Feature: Understanding the Man Who Killed Sabina Rose O’Donnell

One night last June, Sabina Rose O’Donnell, a popular young waitress heading home in Northern Liberties, was dragged from her bike, raped, and murdered. An 18-year-old man who lived 10 blocks away, in North Philadelphia, confessed. The media portrayed her killing as random. Given the way the city is changing, it may be anything but.

LATE ONE NIGHT this past June, police say, a very young black man — more like a boy, actually — rode his bike over and around Girard Avenue. He was 18 but looked younger, small, with handsome features, big brown eyes and close-cropped hair. He wore a white tank top undershirt and baggy jeans. For more than an hour he pedaled, up and down, looping wildly, in the process moving unconsciously back and forth across a sort of invisible line of demarcation. She appears first on the surveillance footage as a blurry blip, also on a bike, heading in the opposite direction. Her name was Sabina Rose O’Donnell. Exotically attractive, exceedingly petite, O’Donnell, a few weeks shy of 21, was well-known around Northern Liberties, the site of the most successful neighborhood redevelopment in Philadelphia in at least a generation, on the southern side of Girard. She worked as a server at the upscale burger joint/club PYT (as in Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing”), part of developer Bart Blatstein’s wildly popular Piazza at Schmidts project. Earlier, she and a few friends had had drinks at an upscale neighborhood Mexican place. She proceeded to a friend’s apartment. Around 2:30, she borrowed a bike and began pedaling west to the apartment she shared with her stepfather, at 4th and Girard. At 2:50, surveillance footage captured her passing the boy on the bike. The boy looped around. He pedaled faster, quickly closing the gap.

What happened next, outside the view of the surveillance cameras and explicated by forensic evidence and the boy’s eventual confession, was horrific. Police say the boy grabbed the girl from the bike. Equal in size, they struggled. The girl attempted to scream. He put her into a choke-hold. He dragged her by her neck to an overgrown lot behind her apartment building. He beat and choked her into unconsciousness. He raped her. Finally, he killed her. Around 10 a.m., a woman walking her dog discovered O’Donnell’s naked body, her bra knotted tightly around her neck. A man’s discarded undershirt lay nearby.

The neighborhood was shocked, appalled, outraged, and thrust into not only a collective mourning, but also a sort of unified front the likes of which the City of Philadelphia hadn’t seen in a long time. Almost instantly, a $25,000 reward was offered for the capture of the killer. Tommy Up — owner of PYT, ubiquitous party promoter, and personal friend of O’Donnell’s — established a fund to pay for her funeral. Danny Bonaduce discussed the killing on his radio show, and donated money personally. Parties in O’Donnell’s honor were held at all her favorite haunts. American Airlines donated tickets so O’Donnell’s family members could fly to Philadelphia. “This was an assault on our community, and it was particularly upsetting because it could happen anywhere,” Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, told the Inquirer; it was a 
paradoxical warning that seemed directed to an unspecified but universally agreed-upon us, that we were in danger. Finally, hundreds descended on a memorial-cum-party — replete with champagne, well-known DJs, music, and food donated by the neighborhood’s best restaurants — at O’Donnell’s beloved Liberty Lands park, where, the Inquirer noted, she often “hung out with friends, walked dogs, and played with ladybugs.” The location proved in some ways ironic. O’Donnell had grown up in Philadelphia. Unlike so many of Northern Liberties’ newer residents — early-20-somethings drawn to its hip aesthetics and hip bars and hip people, with no institutional knowledge of what it was not so long ago — O’Donnell seemed to perceive more: It was at Liberty Lands one day that she watched the ongoing construction and worried aloud that it all might be going too far. The irony was that O’Donnell was more than a witness to the gentrification. She was an essential part of it.

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  • Courtney

    I haven’t read the whole article yet, but I couldn’t get past the first couple of paragraphs. I am in no way trying to be rude about this girl, who is my age, and her death, but she was out alone, on Girard, at 2 am? I live in North Philly, and I go to Temple University, and I would never walk around there alone at 7:30 pm let alone 2 am. It boggles my mind that girls think they’re so invincible. That’s the tradedy. It’s been hammered into my head that where I live is really and truly dangerous, and it’s horrible that this girl will be made an example of for others of what not to do.

    • Lifeboatb

      Courtney says:
      …”she was out alone, on Girard, at 2 am?…I go to Temple University, and I would never walk around there alone at 7:30 pm…”

      Why aren’t more people angry that women are not safe on the street at any hour, and thinking about how to correct that, rather than deciding that the problem is “girls [who] think they’re so invincible”? It’s terrible that you feel you can’t walk on the street near your university. Philadelphians should be trying to do something about that, instead of demanding that every woman lock herself up.

  • Christy

    What is so upsetting about these stories and so many like it is the lack of solution. How do we, black and white, poor and wealthy, all people, help create change so that these youth have a fighting chance despite who their parents are and how they were born? That is the true challenge we face as a city and I wish someone would being to lead the movement to effect the change needed to make this a city where all people can live safely and happily.

  • Victor

    Why aren’t any solutions, or organizations working on solutions, discussed?

  • Ed

    Here we go again. An innocent young woman is brutally raped and murdered for essentially no reason at all, and we are lectured to ponder why the perpetrator committed this horrific act. As a society, we must cease blaming poverty as the cause for criminality of this type. If this young man had sold drugs for profit or mistakenly killed someone, it is one thing, but to explain this away with the typical broad brush approach is ludicrous. This woman was raped and murdered by an obviously disturbed and evil young man. Period.

  • donna

    The poverty issue in some cases are valid because of the type of things youth are exposed to, from birth that others are not. When your life isn’t valued day in and day out by others, you may not value the life of another, that isn’t always a given but sometimes the link does exist.

  • stix

    Trying to thoroughly understand something so spontaneously horrible against two lone and separate women, is no easier than trying to understand the Tate murders, whose executors had some logic and delusions, which have never offered comfort and never will.

    Misogyny runs thickly in the veins of every single “race” (sic) in this country,
    and more often than not , it may be the truest reason why too many women,
    are all too often victimized.

    It may terribly be the longest running war ever.

    You see: Misogyny has no neighborhood. Misogyny has no class ceiling.
    And yes, misogyny has no race in particular.

    And horribly most of all, misogyny has no beautiful reason to stop.

  • lala

    Simply put: The article was disappointing and a waste of time!!

  • amy

    It doesn’t matter if she was walking down the street by herself at 2am, this should have never happened. and it doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t walk alone there at 7:30pm, SHE LIVED THERE, along with thousands of other women that live in that area that should not be robbed of the opportunity of getting home alive because of someone else’s circumstances. It was her home, it is not appropriate to have a “well what did she expect” attitude about this. Everyone should be held responsible for their actions, no matter how hard their life. we all have free will.

  • Rebekah

    I find this article heartless and disrespectful. There are quite a few factual mistakes and omissions.
    The least you could’ve done Mr.Lee, is spell her name correctly (page 5, bold print)
    ~Beka
    S

  • nate

    Respectfully, this is neither a racial nor a socioeconomic issue as heinous acts are commited people of all races, economic classes and upbringings. If anything more than random violence, this was a h

  • nate

    Baloney. What got such a strong reaction was the depravity and violence of this hate crime.

  • nate

    Baloney. What got such a strong reaction was the depravity and violence of this hate crime.

  • nate

    If anything other than the depraved act of a sociopathic monster, this was a hate crime against women and should be prosecuted as such now that he’s pleaded innocent.

  • Jen

    First of all, the tone of this article is incredibly insensitive, disrespectful and cruel. Secondly, it is filled with incorrect information. How can you possibly call a memorial garden created by friends and neighbors who have lived in their neighborhood for well over a decade, gentrification! You should be more careful with your words Dan Lee. A lot of people are in a tremendous amount of pain over this heinous crime. Don’t add to their suffering with your poorly informed assumptions and wrongly based theories.

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • lila

    the article was poorly written. i read the entire article thinking information i didn’t know before would come up. it never did. i highly dislike this article aka garbage!

  • christina

    This is so insensitive to the families of those who have lost a child to murder. Relating Cook and Johnson to each other should not be done. Cook had psychological issues, was dropped as a child, and was sick. His “Dr. Jekyl/Hyde” personality makes sense in a way. Johnson wanted her bike and then couldn’t stop attacking her. This is about not knowing right from wrong. No matter how poor you are, or what race, you KNOW rape and murder is wrong. So is this saying that is Questlove didn’t become rich and famous he would have also killed someone due to being raised in a poor environment? This article is heartless and based on a theory that holds no water.

  • Antoinette

    The term gentrification is being radically over-used in Philadelphia. The article states Sabina’s past as a Philadelphia native. Why then when someone who’s grown up in Philly, and chooses to live in any neighborhood, do they suddenly become an agent of gentrification? Why when a white person moves to a black neighborhood, they suddenly represent a movement of gentrification? Philadelphia, along with other industrialized cities like Detroit, Boston and such, has an inherent trend of income driven boundaries, which has resulted in segregated neighborhoods. Reversing that trend, to be more like most Urban cities, should not be termed gentrification. Claiming a series of abandoned lots for a community memorial garden in light of a horrific crime, should not be termed gentrification. Yes, the majority of whites in Philadelphia are privileged – but then there are those who are not, living in Kensington, Port Richmond, and the Northeast. Calling all whites privileged and with money is basically perpetuating the reasoning behind young poor blacks for ‘taking what they deserve’. Stop feeding the fear of these young minds and help shed light on the fact that gentrification is actually a term used to…

  • Antoinette

    The term gentrification is being radically over-used in Philadelphia. The article states Sabina’s past as a Philadelphia native. Why then when someone who’s grown up in Philly, and chooses to live in any neighborhood, do they suddenly become an agent of gentrification? Why when a white person moves to a black neighborhood, they suddenly represent a movement of gentrification? Philadelphia, along with other industrialized cities like Detroit, Boston and such, has an inherent trend of income driven boundaries, which has resulted in segregated neighborhoods. Reversing that trend, to be more like most Urban cities, should not be termed gentrification. Claiming a series of abandoned lots for a community memorial garden in light of a horrific crime, should not be termed gentrification. Yes, the majority of whites in Philadelphia are privileged – but then there are those who are not, living in Kensington, Port Richmond, and the Northeast. Calling all whites privileged and with money is basically perpetuating the reasoning behind young poor blacks for ‘taking what they deserve’. Stop feeding the fear of these young minds and help shed light on the fact that gentrification is actually a term used to…

  • Tiffany

    I am saddened to read an article that I feel makes Philadelphia Magazine look very poor for printing something that was so carelessly written. What is even worse and even possibly even dangerous, is entertaining Mr. Lee’s delusions.

  • Tiffany

    I am saddened to read an article that I feel makes Philadelphia Magazine look very poor for printing something that was so carelessly written. What is even worse and even possibly even dangerous, is entertaining Mr. Lee’s delusions.

  • mel

    “All of which beings to make the violent rage of Donte Johnson and Derrick Cook-mysterious and inexplicable even to them-understandable.” Really? Really? You really wrote that sentence, Mr. Lee? Murder and rape are never “understandable,” with the exception perhaps of what I hope will be the daily rapes of both of these savages while they’re in prison…assuming some black judge doesn’t release them after 1 year or 2.

  • mel

    “All of which beings to make the violent rage of Donte Johnson and Derrick Cook-mysterious and inexplicable even to them-understandable.” Really? Really? You really wrote that sentence, Mr. Lee? Murder and rape are never “understandable,” with the exception perhaps of what I hope will be the daily rapes of both of these savages while they’re in prison…assuming some black judge doesn’t release them after 1 year or 2.

  • Szonia

    I’ve had it with Philadelphia Magazine. You guys need to bump it up a notch in your reporting skills. Philly Mag is in lala land and always has been. It tries to skirt real issues and tries way too hard to make this hard working town into a mecca of glitz. If you really researched this city of yours you would find some true treasures that others in the world have already discovered. For some reason you guys are always last in that department. Too busy looking at corporate branding / advertising to see what is under your own nose. Spend some money and hire some real seasoned reporters.

  • Gandhus

    The “small-scale yet deeply rooted urban anarchy” does not warrant preservation or respect. If these areas breed criminals “operating on a set of morals and logic that has nothing to do with the kinds of morals and logic that noncriminals do.” They serve no purpose and should not exist. Gentrification isn’t a bad word. It’s turning something worthless and wrong into something positive and worthwhile.

  • Tammy

    I refuse to accept gentrification as an excuse for this horrendous crime. This crime isnt about poverty or race. I refuse to address the question as to why Sabina was coming home 2am. We’ve all been 20 and did things like that and lived to tell about it. Hey, I know plenty of young black men from the urban area who are, guess what? Not murdering rapist! Predators come in all colors and have no reason besides their own twisted minds, don’t put this one on outside circumstances. Some people are just evil. For the record, I’m Black, grew up in North Philly and knew the families of both victim and predator. Donte doesn’t need excuses, he needs to sit in jail forever. Sabina is never coming back and there is no way to justify it.

  • Maureen

    What’s to understand? The only thing that I need to “understand” is that he KILLED this vivacious, beautiful young woman!! Not only did he kill her, but he tortured her by raping her first! He deserved the death penalty, but we are happy justice was served with a life sentence! Her life was cut short because of this animal’s “desires” and his defense team expects to invoke sympathy from the public? Sorry, there is no sympathy here. I don’t buy their mental retardation defense, and even if I did, it wouldn’t excuse what he did. My thoughts and prayers go out to Sabina’s family and friends. I met her during my time waitressing in Philly and she was sweet as could be. The world lost a sweet soul that terrible night. Thankfully, I believe in God and do think she is in a much better place where she doesn’t have to be afraid anymore, like she probably was when this animal attacked her. RIP Sabina.

  • King Dphax

    Great story! Could NOT stop reading!

    -KING

  • Jon

    This is a meandering, hack article that arrives at a conclusion that is rooted in impoverished sense of social politics.

    Here’s the difference between the authors view and reality: The author’s view:

    “Middle-class whites expect impoverished blacks to act out through violence in their own neighborhoods…”

    Reality:

    “Middle-class whites and everyone else expect impoverished blacks to NOT act out through violence anywhere…”

    White people shoulder no responsibility for the consistent murderous impulse of blacks. Wherever they go in the world, the violent crime follows. This includes Africa.

    Also, the Phillymag editorial department are cowards for not attaching a name to this article.