Watch outrage over a woman's deadly stabbing

Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old black woman, was stabbed to death by a white male in an unprovoked attack.

Posted: Jul 29, 2018 11:02 AM
Updated: Jul 29, 2018 11:34 AM

Nia Wilson was standing on a Bay Area Rapid Transit station platform in Oakland, California, Sunday night when she was stabbed to death in an apparently unprovoked attack.

By Monday night, John Cowell, 27, had been arrested in connection to the stabbing, but days later, officials still haven't said what prompted the attack, which a police chief compared to a "prison yard assault."

The random murder of Wilson -- a black teenager described by her family as loving and selfless -- prompted nearly 1,000 people to march in Oakland in a vigil for Wilson early this week, according to an estimate by the Oakland police.

Some have claimed the attack was racially motivated, because Cowell is white, though the BART police and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office have said they don't have evidence to back up that claim. Cowell's family released a statement that said he had been struggling with mental illness.

But Wilson's family members and others in the community feel the murder should be considered a hate crime, regardless of what caused the fatal stabbing.

"It is a hate crime," Malika Harris, Wilson's 25-year-old sister told CNN on Thursday. "That's how I feel, okay?"

She described her 18-year-old sister as "beautiful inside and out," and "always positive." She had been working at a clothing consignment store, but was thinking about joining the Army. Wilson, Harris said, was always willing to help people, no matter the circumstances.

Wilson's godfather, Daryle Allums, echoed that sentiment, and told CNN that Wilson had a "love for people."

"A lot of kids are selfish nowadays," he said. "She'd give her shirt off to a person who didn't have a shirt, you know?"

"My daughter was everything," Wilson's father, Ansar Muhammed, said, according to CNN affiliate KRON. "She was so beautiful, so inspirational, had dreams, you know?"

"All I want is justice for my daughters."

The attack

Wilson and her 26-year-old sister Lahtifa Wilson were transferring at the MacArthur BART station when Cowell allegedly walked up and stabbed both of them, according to police.

Lahtifa, who survived, described the attack to CNN affiliate KGO on Monday, and said it came out of nowhere.

The sisters were on their way home from a family function, she told KGO, when they were "blindsided by a maniac."

"For what, I don't know," she added.

"I looked back and he was wiping off his knife and stood at the stairs and just looked. From then on I was caring for my sister."

BART police were patrolling the station when the sisters were stabbed around 9:36 p.m., and rendered aid to them, according to a BART news release.

But Nia Wilson died at the scene, according to a probable cause document for Cowell's arrest. And her sister was taken to a hospital.

"It was, in my close to 30 years of police experience, probably one of the most vicious attacks that I've seen," said BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas in a news conference Monday morning.

Wilson's death was the third in less than a week from unrelated attacks on the BART system.

Suspect 'has a violent past'

By Monday morning, BART police had identified Cowell as the suspect in the stabbing, and released images from past BART surveillance footage to help in the search.

According to the declaration of probable cause, Cowell was seen in surveillance footage stabbing the sisters before running away. As he escaped through a nearby parking structure, he discarded his sweatshirt and backpack, which was later found and contained items inside identifying him by name and his date of birth, it said.

On Monday evening, a BART rider recognized Cowell after seeing him on the local news, and called police. Soon after, he was in police custody.

Cowell has not been linked to any radical right wing or white supremacist groups, Rojas said, but he "has a violent past."

Cowell was convicted of second-degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in 2016, according to the criminal complaint. He was paroled in May after being sentenced to two years in prison for second-degree robbery, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Rojas described Cowell as a "transient," and said, "there's no doubt in my mind that this individual is the killer, and we're going to bring him to justice."

Cowell and the Wilson sisters had been on the same train car, but they never interacted, Rojas said, and there was nothing to suggest that there was any dispute between them.

"It looks like it's an unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious attack," Rojas said.

On Wednesday, Cowell was charged with the murder of Nia Wilson and the attempted murder of her sister. He's currently being held in the Santa Rita Jail without bail, according to online records.

CNN was unable to reach an attorney for Cowell on Friday, but attorney Jeff Chorney with the Alameda County Public Defender's Office told CNN earlier this week it was not commenting on the case at this time.

Was the attack racially motivated?

Cowell's family released a statement extending its sympathy to Wilson's, and said Cowell had long been suffering from mental illness.

"He has been in & out of jail & has not had the proper treatment," the statement said. He's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the family said, and they had to get a restraining order at one point "for our own protection." Cowell's been living on the streets since.

"This is in no way an excuse for this senseless and vicious attack," the statement said.

But Wilson's father expressed doubt about the suggestion that Cowell's mental illness was behind the attack.

"Basically, I think it's an excuse," Ansar Muhammad told KRON. "I hate to say that but you know, why would you choose two young black girls? That's all I want to say."

Nia's sister Malika Harris agreed.

"He wasn't mentally ill. He was well-aware of everything that was going on," she told CNN. "If he was mentally ill, after the incident, why go change your clothes? Why would change your clothes, wipe off the knife?"

Members of the community had a range of opinions at a makeshift memorial for Wilson outside the MacArthur station on Thursday.

"I'm mad as hell," said Kayla Humphreys, a 20-year-old who went to the same high school as Wilson. "She's black. He's white. He knew exactly what he was doing."

Others, like Cedric Hunter, 35, aren't so sure. "It was a senseless act," Hunter said. "I don't think it was necessarily race."

In a statement, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recognized the murder would cause "deep pain," regardless of whether it was motivated by race.

"Although investigators currently have no evidence to conclude that this tragedy was racially motivated or that the suspect was affiliated with any hate groups, the fact that his 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," she said.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, whose office is prosecuting Cowell, said her office is still investigating whether the stabbing could be a hate crime, KGO reported.

"There has to be evidence that it was motivated by hate and in this case, whether it was motivated by their gender or by their race, we're still gathering the evidence to look at that," she said Wednesday.

Allums, the godfather, isn't sure if the attack was racially motivated, but it won't change the fact that his goddaughter is gone.

"I don't know if it was racist," he said. "I don't know if it was random. I don't know these crazies. I don't know what it is. I know that my baby is dead. And it's a senseless death."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 352891

Reported Deaths: 7597
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds24704451
DeSoto23619283
Harrison21395335
Jackson15984255
Rankin15957294
Madison11224227
Lee10952180
Jones9316171
Forrest9136163
Lauderdale8211244
Lamar736590
Lowndes7253152
Lafayette6658125
Washington5681140
Pearl River5396155
Oktibbeha506598
Bolivar5022134
Warren4828128
Panola4823112
Marshall4759106
Pontotoc455773
Neshoba4487181
Hancock444488
Union441479
Monroe4390138
Lincoln4247116
Pike3771114
Leflore3696125
Alcorn362474
Tate356188
Sunflower351794
Adams350690
Scott349177
Yazoo344877
Copiah333569
Simpson329191
Itawamba318581
Tippah316569
Coahoma316385
Covington305584
Prentiss304163
Leake291976
Marion291882
George285851
Wayne282345
Grenada272488
Newton269264
Tishomingo241670
Stone240038
Winston238484
Jasper236248
Attala229974
Chickasaw222760
Clay204654
Holmes204374
Clarke190480
Tallahatchie185842
Smith184936
Calhoun184632
Yalobusha174241
Walthall151249
Lawrence146426
Greene144735
Amite140144
Noxubee137635
Perry137038
Montgomery134644
Carroll127531
Webster125132
Jefferson Davis121334
Tunica116627
Benton108425
Claiborne106131
Kemper105029
Humphreys102533
Franklin88724
Quitman86819
Choctaw83619
Wilkinson79632
Jefferson72328
Sharkey52018
Issaquena1746
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 595816

Reported Deaths: 11561
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson865251591
Mobile50436872
Madison37905534
Shelby27652260
Tuscaloosa27422465
Montgomery26428628
Baldwin26175329
Lee17414181
Calhoun15549334
Morgan15265291
Etowah15106372
Marshall13248236
Houston12297294
Elmore11006220
St. Clair10903252
Limestone10867158
Cullman10643206
Lauderdale10374255
DeKalb9603193
Talladega9032188
Walker7873288
Autauga7635114
Blount7463140
Jackson7450117
Colbert6780142
Coffee6515132
Dale5803117
Covington4864125
Russell483543
Chilton4828117
Franklin465681
Tallapoosa4591156
Escambia457583
Chambers4007125
Dallas3756164
Clarke374663
Marion3490107
Pike336979
Lawrence3280100
Winston301973
Bibb293766
Geneva293083
Marengo263867
Barbour254361
Pickens247962
Butler243672
Hale236979
Fayette228565
Henry218845
Monroe206941
Randolph203844
Cherokee201748
Washington189439
Macon172252
Crenshaw171758
Clay167659
Cleburne161845
Lamar152638
Lowndes146555
Wilcox132731
Bullock126542
Conecuh123032
Coosa119729
Perry111228
Sumter110933
Greene99937
Choctaw64525
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