out for them, chatting before football games or checking in to make sure they wouldn't be alone on an Easter holiday.
They offered their own memories of a man who last year, while battling a weeks-long bout of mononucleosis, told reporters: "I don't worry about numbers. When I'm older, I'll probably look back and be proud of what I was able to accomplish, but the numbers don't mean much to me now. The only statistic that matters to me is wins. Our goal is to win enough games to be conference champions."
Mr. McNerney's violent death rattled some students who said that while they most often feel safe within the confines of the school, things change once they leave campus.
Sophomore Gadwin Stewart, a 19-year-old business major from Florida, said many students avoid leaving campus altogether or only go off campus when someone can drive them. He described some neighbors as "hostile" to students, and said that residents occasionally drive through to taunt students.
Older students venture off to go to the bars on Main Street, often on foot. Some make an effort to travel in groups, but Dan Tannenholtz, a 21-year-old senior, said students often get complacent and take shortcuts through unlit alleyways and parking lots. He said while the school has made efforts to address on-campus security concerns, they've done little to help keep students feel safe off-campus.
Washington police insist that the area near campus is largely safe and that they do not have any evidence that criminals are targeting students.
"The safety of our students, both on and off campus, remains our highest priority," college spokeswoman Karen Oosterhous said. Ms. Oosterhous said the college plans to increase security on campus and to work with police to beef up off-campus patrols.
Meanwhile, police are tracking down a few remaining leads. Investgators said they were working with Verizon to try to pinpoint the location of Mr. McNerney's missing cell phone in hopes it will lead them to suspects. His wallet was also missing.
"We're not going to sleep," Lt. Stanek said.
Photographer Matt Freed and KDKA-TV contributed.