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Parolee arrested in fatal ‘prison-yard type’ stabbing of woman at Oakland BART station

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John Lee Cowell, 27, is accused of killing an 18-year-old woman Sunday night at an Oakland train station.
(Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department)

Police in the Bay Area have arrested a 27-year-old man who they say brutally stabbed two sisters at an Oakland train station Sunday night, leaving one of them dead.

John Lee Cowell, a parolee who was released from state prison a few months ago, is accused of stabbing 18-year-old Nia Wilson and her 26-year-old sister in the neck and body about 9:30 p.m. at the MacArthur Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, according to BART police. Authorities believe it was a random attack.

Wilson died at the scene, and her older sister remains in stable condition, officials said.

BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas told reporters Monday evening that the suspect came up behind Wilson and stabbed her twice in rapid succession before doing the same to her sister in what he called a “prison-yard type of attack.”

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“It basically happened at the snap of the fingers, at the drop of the pin — that quick,” Rojas said.

Shortly before 6:30 p.m. Monday, authorities received a tip from a BART rider and found Cowell aboard an Antioch-bound train at the Pleasant Hill Station, where he was taken into custody. He was not armed, Rojas said.

News of the killing stoked public concern that a hate crime had been committed. Cowell is white and Wilson is black.

Rojas said detectives have not found evidence that Cowell is tied to a hate group, but they are investigating a motive and plan to interview him.

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“While we don’t have any facts that suggest he’s connected with any white supremacist group, we are going to explore all options and all possibilities,” Rojas said. “He does have a violent past.”

In 2016, Cowell was sentenced to two years in prison for second-degree robbery, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Vicky Waters. A judge credited him 159 days for time served in jail while awaiting sentencing and he was released to parole supervision in May, she said.

Around the time Cowell was arrested Monday evening, about 1,000 people marched from the MacArthur BART station to downtown Oakland to remember Wilson.

When the crowd was downtown, a dispute broke out between multiple people, said Officer Johnna Watson, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department. It’s unclear who was involved in the dispute.

Officers detained two men, and while authorities took them away from the area, a portion of the crowd became disruptive and began throwing M-80s. Police deployed a chemical agent.

The two men were later released.

In a statement late Monday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said that while investigators have no evidence to suggest Cowell’s attack was racially motivated, “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.”

“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,” she 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.”

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Cowell was described as a transient with a criminal history. Police had searched for him at addresses in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

Cowell and the sisters boarded the train at the Concord station, according to a statement released by BART. He did not interact with either woman until the attack, which took place at the MacArthur station, said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for BART.

Surveillance footage captured Cowell changing his clothes after the attack, Trost said.

james.queally@latimes.com | Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com | Twitter: @alenetchek


UPDATES:

11: 05 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

10:40 p.m: This article was updated with details about a march in Oakland and the suspect’s criminal history from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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9:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the BART police chief at an evening news conference.

7:50 p.m.: This article was updated with the suspect’s arrest.

This article was originally published at 2:40 p.m.


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