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.


And yet the entire notion of gentrification is rooted in the inevitable blurring of “here” and “there.” If the Northern Liberties experiment is to progress into anything more than a one-off, if the city is to continue to change and grow and, not to put too fine a point on it, survive, the blurring must continue its creep north. And with the blurring will come rubbing. And with the rubbing will come friction.

All of which begins to make the violent rage of Donte Johnson and Derrick Cook — mysterious and inexplicable even to them — understandable.

IN HIS CONFESSION TO POLICE two weeks after Sabina O’Donnell’s death, 18-year-old Donte Johnson expressed regret. “I shouldn’t have did it,” he told detectives. “I shouldn’t have put my hands on her. All over a bike.” Johnson told detectives that O’Donnell had “tried to scream, but I caught her already, so that stopped her. … She couldn’t breathe.”

When he first appeared in court last summer to hear charges of robbery, rape and murder, Johnson bawled. As he sat at the defense table, his shoulders shook. He turned to his mother in the audience and repeated over and over: Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. Johnson’s mother also sobbed, eventually becoming hysterical. Separated by an aisle, on the opposite side of the courtroom, Sabina’s family stayed reasonably composed, her mother wearing a t-shirt with a drawing by her daughter. The case against Johnson won’t be resolved until next year.

Derrick Cook, still pudgy at 17, pleaded guilty last summer to the attempted murder of Katrina Mansfield and the rape of the other Northern Liberties woman, and was sentenced to 20 to 45 years in prison. Cook, who apologized to his victims in a letter read by his public defender, sat quietly as his mother howled. Cook’s mother and grandmother had begged the judge for leniency; his mother blamed herself, her drug addiction, her being “selfish.” The prosecutor argued that there was no place for compassion, that Cook was a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” character whose backstory could neither explain nor rationalize how he could have knocked on a woman’s door at three in the morning to smash her head in, sexually assault her, and stab her all but to death as she stood at her sink, pouring him a glass of water.