PLEASANT HILL (CBS SF) — BART officials announced Monday evening that the suspect in Sunday night’s fatal stabbing that left one young woman dead and a second in the hospital was taken into custody at the Pleasant Hill BART station.
The suspect, identified earlier Monday as 27-year-old John Lee Cowell, is a transient with a history of violence. Cowell allegedly pulled out a knife at the MacArthur BART station Sunday evening and slashed Nia Wilson across the neck before stabbing her sister, Latifa Wilson, and fleeing the scene.
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Nia’s wound proved to be fatal and she died at the scene. Her sister was being treated at a local hospital.
BART posted about the arrest on their official Twitter account.
According to a BART source, authorities received an anonymous citizen call saying the suspect was on an Antioch-bound train in the East Bay. Police stopped the train at Pleasant Hill station, where officers boarded and arrested Cowell without incident.
During an evening press conference, BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas said that Cowell was taken to BART Police headquarters at Lake Merritt station where he was being interviewed by police and the district attorney. Rojas said that Cowell would later be booked at the Alameda County Jail.
While there has been rampant speculation on social media that the crime may have been racially motivated, Rojas was not able to confirm that as of Monday evening.
“We haven’t connected him with any type of radical group or white supremacist group…but we are going to explore all options,” said Rojas.
Rojas said that he was not sure how Cowell got back into the transit system, but indicated that he had previously been cited for not having proof of payment and had evaded fare in the past.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf released a statement after news of the arrest was confirmed.
“I am relieved to learn that the suspect was apprehended after an anonymous tip from a BART rider led to the arrest of the suspect,” the statement read in part. “May this serve as the first step in bringing justice for the Wilson family, and healing to our community.”
Protesters packed the MacArthur BART station early Monday evening to demand justice for Nia and her older sister.
Dozens gathered and raised their signs and their voices for a vigil at the growing memorial.
Nia’s mother also attended. She was consoled by family, friends and a community of support.
At one point, the rally and vigil moved from the MacArthur station to downtown Oakland.
Police said about a thousand people were part of that march, a planned “pro-Oakland” demonstration organized to counter a white supremacist group that had announced plans to gather at a neighborhood bar.
Although police said there was no evidence yet the attack was racially-motivated, some demonstrators said they believed otherwise.
The march continued into the night with demonstrators hanging up a large banner that read “Bay Area Stands Against Hate.”
Police said two people were detained when a small scuffle broke out.
They have since been released.
Violence on Bay Area Rapid Transit has resulted in three homicides over the last week including the fatal stabbing of the 18-year-old woman Sunday night.
Rojas called the homicides ‘an anomaly’ at a press conference earlier Monday.
“It’s rare that we have a homicide so, of course, this is ramped up to the highest priority when you have three deaths,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that we have one person in custody on one — so that person’s in custody and will be held accountable. We have pictures of the other two. These are all very serious crimes whether they happen on BART or right outside our station.”
Crime on BART trains and in the system’s stations has been a hot button issue for nearly a year. BART Police says it has ramped up patrols and working video cameras have been placed throughout stations and on the cars.
Rojas said officers were at the MacArthur Station at the time of Sunday’s deadly attack.
Nia Wilson and her two sisters were traveling on BART Sunday night when they stopped to help a woman struggling with a stroller exit a train. It was at that moment that a man — identified as John Lee Cowell, a transient with a history of violence — pulled out a knife, slashed Nia across the neck and stabbed her sister, Latifa, before fleeing. Nia’s wound proved to be fatal while her sister was being treated at a local hospital.
“It was a very random attack that occurred at MacArthur,” Rojas said. “We had officers at the station. In order for that to have been prevented, it would have been very difficult. You would have had to be standing right next to the individual. You can’t have an officer on every square inch of a station.”
Station video cameras captured Cowell fleeing the station. He was also recorded in the parking garage getting rid of his clothing. He allegedly discarded the large knife outside the station where police found it.
Authorities will be releasing additional details about the arrest later Monday evening.