The victims were two law-abiding citizens, a couple in their late 50s and 60s who lived in a very rural area in southeastern Chautauqua County, just a few miles from the Pennsylvania border.
On the other side of this crime sit four accused killers from the Elmira area. The oldest, by far, is 34, a possible ringleader of the group who’s spent more than one third of his life in state prison, on charges that include sodomy. And he was released from state prison only five weeks ago.
The two groups’ fates met early Wednesday, authorities believe, in a gruesome double killing that veteran investigators have called one of the most disturbing crime scenes they’ve ever seen.
Later that morning, firefighters found the bodies of Gordon Skinner, 66, and his wife, Joyce, 59, inside their burning home on Wheeler Hill Road in the rural Town of Carroll.
But the Skinners weren’t random victims. They were targeted as robbery victims in a violent home invasion, apparently because the mother of the oldest suspect, 34-year-old Davide Coggins, was a cousin of Gordon Skinner, law enforcement sources believe.
The four – Coggins; Ricky Knickerbocker, 18; Steven Todd, 18; and Joshua McCormick, 21, all of Elmira – have been charged with two counts each of second-degree murder.
Authorities remained tight-lipped Friday about how the Skinners were killed, other than to say they were not shot. They wouldn’t say whether they were beaten, stabbed or killed in some other way.
“It was very disturbing,” Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace said of the crime scene Friday. “These were the victims of a horrific crime.”
The crime apparently so enraged the community that a crowd of several dozen spectators stood outside the Town of Carroll courthouse late Thursday for the men’s arraignments, to express their feelings.
Witnesses said at least some of the crowd was chanting, “Burn ’em.”
But Frewsburg Fire Chief John Lindsay was adamant Friday that none of his department’s firefighters was chanting or booing, as a local television station had claimed.
“We were there, the guys that were on the [fire] call,” he said. “But we weren’t chanting anything.”
Town of Carroll Police Chief Timothy H. Wright said that the crowd, estimated by others at roughly 50 to 60 people, showed up out of concern for the Skinners, whom he described as long-standing, well-respected members of the community.
“It wasn’t a violent expression,” he said of the crowd’s reaction. “It was an expression of their loss and grief.”
All four suspects will return to court Thursday for a preliminary hearing. During their arraignment before Town of Carroll Justice Willard W. Cass Jr., Coggins was assigned a public defender, while the other three will be given assigned counsel, according to Chautauqua County District Attorney David W. Foley.
State records show that Coggins was released from state prison on March 15, after having served more than four years for criminal possession of a forged instrument. He was sent to prison July 16, 2008, paroled in May 2012, but returned to prison on parole in November 2012, before his March release, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Previously, he had served nine full years on sodomy and attempted promoting of prison contraband charges, according to state officials.
So Coggins, at age 34, has spent more than 13 years in jail.
The emergency call that brought firefighters to the Skinner home was reportedly made after Joyce Skinner, 59, failed to report to work at a local factory Wednesday morning.
The break in the case came with a tip from the public about a 2003 Pontiac Grand Am that the four men apparently used to drive from Elmira.
“We got information from citizens that led us to a vehicle,” Gerace said. “We tracked that vehicle, and eventually we made connections that led us to the four defendants.”
The four were taken into custody Thursday morning in Elmira and held in Chautauqua County Jail until their arraignment in Town Court. Bail is expected to be set after the preliminary hearing next week, according to Foley.
Wright, the police chief, explained that the extremely violent nature of the case has had a profound impact on the community.
“It’s something that people never would have expected in the Town of Carroll,” he added. “It’s put people on edge, but it’s also given them more resolve to look after one another – and the community.”