In 1983, Nigel Donahue, a high school senior at Gettysburg College, was killed and shot in the head while shot a second time in an apartment near the campus. Though police suspected 25-year-old Kurt Koch, a flight attendant, was the shooter, he would later escape in a car stolen in Maine. He was arrested four years later after murdering his ex-girlfriend in North Carolina.
A documentary out this week, “Last Stop, Birmingham,” offers a compelling and personal portrayal of the case, taking viewers deep into the investigation and bringing to life the twists and turns that went on after the crime. It reveals both the personal and professional cost of a story that gripped the nation – a story so notorious that a police department considered closing the investigation entirely for fear of turning off law enforcement officials, who frequently told a trusted lieutenant that they never thought they would solve the case.
Made by Chris Tompkins, who co-created HBO’s documentary “Grey Gardens,” the film was the birth of a passion project between him and his cousin Patrick Coyne. Earlier this year, they began filming, shooting during one of their many encounters with noted Alabama attorney Bill Travis.
Tompkins said they were eager to continue what they learned from Travis, whose previous expertise had included reconstructing crime scenes.
“If something were to happen to you or your wife, we were like, we’d have an idea, we would have a time capsule, and we would have video to tell this story for the rest of our lives,” Tompkins said.
In the film, Travis and Coyne discuss the effort to reconstruct the crime scene. They reveal that he cut the body into segments and arranged them on a table, despite the technique being controversial because it could actually identify the body and potentially implicate any witnesses.
Then there is the police department at Gettysburg College, which long believed Koch was the killer and thus had to close the investigation. According to a 1985 Times of London piece, then-director of police Harold Johnson “explained that he considered stopping the investigation because he wanted to protect the defendants.”
In the years that followed, suspicions would occasionally shift. The case brought a nearly decade-long media frenzy when the New York Times briefly released the names of suspects before the FBI implicated two more. This theory was supported by some media speculation, but never fully accepted as fact.
The film focuses on several FBI agents investigating the case and on Travis, who took up what appears to be a life-long hobby of trying to bring Koch to justice.
Tompkins calls their story “surreal” – one that, while no definitive solution could ever be arrived at, provides a glimpse of what might have happened.
Tompkins admits it had its challenges. “We’re not historians, and we’re not journalists, and I know that sounds funny,” he said. “But we weren’t the ‘Fargo’ crew or the ‘The Jinx.’ There is no one to hold your hand and say, ‘Hang on, please do this.’”
His own interest in the story, however, led him to rekindle the detective stories he loved as a child, and that filled his imagination with love for the techniques of film and television.
The film is presented in two parts, and explores so many ground-breaking elements of justice that are not always covered in the media. That said, Tompkins’s and Coyne’s film reveals that behind the story of a young man killed while on a campus near his father’s college was an equally intriguing tale about police agencies across the country, the bizarre lifestyle of their suspects, and their unique relationship with America’s deep and complex history of race relations.
*Note: the headline has been changed to reflect the following correction: On the fourth paragraph of this story we misspelled Patrick Coyne’s last name. It is Coyne, not Coyus.