A California parolee accused of stabbing two sisters -- one of them fatally -- Sunday on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform in Oakland has a long list of criminal charges in his past, as well as a history of mental illness, according to reports.
John Lee Cowell, 27, was arraigned Wednesday on a charge of murder with a deadly weapon in the slaying of Nia Wilson, 18, who was stabbed as she and her sister disembarked from a BART train at the line’s McArthur station. Nia Wilson’s sister, 26-year-old Lahtifa Wilson, was seriously injured in the attack.
A third sister was not injured, BART police Chief Carlos Rojas said Monday at a news conference.
Cowell, who was released from prison 75 days before the stabbings, is also charged with attempted murder in Lahtifa Wilson’s stabbing. Alameda County Jail records show Cowell is being charged with the special circumstances of using a deadly weapon and causing great bodily injury.
Rojas on Monday called the stabbing one of the most vicious attacks he’s seen in his nearly 30-year career.
“We’re really seeking justice for Nia, and for Lahtifa,” Rojas said. “This is a horrible, horrible incident that occurred, and I think everybody’s hearts go out to the family.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that Rojas described the stabbing as a “prison yard type of attack.” The suspect approached the sisters from behind and stabbed Nia Wilson twice in rapid succession before doing the same to her sister, Rojas said.
“It basically happened at the snap of the fingers, at the drop of the pin -- that quick,” Rojas told the Times.
Rojas said during Monday’s news conference that Nia Wilson’s sister immediately applied pressure to the wound on the teen’s throat. Two BART officers who were already at the McArthur station took over the first aid.
Nia Wilson died at the scene. Lahtifa Wilson was hospitalized, but has since been released, the sisters’ father told the San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday.
Amsar El Muhammad was on hand at the Oakland courthouse, where his daughter’s accused killer was set for arraignment Wednesday afternoon. The grieving father said he wanted justice for both of his daughters, particularly Nia Wilson.
“My daughter was everything to me,” Muhammad told the Chronicle. “She was so beautiful, so inspirational. (She) had dreams.
“I’m supposed to be planning her graduation, not her funeral.”
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost told the Chronicle that surveillance footage from cameras aboard the train showed Nia and Lahtifa Wilson board the train in Concord. Between Concord and the MacArthur station, the sisters had no contact with their attacker, who BART officials later identified as Cowell.
As the women moved to disembark and change trains, the suspect moved past them, slashing Nia Wilson’s throat and stabbing her sister. The entire attack was caught on camera, Rojas said Monday.
Cameras in the station’s parking garage also captured images of the suspect shedding his jacket and pants as he changed his clothes.
“In my opinion, (it) is a consciousness of guilt of an individual who knows the police are responding and he’s done something really bad,” Rojas told reporters.
The chief said the suspected murder weapon was recovered at a construction site adjacent to the crime scene.
The camera footage from the attack and aftermath proved vital in identifying Cowell as a suspect in the case. The suspect also left “valuable evidence” behind at the crime scene, authorities said.
Investigators were able to link that evidence to a citation Cowell received for failing to pay his fare four days before the slaying, BART officials said. An officer’s body camera captured images of Cowell, which were sent out to law enforcement agencies in the area as the search for the suspect was going on.
An anonymous tip from a BART rider on Monday led officers to Cowell, who was arrested without incident aboard an Antioch-bound trains at the Pleasant Hill Station, authorities said.
There has been speculation that the crime could be racially motivated, since Cowell is white and the Wilson sisters were black. Investigators said they have found no evidence of racial motivation, but Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf acknowledged the crime’s context Monday, saying that the crime against young black women “stirs deep pain and palpable fear” in all who acknowledge America’s racist history.
“I recognize that Sunday’s tragic events came on the heels of news that white supremacists were attempting to gather at a downtown bar this evening,” Schaaf said in the statement. “I appreciate the commitment of these establishments to prohibit such activity in their businesses and then decided to hold a ‘Pro Oakland Movement’ event this evening to support organizations that fight bigotry and discrimination on behalf of our community and our values. Oakland has no room for hate or white supremacy.”
The Times reported that Cowell was paroled in May following a two-year prison sentence for second-degree robbery. The Chronicle reported that during that robbery, which took place at a Lucky grocery store in El Cerrito, Cowell threatened a security guard with a fake gun and a box cutter. When he was arrested, it took place on a BART platform in El Cerrito.
Cowell’s criminal history dates back to 2009, when he was 18, the same age as Nia Wilson. At that time, he was charged with felony assault for allegedly beating up a man and sucker-punching the man’s daughter outside their home in Concord. ABC7 reported that the assault conviction resulted in probation.
Four years later, he was convicted of battery for beating someone up in Walnut Creek. Two years later, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail for being under the influence of methamphetamine, the Chronicle found.
Cowell ended up homeless, but his alleged crimes continued with mostly misdemeanors. An aunt sought a restraining order against him in Contra Costa County in 2015, saying he was threatening her while on drugs.
In 2016, it was a receptionist at Kaiser Hospital in Richmond who applied for a restraining order. She told the court that Cowell, who she was familiar with by that time, repeatedly threatened her life.
The robbery at the Lucky store happened a month later, the Chronicle reported.
Cowell’s family said in a statement to KRON4 in San Francisco that he has suffered from mental illness for most of his life. They said he has been in and out of jail and has not received proper treatment.
When he was paroled in May, it was from a state mental hospital, the statement said.
“When he was released from the Atascadero State Mental Facility inside the Atascadero State Prison on (May 8), there was not a place for him to go with most of the mental institutions being shut down,” Cowell’s family said. “Knowing that he was diagnosed with being bipolar and schizophrenia, the system has failed in this instance.”
The family acknowledged the restraining orders family members have obtained for their own protection, saying that Cowell was living on the streets without proper treatment.
“This is in no way an excuse for this senseless and vicious attack,” the statement said. “We want to let the Wilson family know that our hearts go to them and (we) are mourning for your family. This horrific tragedy never should have happened.”
Shane Glick, the man beaten up by Cowell in front of his daughter in 2009, told the Chronicle that he was confronting Cowell and a group of other young men about the burglary of his home when they started beating him. When Glick’s daughter, who was on the phone with police, came outside, Cowell sucker-punched her.
Glick, now 55, said he believes Cowell deserves the ultimate punishment for Nia Wilson’s death.
“I wish he would get the death penalty for what he did to that poor little girl,” Glick said. “She didn’t deserve it.”
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