An ex-con was charged Wednesday in the brutal murder in Oakland of a black teenage girl, one of three deaths occurring in the last week on Bay Area Rapid Transit, but the only one that has stoked widespread outrage over crime.
That may be because the suspect in 18-year-old Nia Wilson’s brutal murder is white, while the other two men sought in attacks on BART passengers are black.
John Lee Cowell, 27, a white ex-con with a lengthy mental-health history, was charged Wednesday in the murder and premeditated attempted murder of 18-year-old Nia Wilson and her 26-year-old sister Letifah Wilson on the MacArthur station BART platform in Oakland, California.
Nia Wilson’s stabbing death has fueled days of outrage on social media as well as a Monday vigil and protest in Oakland that drew an estimated 1,000 people, backed by groups like the Women’s March, which urged attendees to “show up against white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, Color of Change alleged that Nia Wilson was “killed by a white supremacist emboldened by the racist rhetoric of this administration,” while Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights camp described the suspect as a “white supremacist/terrorist.”
Certainly Cowell has a long history of violent and criminal behavior, including a recent prison stint for robbery and arrests reportedly for assault and drug possession, but BART police Chief Carlos Rojas said authorities had not connected him to radical or white-supremacist groups.
“We don’t have any information that indicates that, but that’s something that we haven’t taken off the table and we will look into that,” Chief Rojas said at a Monday press conference. “I know there’s been a lot of conversations on social media regarding that, but I don’t have one piece of evidence to suggest this is race-related. But should that be the case we will pursue the appropriate hate crimes.”
Daryle Hallums, Nia Wilson’s godfather, asked the black community to “stand down” while police investigate, while Amsar el Muhammad, the Wilson sisters’ father, told reporters Wednesday at the Oakland courthouse that he believed that race was a factor.
“I hate to say that, but why would you choose two young black girls? That’s all I want to say,” said Mr. el Muhammad, adding, “I don’t want to play the race card or anything like that, because race doesn’t matter to me, color doesn’t matter to me. All I want is justice for my daughters.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Monday it was important to consider the historic “context” of the attack on the Wilson sisters.
“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,” said Ms. Schaaf in a statement.
Cowell’s relatives released a statement saying he had “suffered from mental illness most of his life,” and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but Mr. el Muhammad said, “Basically, I think that’s an excuse.”
The Wilson attack came just three months after Cowell was released from the Atascadero State Mental Facility, part of the state prison system, where he served his sentence, according to the family’s statement.
“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,” said the statement to KRON4.
The three BART deaths in rapid succession have fueled alarm among passengers, although transit spokesman Christopher Filippi called the crime spree “highly unusual,” noting that the last homicide on the train line occurred in January 2016.
The day before Ms. Wilson was killed, a 47-year-old transient, Don Stevens, was killed after being hit in the head by an unidentified suspect and falling to the ground at the Bay Fair Station.
Authorities put Mr. Stevens’ race as “other,” while the suspect was described as an African-American man with a medium build with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a scruffy beard.
Days earlier, Abdul Bey, 20, was arrested after police said he scuffled July 18 with 51-year-old Gerard Bisbee, at the Pleasant Hill station.
Mr. Bisbee, who lived in Pittsburg, died after suffering a cut to the knee in the altercation that later became infected, even though he was treated afterward at a hospital. Both Mr. Bisbee and the suspect are black, authorities said.
Mr. Filippi said BART has recently increased security, including “an aggressive officer recruitment program that is lowering our officer-vacancy rate.”
“BPD has hired 27 officers in the past 18 months,” he said. “That’s the department’s best recruitment period in four years. Another layer of security is provided by our network of surveillance cameras. We not only have cameras at all of our stations but on all of our trains. These cameras have provided BPD with valuable evidence and have made it possible for BART to release images of at-large suspects to the public.”
“All of a sudden we transfer, just to get blindsided by a maniac, for what I don’t know why,” she told ABC7 in San Francisco.
FBI crime statistics show that black-on-black and white-on-white homicides are far more common than interracial killings.
About 90 percent of black victims are killed by other blacks, while about 83 percent of white victims are murdered by other whites, according to 2016 figures.
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