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.


Both boys were without fathers. Both were poor. Both had dropped out of high school. Both had previous run-ins with the law and showed a pattern of escalation. (Johnson was arrested in 2006 for attacking a police officer at his high school, and then two years later for drug possession.) And in almost every one of these respects, Cook and Johnson represented the ever-increasing norm — not the exception — for black youths in Philadelphia. I spoke to someone close to Johnson’s defense about what might have provoked him that night. “You want to know why?” he said. “This is a simple case of the haves and have-nots. He wanted her bike.” Which is another way of saying that Johnson’s and his victim’s fates were sealed not just by random chance, but also by geography, the physical intersection of two otherwise discrete lives. If an environment of emotional and material deprivation creates boys like Johnson and Cook, then a very different, invading world — largely white and comparatively privileged — would be an increasingly likely place for a violent reaction.

To the gentrifier, this is among the most terrifying propositions: the idea that delineated boundaries between “us” and “them” could be meaningless. This was evidenced by the reaction to O’Donnell’s murder, including the arguments that erupted over fixing its location on the map. Several print and television media reported it had occurred in Northern Liberties, or took to referring to it as “the Northern Liberties murder,” even though the attack technically happened just north of the agreed-upon dividing line of the south side of Girard Avenue, making it Kensington. It was an inaccuracy that Mary Dankanis, the 50-year Northern Liberties resident, sought to correct when she logged on to the almost absurdly active Northern Liberties Message Board. In response, Dankanis was called “insensitive,” “horrible,” and a “troll” whose actions were seen as seeking to “minimize a tragedy.” Dankanis says she instantly regretted what she’d done. “I just wanted people to know that that did not occur in Northern Liberties, because we had fought so hard for those boundaries for so long,” she told me. Intentional or not, the insinuation seemed unavoidable: Things like this happen over there, not here.