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.


Ahmir “?uestlove” (pronounced “Questlove”) Thompson — music producer and drummer for the Roots, the most successful musical act to come out of Philadelphia in decades — considered the nature of Sabina O’Donnell’s murder from a completely different perspective. Thompson, an acquaintance of O’Donnell’s, closely followed her case and helped raise money on her behalf. Upon seeing Donte Johnson’s mug shot — inky brown eyes, childlike face, an expression whose meaning is its own Rorschach test — he couldn’t help feeling something other than just odium.

Thompson was right in sensing how unformed Donte Johnson was. He had dropped out of high school in his freshman year. Neighbors at the Philadelphia Housing Authority townhouses where he lived were either shocked or not surprised at all by the charges against him; they painted him, alternately, as polite and inconsequential, or as obstreperous and menacing. Ultimately, it was his single mother — “a good woman,” neighbors said, who worked every day to support her children — who turned him in, after the surveillance footage began circulating and he reportedly confessed to her.

Thompson took to his Twitter account to express his sympathies for both O’Donnell and Johnson, which generated a significant amount of blowback. He wrote of how he’d initially hoped O’Donnell’s attacker would turn out to be white, so as not to reinforce the old racist bit that “see! they ARE animals!” He said his feelings were informed by the fact that he grew up in an awful section of West Philadelphia, one where he woke at 6 a.m. every day to boil water in order to bathe, and from which just he and two friends made it out alive and not incarcerated. It is a place, Thompson suggested, regardless of how proximally close it might be, utterly incomprehensible to those not of it — a place where, among the thousands of faceless, disengaged black boys, an unconscious rage simmers constantly. “Just as all the women in that neighborhood internalized sabina’s murder as ‘that could have been me or any of us!!!,’” Thompson wrote, “i internalized donte.” It was a stunning admission: one of the most sought-after talents in contemporary music, a wealthy 39-year-old, looking into the mug shot of a teenage rapist-turned-murderer to see a version of himself reflected back.

: The attacks on O’Donnell and Mansfield were aberrations; the overwhelming majority of crimes that blacks commit in Philadelphia are perpetrated on fellow blacks. But if you took Johnson’s confession at face value, consider what those two crimes had in common: In both cases, a black teenager traveled a few blocks to the edge of his neighborhood, where he engaged in a fit of violence that seemed largely spontaneous and uncontrollable.