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.


Even given all that, Sabina O’Donnell’s murder seemed to threaten Northern Liberties’ success. Blatstein had envisioned a “self-contained village,” and the intrinsic NoLibs boundaries — the Delaware River to the east and 6th Street to the west, Girard Avenue and Spring Garden Street marking north and south limits — helped create that sense. But for Philadelphia to grow, it must push the boundaries of its city center farther and farther: not just south and west — relatively small geographical areas — but north, and not just along the river, but also into the interior, the endless blighted hinterland.

And a city is also, by definition, an open place, where geographic lines are ultimately fluid, melting into one other. O’Donnell’s murder demonstrated that no arbitrary lines of demarcation can insulate you from what lies just beyond, that gentrification exists outside the abstract, that it involves real people pressing against real people.

WITH ALL DUE RESPECT TO BART BLATSTEIN,” Katrina Mansfield says, “what was happening in Northern Liberties started long before him.” Mansfield, 47, a graphic artist, was part of the wave of the first “creative class” that moved to the neighborhood almost two decades ago. She arrived there after years of commuting from the suburbs, and remembers the early days, when Northern Liberties was full of empty lots and “wacky old cat people and wacky old Jesus people,” when she and a core group set about creating Liberty Lands park, another field of rubble they cleared, then planted with trees, roses and raised beds, and “basically squatted on until the city said, ‘Yeah, you can have it.’”

Two years ago, around three o’clock on a frigid November morning, Mansfield’s doorbell rang. She climbed out of bed and made her way to her front window, which she opened to find 15-year-old Derrick Cook, a doughy boy with a wide smile, standing on her front steps. He was one of several boys who lived on nearby blocks to whom Mansfield and some others on her street would offer odd jobs; a few days earlier, he had raked her front yard for $10. Mansfield, the product of working-class parents, says she did this primarily to “show them how to make an honest dollar.” She admits, as well, that “part of me thought I was also buying a little bit of an insurance policy.”

Cook told her he was sorry to bother her, but he’d been locked out of his house. Could he come inside and wait? Mansfield unlocked the door; she smelled liquor on Cook’s breath. He said he wasn’t feeling well. Mansfield turned on the TV and offered for him to lie down on the couch while she got him a glass of water and Tylenol.