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.


Two weeks would pass before a suspect in her killing was identified and arrested: Donte Johnson, a high-school dropout from a housing project less than 10 blocks away. According to police, Johnson confessed to murdering O’Donnell in a cascading series of events that began with him wanting the bike she was riding. The crime seemed random and senseless and inexplicable to almost everyone, including even Johnson, who told police he couldn’t himself understand why he’d done what he’d done. In a city where more than 300 people are murdered each year, as indecorous as it is to admit, the death of Sabina Rose O’Donnell seemed instantly different. What happened near Girard Avenue that morning — and the neighborhood’s reaction to it — seemed to say something larger about the health of this city at this moment, about the possibilities and challenges caught up in its growing, and about what happens when one neighborhood, one world, really, begins bleeding into another.

SABINA O’DONNELL WAS SCHOOLED IN THE CITY. She attended the Greenfield School at 22nd and Chestnut streets, and the prestigious Julia R. Masterman School. She ended up graduating in 2007 from the Franklin Learning Center on 15th Street, where she majored in dance. She dabbled in acting and modeling and danced her way through the city’s most popular clubs. It was through a friend named Phalla Sen — who styled O’Donnell’s hair for her prom night — that she came to belong in the neighborhood; Sen introduced O’Donnell to Sen’s boyfriend, Tommy Up, who hired O’Donnell, at 17, to work the door at his parties. “We ran this neighborhood,” Sen says. “She’s a part of it.”

Though, truly, the gentrification of “this neighborhood” goes back to its origins; Northern Liberties was founded by William Penn in 1682 as a sort of boundless suburb of the city. Over many years, its marshland was converted first into a sort of rural town and eventually into an urban neighborhood, incorporated by the city in 1842. Thousands of rowhomes were built to house a diverse mixture of ethnicities and races, which got along mostly well. Industry thrived. The Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s breweries hummed.

By the mid-20th century, though, the factories along the river had begun closing. Unprecedented mortgage opportunities and new highways sent whites streaming 
to the suburbs. Crime moved in. Many whites chose simply to abandon their homes, which were overtaken by squatters. “It was crumbling,” recalls Mary Dankanis, 73, who’s lived with her husband for the past 50 years in the house where he was born, at 4th and Fairmount. “It was empty. It was really 
considered a ghetto.” For decades, the racial makeup of Northern Liberties had been mixed; now, it was largely black.