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.