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 firstname.lastname@example.org.