Nia Wilson hoped to help others. Having graduated from high school last year, according to the New York Times, she wanted to become a paramedic, those close to her family say, or possibly join the military or the music industry.
“She was an angel,” says Wilson’s godfather, Daryle Allums — now forced to describe her life in the past-tense after she and her older sister were attacked at a train station in Oakland, California, last week.
Wilson and sister Lahtifa, 26, were stabbed on the platform of the MacArthur BART station. Wilson died.
Their alleged assailant, John Lee Cowell, was arrested the following day after BART police released images of him from surveillance footage and police bodycam footage.
According to authorities, the 27-year-old homeless parolee had been riding in the same train car as the two sisters but they didn’t interact before the stabbing, which was described as unprovoked. He has been charged with murder and attempted murder.
“She wanted to save people’s lives,” Allums, a community activist, tells PEOPLE of Wilson. “Some young people nowadays aren’t really people persons, and for someone so young she had a lot of wisdom.”
He describes the teen as a “good girl” who excelled in poetry, singing and dancing.
“She had her own style,” Allums says. “She did her own thing. It was always unique and beautiful.”
Since the attack, the hashtag #SayHerName has circulated widely on social media to raise awareness about black women who are victims of violence. Celebrities such asViola Davis, Anne Hathaway, Janelle Monae and Busy Philipps have spoken out about the case.
“You were a sister, a daughter, and meant something important to your entire family and community,” Monae wrote on Instagram.
Investigators have not yet determined the motive for the attack and, despite speculation, prosecutors have said no evidence of racial motivation has yet surfaced. (The sisters are black and Cowell is white.)
But authorities have also vowed that “if there is evidence uncovered that this defendant murdered and attempted to murder these two young African American women because of their race or any other factor as outlined in the Hate Crime Statutes, the Complaint will be amended to allege the Hate Crimes.”
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Micheal O’Connor tells PEOPLE “the case continues to be under investigation.”
Last week, Cowell’s family issued a statement to local TV station KRON saying he had a history of mental illness and that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The family said after Cowell was released from Atascadero State Mental Facility, he didn’t have a place to go because “most of the mental institutions had been shut down” and he was living on the street.
“This is in no way an excuse for this senseless and vicious attack,” the family said.
Cowell is being held without bail at the Santa Rita Jail, detention records show. He is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 22. His public defender did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.
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As Wilson’s funeral approaches on Friday, Allums says the community is still rattled over the teen’s death, which left him “devastated.”
“It is still a little haywire here in Oakland,” he tells PEOPLE. “A lot of anger out here. It is not known what really happened. What was in his mind? Was he crazy? Was it racist? Was it random? We don’t know. When you don’t know the actual facts, you assume things. Your mind wanders. There are a lot of rumors.”
Allums says Wilson’s family and the community are overwhelmed by the support after her death. But he also notes that, in his view, “when black kill black or brown kill brown, you don’t get the media or the celebrities or the governors.”
“It gets swept beneath the rug,” he says. “It is either when a white kills a black or police kill a black that it goes national.”
As for the trial, Allums says, “I will be at every court date to make sure our family does get justice.”
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