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.


In many ways, blaming depravity and chance offers its own kind of reassurance. Middle-class whites expect impoverished blacks to act out through violence in their own neighborhoods; indeed, we largely ignore it. But when the violence comes to us, in the neighborhoods we’ve moved into and beautified and now call our own, we’re quick to couch it in abstract terms like good and evil, to remove geography and ourselves from the conversation. To consider the contrary — that a sort of small-scale yet deeply rooted urban anarchy thrives mere blocks away, to be continuously uprooted as the gentrifier encroaches further — is difficult.
That’s why the murder of Sabina Rose O’Donnell got such a strong reaction — it had to be cast in a certain way. It had to be them vs. us; it could not be them in light of us.

On a recent overcast afternoon, I took a walk up Girard Avenue, an odd street by any estimation, past a chicken shop, a hipster-esque specialty food store, several nail places, two tattoo parlors, many vacant storefronts, and a convenience store with bulletproof glass. A mix of old industrial spaces and walk-ups of wildly differing quality spread to the north, while the aspirations of the Piazza and Northern Liberties beckoned to the south. I made a right on 4th Street. I slipped just above Girard Avenue, to walk behind a building to the place where Sabina Rose O’Donnell died. What was once an overgrown lot has itself been gentrified. The weeds have been cut, and the trash removed; several beds of roses are to be planted. A mural — of Hello Kitties and birds and roses and S-A-B-I-N-A spelled out in red — covered the walls. A note left on the ground and bleeding from a recent rain read, Sabina, we miss you. There was the muffled sound of the traffic on Girard, and from somewhere nearby, there was also the faint sound of a power tool, a saw sawing, a hammer hammering.