An Atlanta cold case expert and her team have taken on an unsolved case that left a small town community in fear, and a family devastated and searching for answers.
Sheryl McCollum, a crime scene investigator and the director of Atlanta’s Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, spoke exclusively with CrimeOnline after she took on the case of Robert Joyal, an 18-year-old who had recently graduated from Gorham High School graduate from Gorham, Maine, when he was brutally stabbed at a Denny’s parking lot in Portland, Maine, in 1998.
Robert left behind a younger brother, Marc Joyal-Myers, who was just 11 when his big brother was murdered. Marc, who remembers Robert as a hero who helped anyone down on their luck or in pain, has vowed to keep his brother’s memory alive while hoping that justice will one day be served.
“To hear a baby brother tell his story compels you act,” McCollum said, explaining her decision to take on the case.
The attack occurred on April 4, after Robert enjoyed a night out of dancing with friends at the former Metropolis dance club. Denny’s restaurant was apparently a popular “go-to” for teens and young adults back then. They often gathered there after leaving the dance club for the night.
Police indicated that the attack was likely gang-related, although Robert’s family said that he wasn’t involved in any type of gang activity. Witnesses told police an argument erupted at the dance club, possibly over a girl, but Robert left the club shortly after to avoid further confrontation.
When Robert arrived at Denny’s, a group of young men awaited him, along with a teen, 15-year-old Seiha Srey, of Massachusetts, one of the people Robert had gotten into an altercation with at the club. Srey was younger than the guys he surrounded himself with, but he reportedly had been trying to get in with a local Asian gang when the incident occurred.
Kevin Janosco, an alleged 18-year-old gang member, reportedly began fighting with Robert first, before numerous others jumped in. Around 50 people had gathered in the parking lot after the fight erupted. At some point during the scuffle, someone pulled Robert’s shirt over his head and began stabbing him in the back. The fight dispersed when someone in the crowd of onlookers screamed, “Cops!”
As half of the crowd fled, Robert, suffering three stabs wound and bleeding profusely, tried to away, but ended up collapsing on the cold pavement. Numerous other teens remained, still fighting, pushing, and screaming as police made their way to the scene.
Despite the sheer amount of witnesses, no one seemed to know who stabbed Robert. According to the Portland Press Herald, former Portland police chief, Michael Chitwood, said at the time that many witnesses were too scared to come forward, with fear of being called “snitches” or even worse, being retaliated against. Others, according to Chitwood, felt a sense of loyalty that prevented them from talking.
“Unfortunately, witnesses not cooperating or not coming forward is commonplace,” Chitwood said. “It’s a great American tragedy.”
Police found a 10-inch, double-edged knife at the scene, still in evidence today. The knife was covered in Robert’s blood. Police later found Joyal’s blood inside the jacket of one of people Srey had been hanging out with that night.
As authorities continued to question witnesses, Srey’s name popped up several times. One witness allegedly said Srey later told her he stabbed someone in the back several times after being called a racial slur. After locating the teen and interviewing him, he reportedly confessed to the stabbing.
Police promptly arrested Srey, but two years later, the case dropped. Officials indicated the case was highly circumstantial, with differing accounts by witnesses and a fingerprint on the knife that didn’t match.
Robert’s family feel that while Srey was involved in the fight, another person may have stabbed Robert. Since Srey was allegedly trying to join a gang at the time, he could have possibly taken the fall for others.
Sreay never confirmed these allegations. In 2007, he was found murdered and left in a wooded area behind the former Howard Sports in Saco, Maine.
“We still believe [Srey] was involved in the incident and had a hand in Robert Joyal’s death,” Martin said. “Over the course of years, we’ve reinterviewed and attempted to interview people. We were met with resistance and reluctance.”
Srey may have known who killed Robert if, indeed, he didn’t do it himself. However, with a plethora of people in the parking night on the night in question, McCollum thinks there has to be more witnesses who know, people who may have been afraid to come forward back then.
“These teenagers that saw this are now possibly parents themselves,” McCollum said, hoping that time has allowed them the courage to come forward with any details remembered. “The police and the family are asking that anyone with information about the events that occurred in the Denny’s parking lot please come forward.”
McCollum is thinking of ways to test for additional DNA evidence in the case, including testing the knife still in evidence with the M-Vac, a wet vacuum machine that creates a “mini-hurricane” to loosen to hard-to-reach DNA. The vacuum then sucks up the suspended particles, which are then collected into a sterile bottle.
Marc and his family remain hopeful that Robert’s case will soon be solved. In the meantime, Marc keeps the memories of his “full of life and love” brother close to his heart.
“Even without him [Robert] physically here, his presence is always with our family,” Marc told CrimeOnline. “You can’t put ornaments on the [Christmas] tree without thinking about him goofing off and singing Christmas carols. You can’t help but want to cheer someone up when they are in pain, because that’s who Rob was. He was willing to lighten the load for others . It’s not hard to think of him as Superman sometimes.”
“We miss him every moment of every day. We still can’t believe he’s not here.”
[Feature Photo: Robert Joyal/Family Handout]