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.


The 15-year-old in her living room — about whom Mansfield knew next to nothing — 
had been born to a teenager himself, one profoundly addicted to cocaine. High on drugs or otherwise indisposed, she dropped him as a baby, including on his head. As she moved in and out of jail, he shifted in and out of her life. Sometimes, deluded, she locked him in the bathroom for hours at a time; he once awoke to her standing over him clutching a pair of scissors. At three, he was diagnosed with ADHD. At age 10, he was institutionalized, for picking at himself. He tried to kill himself two years later. His mother refused his treatment. He dropped out of high school. And three months before that night in Mansfield’s house, he forced a woman at gunpoint into a vacant Northern Liberties lot, where he raped her repeatedly, banged her head with rocks, and forced her to tell him she loved him.

Mansfield was standing at her sink when Cook came to the kitchen and began pummeling her with his fists. She pleaded with him to stop. He called her a bitch and ordered her to shut up. He took out his penis and demanded that she perform oral sex on him. He grabbed a 10-inch knife from the countertop. He plunged it into her. He bashed Mansfield in the head, crushing the left side of her skull, sending shards of bone into the back of her left eyeball. She lay on the floor, bleeding profusely, unable to see, her neck broken. Cook left.

A minute later, he returned. With Mansfield at his feet, Cook washed his hands at her kitchen sink. Then, leaving a trail of blood that police would follow to his house, he walked out her front door.

THE ATTACKS ON SABINA O’DONNELL AND KATRINA MANSFIELD were separated by just over two blocks. Both were perpetrated by neighborhood boys living only blocks from their victims. It’s possible the proximity means nothing more than that the victims were close at hand, and easy, arbitrary targets.

It is also possible that the violence was born of its perpetrators’ dispositions. This is the tack that many, including the media, seem wont to take; in the O’Donnell slaying, news stories repeatedly cast her killer as “vicious” or “savage,” while reinforcing the image of O’Donnell as a young woman who played with ladybugs and relocated ants to protect them from being stepped on. And it is obviously true that Cook was horribly abused as a young child.

Mansfield, who would require 10 surgeries after Cook’s attack, still lives in the same house; she says she’s too invested in her neighborhood to leave. “This is a 15-year-old kid who a few days earlier I had taken a picture of, smiling into my camera, sweet as can be,” she told me. “These criminals are operating on a set of morals and logic that has nothing to do with the kinds of morals and logic that noncriminals operate on. They’re not like you and me.”