Nia Wilson, 18, was savagely stabbed and killed just after riding a BART train in Oakland on Sunday night. Her older sister, Letifah Wilson (previously named as Tashiya by a number of sources, and also listed as Lahtifa), was also wounded. The suspect, named by BART officials as John Cowell, fled and is currently at large. Concerned residents are asking for surveillance footage to be released so they can identify the suspect. Here is what you need to know about Nia Wilson, the suspect, and the tragedy that unfolded on Sunday night. (For more details about John Cowell, the suspect in Nia’s death, see Heavy’s story here.) This is a developing story.
1. Nia Wilson & Her Sister Were Stabbed Around 9:45 p.m. at the MacArthur Station, After the Suspect Followed Them Off the Train
Nia Wilson, 18, and her older sister, Letifah Wilson, 21, (identified earlier in a number of sources as Tashiya Wilson) were stabbed in a “random attack” just after they rode a BART train in Oakland at the MacArthur Station on Sunday night, SFGate reported. Nia was stabbed in the neck and passed away. Her sister was taken to the hospital for treatment.
The horrific tragedies just compounded what was already a sorrowful day for the family. According to Nia’s cousin Ebony Monroe, Nia has been celebrating the birthday of her boyfriend, who had passed away two years ago after drowning in a lake, KTVU reported.
The suspect, later named as John Lee Cowell, followed the victims off the train when they exited the Warm Springs line at MacArthur Station, reported Elissa Harrington of KTVU. He stabbed the two women on the platform. (San Francisco Chronicle reported that they were waiting for a train when they were stabbed.)
Letifah told ABC 7 that they never saw Cowell or exchanged any words with him before the stabbing. “All of a sudden we transfer, just to get blindsided by a maniac, for what I don’t know,” she said. “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.”
The suspect was last seen fleeing into the nearby neighborhood after passengers tried to stop him. He was taken into custody early Monday evening at the Pleasant Hill BART, nearly a full day after the stabbing.
You can listen to dispatch audio from right after the stabbing, below:
BART Chief of Police Carlos Rojas said during a press conference that there was no evidence that the attack was racially motivated, but police weren’t ruling out the possibility either.
2. The Suspect, John Cowell, Is Described as Caucasian, 5’8″ and 190 Pounds, With Short Dark Hair & a Closely Cropped Beard & Mustache
Witnesses described the suspect in the stabbing as a heavyset white male in his 20s and 30s, SFGate reported. They said he was 5’9″ and described as having “blonde hair spiked on the side,” KTVU reported. When his identity was later released, some of those details were not quite accurate. Police said he was a Caucasian, 5’8″, 190 pounds, had short dark hair, and a closely cropped beard and mustache.
BART authorities named the suspect as John Cowell. He fled the scene and was later apprehended on Monday night. His name wasn’t released until Monday afternoon after the Sunday night stabbing. According to police, John Cowell was a felon who was on parole who was considered dangerous.
Court records showed that in May 2016 he was convicted of felony second-degree robbery, SFGate reported. A Kaiser hospital in Richmond had obtained a restraining order against him in 2016 because they said he repeatedly harassed and threatened staff members. He was homeless and would sometimes show up at the emergency room and make threats, said Jason Curliano, an attorney who represents the hospital, to SFGate. A different restraining order was also filed against him in 2015. He also had a number of misdemeanor convictions and a battery conviction.
BART police found a large knife near a construction site under Highway 24 along the MacArthur BART Access Road, KTVU reported. It’s unclear if the knife is related to the attack.
Here is a photo of the knife they bagged as evidence:
Friends and family are heartbroken about Nia and want justice.
Some are sharing the call for justice under the hashtag #JusticeForTashiyaAndNia or #JusticeForNia. (However, it was later revealed that Nia’s sister’s name is Letifah.)
Letifah later spoke to ABC 7 about the horrific attack that killed her sister. “She’s just yelling my name, ‘Tifah, Tifah, Tifah,’ and I said, ‘I got you baby, I got you…'” She added, “I’m her protector and I feel like I didn’t protect her.”
As Nia called out for her sister, Letifah said she just responded, “We’re gonna get through this, I got you, you’re my baby sister.”
Letifah said that a woman in a stroller gave her a baby blanket to apply to her sister’s neck. Letifah was in pain from being stabbed herself, but all her attention was on doing what she could for her baby sister. Letifah was stabbed in the neck too and had to get stitches in her neck. “Miss the artery, thank God, missed the veins,” she told ABC 7. “He tried to swing twice, hit me in my head…”
“She was my heart,” Letifah told ABC 7 about Nia. “No matter our ups and downs, we still come back to each other like it was nothing.”
They rarely took BART, she added, and this was the first time they’d seen each other in about six months. In fact, Nia was scared of BART, her mom, Alicia Greyson, told CBS San Francisco.
“My baby was only 18,” she said. “She was less than 100 pounds soaking wet. This man just came up and did all this to my baby. My baby didn’t deserve this. She hated BART. She was always saying, ‘Mama, I’m scared of BART.'”
3. Police Had Surveillance Images But Did Not Share Them Until Monday Afternoon
Jim Allison, BART spokesman, told KTVU that they have surveillance images of the suspect, but weren’t sharing them right away. Elissa Harrington of KTVU said she asked BART if they would release images of the suspect, and officials told her they were not releasing photos immediately.
Authorities did later release the photos, but not until around 12:30 p.m. on Monday, and the stabbing was Sunday night.
Concerned citizens were calling for any surveillance footage or photos that might possibly show the suspect to be released right away. Kehlani had joined the cause, urging officials to release any footage of the suspect and to not delay.
It’s not clear why officials did not release surveillance photos or videos immediately. BART officials posted that they would be releasing the still surveillance images at a media event “in several hours,” which they later did.
After posting the update, Nia Wilson’s cousin tweeted anger at the delay:
Others expressed the same confusion.
Here are photos of the suspect John Cowell, provided by BART:
This chilling photo of Cowell shows him the night of the stabbing:
4. The Attack Seemed to Come Out of Nowhere, While Nia Was Helping a Woman with a Stroller Get Off the Train
The heartless, horrific act happened while Nia was helping another passenger she didn’t even know. She stopped to help a woman with a stroller who was struggling to exit the train at the MacArthur station. At that moment, a man pulled out a knife and slashed her neck and stabbed her sister, CBS San Francisco reported.
A man who only witnessed the last part of the attack said he heard a commotion and turned around to see one victim bleeding from her neck and the suspect “poking” the other woman, SFGate reported. He didn’t hear arguing or yelling before the attack.
Another witness said the suspect seemed to come out of nowhere, SFGate reported.
Nicole Mikels, whose train had just entered the MacArthur Station Sunday night, said everything was quite when she heard “horrifying screams,” SF Chronicle reported. Mikels told the Chronicle: “The one sister … came out first and was screaming for help. Her sister was bleeding profusely by the neck — her entire torso was covered in blood.”
Mikels said that she helped try to calm Tayisha while officials attempted CPR on Nia. “She said everything happened so fast… It was a white male that had slit her sister’s throat.”
News outlets across the country reported on what happened, but one report in particular drew a lot of criticism. KTVU aired a broadcast that showed a picture of Nia Wilson holding a gun next to her face. (Some have said the gun was actually a gun-shaped phone case.) Viewers were outraged that out of all the pictures the station could have chosen, they chose that one. They took photos of the broadcast and shared their anger on social media.
And as it turns out, the phone case theory might have been correct:
On Monday afternoon, KTVU anchor Frank Somerville apologized on his Facebook page. He said there was no excuse for using the photo and it was a mistake he was “mortified by.”
He wrote: “We NEVER should have used that picture. It was a huge mistake on our part. We realized it instantly. And that picture will NEVER appear on our air again. We had a lot of pictures to choose from and unfortunately that was one of the ones we used. Again there was no excuse for that. And my belief is that when you make a mistake you own up to it. And that was our mistake. A big mistake. Nia was a beautiful young girl. She had her whole life ahead of her. From me, and all of us at KTVU, I can’t say enough how sorry we are.”
5. Nia Wilson Was a High School Student Who Loved Her Family, Fashion & Makeup, & a GoFundMe Has Been Set Up for Her Family
Wilson, only 18, had her entire life ahead of her. She was a student at Oakland High School. Her cousin, Ebony Monroe, said she loved her cousins, fashion, and makeup. She was a “beautiful, sweet person” Monroe told SFGate.
Her Facebook reveals a strong young woman who was loyal to her friends. She wrote in May: “I’m not the type of b**** that needs any kind of sympathy period ion need nobody to feel bad for me don’t put that weak s*** in or on me I take mines for what is & shake back period I then already been through storm & it ain’t no folding this way I’m through it all to the necklace .”
Here are more photos of Nia Wilson. Her life ended tragically, cut short before she could experience all that the world had to offer.
Her sister Letifah, who was also stabbed, told ABC 7 that Nia is one of the sweetest people in the world. “She didn’t do nothing to nobody, I didn’t do nothing to nobody, and for this to happen is just outright crazy,” she said.
Ansar Mohammed, who identified himself to KTVU as Wilson’s father, is begging for justice. He works at Highland Hospital and said he sees crimes like this every day, “but I never imagined myself going through nothing like this. That’s my baby girl up there.”
According to friends, Nia had just gotten a new job and was looking forward to the future.
Nia’s mom told CBS San Francisco that she had never been in trouble and had never gone to jail. “She was a cheerleader,” she said. “She played basketball… She had her CPR training… She was so smart and gifted.”
Nia had even once used her CPR training to help a choking relative, her mom said. During her great-uncle’s funeral, a piece of chicken was wedged in a family member’s throat. Nia did the Heimlich maneuver, she said, and saved her life.
A GoFundMe has been set up by Malika Harris, Nia’s older sister. So far more than $1,000 has been donated. You can contribute to the GoFundMe here.
Malike wrote: “Nia was a 18 year old young woman who was full of life, smart and beautiful beyond word’s. Nia loved to do makeup, hair and get dolled up and enjoy life. Nia is a very caring and giving person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shouldn’t no mother or father have to put their 18 year old innocent child to rest because of a hateful inconsiderate person. We just want justice for Nia. Please for my family thank you. Nia will be loved and missed by so many family and friends. Please let’s end racism all over the world Nia did not deserve this.”
Nia’s nickname was PG, short for “pretty girl,” Letifah told ABC 7. She wanted to be a lawyer or work in some form of criminal justice. But she also had a creative side and wanted to own a dance studio and haver her own makeup line.
A vigil was held for Nia on Saturday night at 5:30 p.m. at BART MacArthur Station.
Crowds marched through the streets chanting “Take Back Our Streets” and “Justice for Nia.”
More than 1,000 people participated in the vigil in her honor.
A mini-gathering was also held. Cat Brooks said, “Say her name! Nia Wilson!”