Remembering Sabina

Star re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man re­flects on how the com­munity has changed, and be­come safer, in the years since the death of Sa­bina O'Don­nell.

You don’t have a soul,

You are a soul,

You have a body

In June of 2010, I opened a Star story with those lines from a poem by C.S. Lewis.

The quo­ta­tion was prin­ted on a me­mori­al card from a trib­ute event for Sa­bina Rose O’Don­nell held just days after the 20-year-old wait­ress was found murdered in a va­cant lot a few feet from her home.

Last week, the man re­spons­ible for her bru­tal as­sault and stran­gu­la­tion, the now 20-year-old Donte John­son, was found guilty and sen­tenced to life in pris­on, plus 40 to 80 years.

Fol­low­ing her death, I was struck by the sin­cere out­pour­ing of love and sup­port from the com­munity.

In the wake of the tragedy, I re­mem­ber meet­ings where neigh­bors grilled po­lice of­fi­cials when an­swers – and an ar­rest – couldn’t come fast enough.

After a candle­light me­mori­al in her name, I saw frus­trated loc­als hop onto bikes and take to the streets to start im­pro­vised and im­pas­sioned bike patrols in hopes of find­ing the man who took her life.

In the city’s Po­lice Headquar­ters at 8th and Race streets, I joined oth­er re­port­ers in view­ing the ini­tial sur­veil­lance foot­age taken from a busi­ness at 4th Street and Gir­ard Av­en­ue from the night of June 2, 2010. The foot­age showed John­son fol­low­ing O’Don­nell when she biked home after a night out with friends.

I was at Po­lice Headquar­ters on the even­ing of June 15, 2010, when halfway through the event, John­son was ap­pre­hen­ded by po­lice and was brought in for ques­tion­ing while re­port­ers filled the lobby of the build­ing.

It was a hec­tic time in the neigh­bor­hoods, and while read­ing about last week’s tri­al, I couldn’t help but be re­minded how those events changed the com­munity.

It’s fair to say that sur­veil­lance cam­era foot­age played a big part in John­son’s ap­pre­hen­sion and even­tu­al con­vic­tion.

Along with the foot­age taken from the cam­era on 4th Street and Gir­ard Av­en­ue, foot­age taken from an­oth­er shop near Front Street and Gir­ard Av­en­ue provided more de­tailed im­ages of John­son’s face, and proved that he had been mak­ing the rounds that night, pur­portedly on the hunt for someone to rob.

In fact, after he was ar­res­ted, John­son told po­lice that he only con­fron­ted O’Don­nell be­cause he wanted her bike.

Since then, the neigh­bor­hood’s sur­veil­lance net­work has grown.

Last year, the North­ern Liber­ties Busi­ness Own­ers As­so­ci­ation began work to bring a 50-cam­era, $100,000 sur­veil­lance sys­tem to the com­munity.

The Phil­adelphia Po­lice have stepped up to sup­port pro­grams like the North­ern Liber­ties sur­veil­lance pro­gram, with Sa­fe­Cam, which al­lows of­ficers to use foot­age from any cam­era in the city that is re­gistered with the po­lice.

But here in the river­wards, loc­als have even taken a more act­ive role in crime pre­ven­tion by start­ing the newly formed River­Ward Crime Watch as a way to en­able loc­als to gath­er to­geth­er to keep their streets safe.

And though not a dir­ect re­ac­tion to this tragedy, in the years fol­low­ing O’Don­nell’s death, res­id­ents and com­munity act­iv­ists have also taken on the cause of re­vital­iz­ing va­cant land.

Va­cant lots throughout the city have long been places where crim­in­als could hide from the pry­ing eyes of both the loc­al popu­lace and po­lice.

That’s chan­ging as com­munity groups, artist col­lect­ives and hard-work­ing res­id­ents are con­vert­ing va­cant prop­er­ties in­to work­able, healthy com­munity amen­it­ies like parks and com­munity spaces.

The va­cant lot where O’Don­nell’s body was found has since been ren­ov­ated with a painted mur­al and named the “Sa­bina Rose Gar­dens.”

Would any of the changes in the sur­round­ing com­munity have changed O’Don­nell’s fate if they were in place in 2010? 

That’s im­possible to say.

But it does say something about the power­ful im­pact O’Don­nell had on the com­munity, both in her life and in death.

With pro­act­ive crim­in­al de­terrents and the on­go­ing sup­port and co­oper­a­tion from neigh­bors who are will­ing to stand up and say “no more,” fu­ture tra­gedies —like the hor­rors that be­fell O’Don­nell— can hope­fully be pre­ven­ted.

Star Staff Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be con­tac­ted at 215-354-3124 or hmit­


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