A man with a history of violence has been charged in what police said appears to be an unprovoked fatal stabbing of a young woman traveling in Oakland on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train.
John Lee Cowell, 27, quickly identified after the Sunday night attack from surveillance videos, was arrested aboard another BART train Monday evening after an anonymous tip, BART police Chief Carlos Rojas said at a news conference.
Cowell has a criminal record for a “series of violent offenses,” Rojas said, without elaborating, and was released from prison on parole in May for robbing a store with a box cutter and a replica gun, according to NBC Bay Area Channel 11 and other media.
“Everything that we’ve uncovered up to this point, we see no altercation,” Rojas said at a press conference. “We don’t have any information that there was any type of dispute. It looks like it was an unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious attack.”
The killer suddenly attacked Nia Wilson, 18, Sunday night, stabbing her in the neck on a transit platform without uttering a word, according to witnesses.
Her older sister, Latifah Wilson, 26, was also stabbed, and remains hospitalized in stable condition.
“She [was] just yelling my name, ‘Tifah, Tifah, Tifah.’ And I said, ‘I got you baby, I got you,‘” Wilson told ABC 7. “We’re gonna’ get through this. I got you, you’re my baby sister,” Wilson told Nia. “I’m her protector and I feel like I didn’t protect her.”
Wilson said she saw the attacker standing by the station stairs calmly wiping blood from his knife as she held her sister. Nia Wilson was declared dead at the scene.
Nia’s heartbroken father, Ansar Mohammed, told ABC: “That’s my baby girl.”
It was the third death in less than a week in unrelated attacks on BART.
Members of the community on Monday marched to mourn Nia Wilson and demand better security. Hundreds also gathered at a makeshift memorial site inside the BART station where she was killed.
The suspected murder weapon was found at a construction site near MacArthur station in Oakland, where the killing occurred, authorities said.
Cowell apparently boarded the same train as Nia and her two sisters in Concord on Sunday, and disembarked when they did at the MacArthur station. But he never exchanged a word with them, according to Latifah Wilson.
Police have no information connecting Cowell to any white supremacist group, but they’re continuing to explore all possible motives, Rojas said.
Rojas called it one of the most “vicious” attacks he’s seen in his decades on the BART police force.
Nia’s godfather, Daryle Allums, appealed for calm in the community.
“We don’t know if it’s racist, we don’t know if this was random. We don’t know what it was, but we’re asking the African American community to stand down right now,” he said at the press conference with Rojas. “Let’s get this information to find out what really happened.”
In a statement to local news outlet KRON on Tuesday, relatives of Cowell said they were “heartbroken” and expressed condolences to Wilson’s family.
“This horrific tragedy never should have happened,” Cowell’s family said. They went on:
Unfortunately, John has been suffering from mental illness most of his life. He has been in & out of Jail & has not had the proper treatment. When he was released from the Atascadero State Mental Facility inside the Atascadero State Prison on 5/8/18, there was not a place for him to go with most of the mental institutions being shut down. Knowing that he was diagnosed with being bi-polar & schizophrenia, the system has failed in this instance. We had to get a restraining order at one time as well for our own protection. He was living on the streets without the proper treatment. This is in no way an excuse for this senseless and vicious attack.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf shared her condolences with Nia Wilson’s family and friends in a statement.
Although investigators “currently have no evidence to conclude that this was racially motivated ... the fact that [the] victims were both young African American women stirs deep pain and palpable fear in all of us who acknowledge the reality that our country still suffers from a tragic and deeply racist history,” the mayor added.
Twitter was flooded with condolences for Nia Wilson’s friends and family, as well as anger at the violence.